Democrats David Blair and Marc Elrich Credit: Joseph Tran

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. Wednesday to include the latest campaign finance disclosure reports filed by the Democratic nominee for county executive, incumbent Marc Elrich, and the Republican nominee in November, Reardon Sullivan.  

Potomac businessman David Blair – who lost his bid to oust incumbent Marc Elrich by 32 votes in the July Democratic primary for county executive– set a new record for spending in that contest, according to a campaign finance disclosure report filed late Monday with the State Board of Elections.

Blair ended up breaking his own spending record from the 2018 county executive primary after declaring in an interview last fall that “I can’t imagine” spending as much money as he did in his first matchup with Elrich  – when he spent a record $5.7 million, $5.4 million of that coming from his own pocket.

A report filed by the Blair campaign a day ahead of Tuesday night’s deadline covered a seven-week period from July 4 through Aug. 23, with virtually all of the money in the report spent or obligated during the final two weeks leading up to the July 19 primary.

It showed the Blair campaign spending another $1.48 million, on top of $5.07 million spent earlier since Blair announced his candidacy in the spring of 2021 – for total expenditures of $6.55 million, or about $850,000 more than his campaign spent in the 2018 primary.

Blair – a former health care services company executive — reported pumping nearly $1.38 million of his own money into the campaign in its closing weeks. Added to $4.8 million in his personal funds previously directed to the 2022 campaign, it brought his total self-financing this time to just under $6.18 million, or $780,000 more than what he sunk into his 2018 candidacy.

His additional investment — supplemented by about $410,000 in outside contributions, $9,500 of that in the closing weeks of the campaign — brought Blair a bit closer to winning the nomination this year, although he still fell agonizingly short. 

After losing to Elrich by a mere 77 votes in the 2018 primary, he came up 32 votes short following a recount that concluded less than a week ago: 55,504 votes to 55,472 votes, a margin of just two one-hundredths of a percentage point.

The level of spending by the Blair campaign translated into an eye-popping average of $118 for each vote he garnered in last month’s primary.

By comparison, Elrich – whose campaign was outspent by Blair’s by a factor of more than 6-1 – expended an average of $18 in connection with each vote he won. 

Both Elrich and the third major contender in the Democratic race, at-large County Council Member Hans Riemer, relied on the county’s public campaign finance system, created nearly eight years ago. Under that program, candidates for county executive and County Council can qualify for public matching funds if they agree to limit individual private contributions to no more than $250, and not to accept donations from corporate entities or political action committees (PACs).

In all, Elrich’s primary campaign took in a little over $1 million: In return for raising slightly more than $250,000 in small private donations, it qualified for the $750,000 maximum public subsidy per election authorized for county executive candidates.

In a disclosure statement filed late Tuesday with the State Board of Elections, the Elrich campaign reported spending nearly $393,000 in the period from July 4 through Aug. 23, with most of that money spent or obligated in the period leading up to the July 19 primary. Combined with previously reported spending of $607,000 since he announced his bid for a second term in the summer of 2021, Elrich’s primary campaign spent an overall total of about $1 million.

As of Wednesday morning, Riemer’s campaign had not filed its latest disclosure report – missing the State Board of Elections’ Tuesday night deadline for doing so. The remaining candidate in the Democratic race, technology entrepreneur Peter James – whose campaign was largely confined to appearances at candidate forums – this week filed the latest in a series of affidavits declaring he had raised and spent less than $1,000. 

Going into the November election, in which he will face Republican Reardon Sullivan, Elrich again plans to tap into the public campaign finance system: He reported receiving $13,000 so far in private donations for the general election campaign, and, based on that, has requested $39,000 in public matching funds.

Sullivan – who last week acknowledged he faces an “uphill battle” in a county in which Democrats have a 4-1 advantage in registration — reported receiving $5,150 in outside contributions in filing his latest disclosure report. He also loaned his campaign $10,000 in personal funds, in addition to more than $28,000 he had previously reported in donations since announcing his candidacy in mid-April.

During the period covering most of July and August, Sullivan reported expenditures of $15,350, with most of this going for media – primarily for online advertising. Sullivan, who has not sought to utilize the public campaign finance system, reported $11,500 in his campaign treasury as of the end of August.

A former chair of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, Sullivan easily won the primary against attorney Shelly Skolnick, a frequent candidate for county elected office. Skolnick shut down his campaign committee in August after attesting to raising and spending less than $1,000.

While the $6.18 million in personal funds that Blair pumped into his campaign this time are labeled as loans, candidates who lend money to their own campaigns rarely receive repayment—with these funds usually ending up as de facto contributions.

Although private polls as recently as March showed Elrich with a comfortable lead in the race, Blair was able to cut into that margin with the aid of a saturation TV ad campaign that ran on Washington, D.C.-area broadcast channels in the closing weeks of the contest.

Blair’s latest disclosure report showed him spending $732,000 on media in the last couple of weeks of the campaign, with $584,000 of that spent on TV advertising.

Added to previously reported media expenses, the Blair campaign all-told spent just over $3 million on media, with about $2.43 million of this going for TV ads.

Meanwhile, households with Democratic voters received a steady stream of glossy Blair flyers in their mailboxes: The Blair campaign spent a total of just over $875,000 on direct mail, with about $325,000 of that coming in the last two weeks leading up to the primary.

Prior to the 2018 Blair campaign – whose spending has now been eclipsed by this year’s candidacy – the most expensive county executive campaign in county history took place in 2006, when then-County Council Member Steve Silverman spent about $2.7 million in a losing bid for the Democratic nomination.

Louis Peck, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, can be reached at: lou.peck@bethesdamagazine.com.