The U.S. Capitol building. ([email protected] / Depositphotos.com)

What does it take to run for Congress in Maryland? It only costs $100 to get on the ballot, but it may take over $1 million to win.

Plunk down the price of a nice dinner, and a candidate gets to appear on ballots for tens of thousands of voters. 

In the 3rd Congressional District — all of Howard County, half of Anne Arundel and a slice of Carroll — 22 Democrats have filed to fill the seat that Rep. John Sarbanes is leaving after serving nine terms. Nine Republicans filed as well.

Five of those 31 wannabe members of the House of Representatives filed on the very last day, Feb. 9. That night I checked the election board’s list online. I laughed out loud when I saw the name Danny Craig Rupli. 

Danny Craig Rupli

Dan Rupli (submitted photo)

I’ve known Dan Rupli for 48 years. I covered his first race for Congress back in 1976. Back then, he lived in Frederick County and was running as a liberal Democrat against Rep. Goodloe Byron, a conservative Democrat from Frederick when there were still conservative Democrats in Congress.

It was the first congressional campaign I covered as a young reporter, and it was Dan’s first campaign as a young candidate. He lost, and he lost again two years later. Dan, who had been a civil rights lawyer in the Justice Department, would go on to work as a private attorney, an aide to Gov. Parris Glendening and as a foreign trade representative. In 2014, he was enticed to run for state Senate in northern Frederick County and got clobbered by a young conservative Republican, Del. Michael Hough. Dan got only 32% of the vote. 

Dan turned 81 in February, the same age as President Biden. “I think age is an issue,” he told me. Why shouldn’t someone with 50 years of political experience be taken seriously as a candidate? “I’m doing it because I have an 8-year-old daughter,” said Dan, who has grandkids twice her age.

“Kids are turned off right now. Democrats don’t inspire them. They have a very cynical view of the future.” He wants to set up a Department of Youth and the Future. He’d like to get all the Democrats running together for a potluck dinner so they could get to know each other and run a civil campaign. “I’ve got nothing to lose. There are no obvious all-stars in the race.”

Unknowns need money

Sen. Sarah Elfreth

While I know Dan Rupli, he and the other 21 Democrats in the race are largely unknown to the electorate, except for the five legislators running. To get known in the contest will take lots of money for mailers, TV and social media. The candidates with the most money are the two state senators, Sarah Elfreth of Annapolis and Clarence Lam of Howard County who also represents a portion of Anne Arundel. According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Elfreth had raised $401,000 by Dec. 31 and Lam had brought in $354,000. Both are doggedly raising more. The other candidates didn’t even come close. Del. Mike Rogers raised $91,000, Del. Terri Hill of Columbia raised $75,000 and Del. Mark Chang, from the same Anne Arundel district as Rogers, raised $66,000. (Veteran Juan Dominguez raised $290,000 last year, but he spent almost all of it on the U.S. Senate campaign he abandoned, leaving just $29,000 in his account.)

Clarence Lam.

Money isn’t everything, but it’s the primary way a candidate can get their message out about who they are and what they stand for in the absence of free media. Free media coverage, like this column, is in short supply due to the shrinking staffs in the news business. 

That’s why I and thousands of others get daily emails from Elfreth and Lam telling us about their positions and always asking for donations. I get little from other campaigns. 

There is some buzz among Democratic activists about former Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, a political novice who was a late entry into the race and raised no money last year. He obviously knows something about Congress, but he also lives in Montgomery County. He says he would move into the district if he wins.

There is lots of speculation about the pluses and minuses of the various candidates based on race, gender, home base, work ethic, endorsements, and past accomplishments. But there is no hard data other than the fundraising numbers. With 22 candidates in the Democratic primary, the winning candidate can probably succeed with 30% of the vote or less.

Berney Flowers. (submitted photo)

Of the nine Republicans running in the 3rd District, only Berney Flowers, a Black retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Howard County, has shown much of an effort, but he only raised $13,000 for his campaign last year.  

Both parties have closed primaries, so the 60,000 unaffiliated voters in Howard County, where they outnumber Republicans, and a similar number in Anne Arundel have no say. For them, choosing the person to represent them in Congress is just a spectator sport until the general election.

Senate race

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. (Angela Alsobrooks photo)

In the Democratic race for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Ben Cardin, Prince George’s County Angela Alsobrooks is finally responding to months of relentless advertising by her opponent, Rep. David Trone. Trone, 68, the multimillionaire founder of Total Wine and More, has spent over $23 million on mailers, TV ads and social media which has gained him the lead in the race, according to private polling. Alsobrooks has raised $5 million, impressive if she weren’t being so outspent.

Her 30-second spot emphasizes how she is different from most U.S. senators and, without mentioning his name, Trone. “The average U.S. senator is 64 years old,” Worth $16 million. And the last time they went to the grocery store? I’ll let you decide,” she says, standing next to images of the Senate gerontocracy.  

“As the mom of a teenaged daughter and daughter of aging parents, I know the pressures we all face. That’s why as county executive I’ve worked to create jobs, invest in schools and expand health care. You deserve a senator who understands you and will fight for you.”

Alsobrooks has been endorsed by almost the entire Democratic leadership in Maryland. Trone has been endorsed by over 66 members of Congress, including Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries. He has also gained the coveted endorsement of the state teachers union. His campaign has emphasized that he’s a fighter too — not just a rich old white guy who wants to buy a Senate seat.

U.S. Rep. David Trone, left, a candidate for U.S. Senate, talks to David Marker at a Democratic picnic in Columbia on Labor Day 2023. Maryland Reporter photo by Len Lazarick

With the entry of former governor Larry Hogan, who flirted with running for president and said he didn’t want to be a senator, the Democratic primary may no longer decide the next senator from Maryland, as once seemed.

Unless the dynamic of the race changes, there is the possibility that two rich old white guys will be duking it out in the fall to represent a state that has become majority minority and has no women in its 10-man congressional delegation.