David Trone, a co-owner of Bethesda-based Total Wine & More, is seriously considering a run for the Democratic nomination in the 8th Congressional District, and is expected to announce a decision later this week, according to knowledgeable sources.
An entry by Trone, a multi-millionaire who has the resources to self-fund a run for the District 8 nomination, could upend a contest that already has attracted seven candidates since Rep. Chris Van Hollen announced nearly a year ago that he would give up the seat to run for U.S. Senate. The primary will be held April 26, and Trone must make a decision no later than the Feb. 3 filing deadline—a week from Wednesday. He is said to be consulting with associates and advisers, while weighing the results of a telephone poll he commissioned last week to test his possible candidacy.
For the past 25 years, Trone has been co-owner—with his brother, Robert—of the country’s largest privately owned retailer of beer, wine and spirits. Total Wine & More currently has 113 stores spread across 16 states, with two stores in Maryland.
While David Trone has not previously sought public office, he has been a major donor and fundraiser for the national and state Democratic Party. According to the Federal Election Commission, Trone has donated more than $150,000 to Democratic candidates and committees nationally and in a number of states, including Maryland, over the past two decades. Trone hosted a fundraiser attended by President Obama at his Potomac residence late last year, and in 2014 held a fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Anthony Brown at which former President Bill Clinton was the featured guest.
The 60-year old Trone’s interest in making a run for Congress leaked out last week, when several supporters of other contenders in the District 8 contest reported receiving calls from an opinion survey firm seeking to measure sentiment on a potential candidate not currently in the race. The survey, first reported by the Seventh State blog, was apparently designed to test campaign themes that could be used for or against Trone.
At present, the two widely acknowledged frontrunners in the race for the 8th District Democratic nomination are former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase and state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park. In terms of campaign funding, Matthews and Raskin have far outraised the rest of the field, which includes state Dels. Kumar Barve of Rockville and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase; former Obama administration officials Will Jawando of Silver Spring and Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase; and David Anderson of Potomac, a former university instructor who administers a Washington-based internship and seminar program.
At first blush, it would appear that a Trone candidacy could be a political blow to Matthews, who—despite a lack of prior political involvement in the 8th District—has become a top-tier candidate thanks to a fundraising base that has drawn big-name contributors from Washington well as from several other major cities across the country. (Among the recent donors to Matthews: Robert Trone, also a Potomac resident, who gave her the maximum $2,700 contribution last June.)
While Matthews has sought to emphasize her prior background as a local TV news reporter and anchor, her tenure at Marriott over the past decade has given her a base of business backing that Trone could cut into. And Trone’s ability to self-fund a campaign could neutralize Matthews’ large campaign warchest, accumulated since last summer thanks to her network of contacts and those of her husband, MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews.
The heavily Democratic 8th District is centered in Montgomery County, but also includes portions of Frederick and Carroll counties. Insiders have said that it will take $1 million to $3 million to capture the Democratic nomination given the expensive Washington media market. Pending the release of the latest fundraising reports at the end of this week, Matthews had raised more than $1 million through last Sept. 30, with Raskin taking in more than $900,000, and the rest of the field lagging well behind.
However, a Trone entry into the race also could benefit one or more of the other, less well-funded candidates by further fragmenting the primary vote—allowing a well-organized candidate with a dedicated base to win in an eight-person field with a relatively small plurality of the vote.
If Trone does decide to run, he would face the challenge of mounting a campaign within the barely three months left until the April 26 primary—and doing so with little personal name recognition, even if his enterprise, Total Wine & More, is a well-known brand thanks to heavy advertising within the region. But several sources downplayed such factors, pointing to Trone’s ability to self-fund as well as the fact that much of the voting public has so far paid little attention to the 8th District race—even though some contenders have been running for almost a year.
One unknown factor in the primary is turnout, which is likely to be determined by the state of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination between the two front-runners, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in late April. While a democratic socialist such as Sanders would appear to have little in common with a multi-millionaire businessman such as Trone, one source familiar with the Trone effort suggested the latter’s profile as a nontraditional candidate could be appealing to some Sanders backers.
While it remains unclear precisely what factors have prompted Trone to consider throwing his hat in the ring at this late date, one knowledgeable source said it had no connection to the current controversy over Montgomery County’s public liquor control structure—which is a state and local issue.
In recent years, Trone and his brother have focused—unsuccessfully—on legislative efforts to loosen state law to allow them to expand the number of Total Wine & More retail outlets in Maryland. However, Total Wine & More officials also have said that the business model for their stores—which turns on the ability to sell a large number of different products—could not function in a system in which all beer, wine and liquor must be purchased through a single county distribution structure.