“Follow the money” became a mantra for political reporters decades ago. That was especially true after new federal and state laws made it easier to track who had it and who gave it.

The connection between money and power is obvious, whether in business, the courtroom or the halls of Congress and the State House. This primary season, there were ridiculous and record-breaking amounts flowing into the Democratic races for an unusual four open congressional seats. Yet money isn’t everything in politics. At least for David Trone it wasn’t.

The multimillionaire founder of the national Total Wine and More chain spent over $61 million of his own money but got clobbered in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary by Angela Alsobrooks, a candidate he outspent 9 to 1. 

Trone is an aberration in several respects, not just because he reportedly set a national record for self-funding of a congressional race. Not only had he never held any elective office before he first won a seat in Congress in 2016 — a feat relatively rare in Maryland and most states. Before his run for the Senate seat now held by Ben Cardin, Trone had earlier spent another $40 million of his own wealth to first lose one election and then win three for a seat in the House of Representatives.

He tried to make his self-funding a virtue, saying he was beholden to no one — no political action committees for business or unions or special interests. Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s County executive, made Trone’s money a vice and won the primary election. She accused him of trying to buy the seat, as he had in his previous races for Congress.

Winners had the most money

Trone’s aberrant spending aside, the winners in the other congressional races in Maryland had raised or spent the most money. The order of finish of the losers was mostly correlated to the amount of money spent on their behalf. 

Incumbents of both parties tend to have the most money, as did the six incumbent congressmen who won their May primaries. Besides their advantages of free mailing and taxpayer-paid newsletters and communications staff that help garner media coverage, incumbent congressmen also get more campaign dough from special interest PACs and rich donors. 

Incumbents in Maryland are only beaten by candidates who spend more money than they do. Andy Harris, the Freedom Caucus Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, first beat more moderate Republican Wayne Gilchrist in a nasty 2008 GOP primary, losing to Democrat Frank Kratovil in the fall. Two years later, Harris beat incumbent Kratovil, spending 50% more than the incumbent Democrat. In 2012, helped by Democratic gerrymandering of the 6th Congressional District and his own personal wealth, Democrat John Delaney beat incumbent Republican Roscoe Bartlett, an old eccentric economist, by outspending him 4 to 1.

In the May primary, Delaney’s wife, April McClain Delaney, who, like her husband, had never held elected office, won 40% of the vote to reclaim the seat for the family using its wealth. With $1.9 million, she outspent her rival, 27-year-old freshman Del. Joe Vogel three to one. Fourth place in the Democratic contest was Hagerstown mayor Tekesha Martinez, who had raised $557,000.

Candidates paying for their own races — often with “loans” that don’t usually get paid back — is an exception to federal limits on donations.

Sarah Elfreth speaks on the night of the May primary. (Maryand Reporter photo by Len Lazarick)

Special cases: Dunn and Elfreth 

The huge spending by Harry Dunn and on behalf of Sarah Elfreth in the 3rd Congressional District illustrate two other special cases. 

Dunn is a former Capitol Police officer who became a national celebrity for liberal Democrats through his testimony to the House committee on Jan. 6 and subsequent appearances on TV, followed by a bestselling memoir. He embraced the rather recent fundraising tool of soliciting thousands of small donations over the Internet. His average donation from over 100,000 contributors was only about $23, 95% of them from out of state. Dunn raised $4.5 million that way. In the final days of the campaign, he pushed frequent emails saying his campaign was running out of money. 

The winner, State Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Annapolis, raised almost $1.5 million on her own, twice as much as State Sen. Clarence Lam of Columbia who came in third, and more than all her 19 other competitors combined. Elfreth was boosted by $4.2 million in independent spending by the United Democracy Project, a campaign fund affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). 

Elfreth’s campaign and such independent PACs are not allowed to coordinate their activities. But Elfreth’s website did post photos, videos and statements designed to be used by independent PACs. The United Democracy Project made extensive use of them in many more mailers and TV ads than Elfreth produced with her own campaign funds.

Dunn’s campaign pointed out that the UDP were funded by Trump-backing MAGA Republicans. That was partially true, but some of the ads actually attacked Trump and MAGA on abortion. None of the ads mention Israel.  

Ultimately $1 million more was spent on Elfreth’s campaign than Dunn could spend. This is one reason why Elfreth got 35% of the vote in a field of 22 candidates. Dunn got 25%, Lam 12% and the others were in single digits.

Other parts of the equation 

Money is only part of the electoral equation. Candidates the money supports must be able to personally relate to voters and not make mistakes. Their stands on issues must align with those held by their constituents, and their message must be persuasive.

In this primary, there was little difference on issues between the Democratic candidates. Gender was a difference. The three winning women candidates all highlighted that there are no women in Maryland’s current 10-member congressional delegation.

Elfreth, just 35, was already in her second term as a state senator and had passed 84 bills, along with having a reputation for hard work and good constituent service. Alsobrooks, a Black single mom who had been state’s attorney, was supported by most of the Democratic elected officials. She won all the largest suburban counties by wide margins, including Trone’s own Montgomery County.

Money aside, the Democratic winners have the potential to significantly change the face of the congressional delegation if they win in the fall, though Alsobrooks faces a tough and expensive campaign against former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. 

Maryland could elect three women to a delegation that currently has none. They are also decades younger than the male gerontocracy they would replace.