David Trone has until next month to report how much of his beer-and-wine fortune he’s spending in pursuit of Maryland’s 8th District Democratic congressional nomination. Until then, the first-time candidate is not saying.
“It’s going to be a very expensive race,” he said over lunch at the Silver Diner in Rockville. “Whatever it is will be too much.”
Political professionals, including consultants for opposing campaigns, said Trone is mounting what might be the most expensive self-funded House race ever, probably spending north of $10 million in his effort to win a seat representing some of Washington’s wealthiest suburbs.
He has hired top-of-the-line consultants, launched a major television and radio ad blitz, and is landing glossy multi-page mailings on the doorsteps of likely primary voters almost daily.
With five weeks until the April 26 primary, Trone’s spending appears to have easily rocketed him past Maryland’s most recent self-subsidizing politician, Rep. John Delaney (D), the health-care financier who spent $2.3 million in 2012 to oust Republican incumbent Roscoe G. Bartlett.
Little known in the district less than two months ago, Trone now appears competitive with the two front-runners: Jamie Raskin, a liberal law professor and state senator, and Kathleen Matthews, a former television anchor and Marriott executive who says she is willing to dip into her own fortune, if necessary, to keep up.
“It’s historic. We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Maryland blogger and political consultant Adam Pagnucco.
The willingness of candidates such as Trone to pay their own way raises questions about whether they are undermining a foundational idea in U.S. politics — that those who want to represent the people must first earn enough of their trust to win their donations. And it is an uphill path; between 2002 and 2014, House candidates who spent at least $1 million of their own money won office only 20 percent of the time.
Trone says taking money from others makes politicians vulnerable to pressure from lobbyists, PACs and other special interests. A graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he says it’s also a matter of time management, noting that members of Congress spend up to half of their time raising funds.
While Trone will take individual contributions of $10 or less, he is not actively soliciting money. If he is elected, he says, that policy will continue for as long as he is in office.
That approach could resonate with voters in this unusually angry campaign season, in which Republican mogul Donald Trump has elevated the can’t-be-bought narrative into a dominant theme of his self-funded run for president.
“If you’re going to take dollars, every person [who donates] is going to have a right to get your ear. And that can take up a lot of time,” Trone said. “I don’t think I need to hear from everybody just because they wrote me a check. All of a sudden, I have more time to get things done.”
Trone’s deep pockets have elevated money to the top tier of issues in the 8th District, where nine Democrats are vying to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), who is running for the U.S. Senate.
Raskin and Matthews have raised well over $1 million each and continue to seek donations large and small. But they are denouncing Trone’s Trump-like approach. Raskin ends virtually every candidates forum — and there are many in a primary electorate replete with PhDs, think tankers, congressional staffers and other members of the political class — by declaring that public office “isn’t bought, it is earned.”
In an interview, Raskin said people are “deeply disturbed about the levels of money being spent.”
Matthews, who is also very wealthy, said she might put her own money into the race if she thinks it will make a difference. “My plan is to raise the money,” Matthews said. “But I certainly believe enough in my own campaign that if it comes down to the wire I think it would be reasonable to put my own money in.”
Those who study self-funders say they can have a chilling effect on others of lesser means who might also want to run for office. In a world of super PACs, dark money and other torrents of unlimited cash, candidates with personal fortunes are one more reason to conclude competing is not possible.
“It reflects the broader problem we have in congressional elections, where the amounts of money needed to seek office are increasingly large,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College.
Big self-funders have been around U.S. politics for years. Michael Bloomberg spent more than $250 million to subsidize his three terms as New York City mayor. Jon Corzine dropped $130 million of his Goldman Sachs earnings for one term as a U.S. senator and another as New Jersey governor.
But for every politician who has won on his own dime, there are many who haven’t — especially those who have tried to topple incumbents. The top self-funder in a 2012 House race, for example, California businessman Bill Bloomfield (I), lost after outspending then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D) 4 to 1.
Self-funders tend to be first-time candidates whose lack of campaign experience leaves them prone to mistakes, experts say. Without the traditional grind of fundraising, they have fewer opportunities to sharpen their message and forge closer connections with voters.
According to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, candidates who use a mix of fundraising and their own fortunes are more successful than those who go it alone. Delaney’s $2.3 million, for example, made up just 53 percent of his 2012 campaign treasury.
“Personal money simply cannot buy a base of committed supporters or campaign skills that many politicians develop on the way up the ladder,” writes Arizona State University political scientist Jennifer Steen, who wrote an influential study of self-financed congressional candidates.
After winning their first race, most self-financed politicians pay for their reelection campaigns the old-fashioned way — with other people’s money. Moreover, many self-funders can be more accurately described as self-lenders, who finance their campaigns in the form of loans that are later repaid by conventional fundraising. Trone swears he will do no such thing.
“There’s no reason to take any money from anybody,” he said, estimating that Total Wine & More, the national chain of big box stores that he co-owns with his brother, Robert Trone, will generate $2.5 billion in sales this year. “Each year, I do better and the company does better.”
Like many entrepreneurs who have had successful business careers, David Trone, 60, is itching for a new challenge. He believes he can use his business skills to unlock a dysfunctional Congress.
And although he has been a leading Democratic fundraiser, there is a thinly disguised disdain in his commentary about “career politicians” who depend on other people’s money to keep winning office.
“That’s led to a lot of the problems we have right now,” he said.
Trone said he believes that “many self-funded candidates have done it for the wrong reasons or lack commitment.”
“The track record of self-funding candidates who had substance behind them and gravitas and a willingness to outwork everybody, they’ve done very well,” he said, putting Delaney in that category.
Among Trone’s expenditures are the highway signs supporting his campaign that are sprouting around the district.
“This billboard is bought and paid for,” the signs say in large letters. “Your Congressman Won’t Be.”