Rep. David Trone and challenger Neil Parrott Credit: File photos

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, to correct information about the number of Democratic voters in District 6 before redistricting occurred.

The first scheduled debate of the 6th Congressional District race between Democratic incumbent David Trone of Potomac and his Republican challenger, state Del. Neil Parrott of Hagerstown, has been cancelled after Parrott objected to participating in a virtual forum conducted via Zoom.

The forum, under the sponsorship of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Frederick County, was scheduled to take place next Tuesday evening. Trone agreed last week to participate in the event – but it was cancelled by the LWV on Sept. 20 due to Parrott’s insistence that the format be an in-person debate.

“Mr. Parrott refused to participate in the virtual format even though he knew Congressman Trone had accepted, leaving no option other than cancelling,” said Jim Filson, voter services chair of the Frederick County LWV.

With a little more than a month and a half until the Nov. 8 Election Day, no other debates or forums have been scheduled in what is widely regarded as Maryland’s most competitive congressional race this fall – with the two camps pointing the finger of blame at each other.

“The League of Women Voters candidate debate has always played an important role in our congressional race, and I’m disappointed Delegate Parrott deprived the voters of this opportunity to hear from us,” Trone said in a statement emailed by his campaign.

In turn, a statement emailed by a Parrott campaign spokesman accused Trone of avoiding in-person faceoffs, declaring: “Delegate Parrott is eager to debate Congressman Trone in-person, wherever and whenever in the 6th District … . We hope Congressman Trone will change course, and accept our standing invitations to debate in-person.”

And, in an allusion to the fact that Trone resides just outside the 6th District, the statement from the Parrott campaign gibed: “We gather the congressman dislikes coming to the district he purports to represent, as he does so infrequently. Doubtless, he would prefer to do a remote forum, calling in from his mansion in Potomac, surrounded by his staff. We believe the people of the district deserve better than that.”

The U.S. Constitution requires only that members of the House of Representatives live in the state in which the district they represent is located, as opposed to the district itself. Trone lives in the neighboring 8th District, where he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2016 prior to being elected from the 6th District two years later.

This year’s 6th District contest represents a rematch with Parrott, whom Trone handily defeated in 2020 by a 59% to 39% margin. But this year’s race is taking place in a jurisdiction dramatically altered by the redistricting process in the wake of the 2020 census.

After an initial redistricting map drawn by the Democratic-dominated Maryland General Assembly was rejected by a state judge earlier this year, the revised map then adopted placed Trone in less hospitable political geography. While Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 80,000 registered voters in the district in which Trone ran in 2020, the redrawn district cuts the Democratic district-wide advantage to about 30,000.

And while voters in Trone’s Montgomery County home base totaled about half of the voting population of the old 6th District, Montgomery voters account for a little less than one-third of the new district. In fact, 6th District voters residing in Frederick County now outnumber those in Montgomery – by about 193,000 to 150,000. And while the portions of Frederick in the former 6th District were Democratic-leaning, the district now includes all of Frederick – including Republican-dominated areas added in by the recent redistricting.

Still, Trone is seen by observers as having at least a slight edge this year in a district that extends 200 miles from western Montgomery to the edge of the Maryland Panhandle – due in large part to money.

Trone, the multimillionaire co-owner of a national retail chain – Total Wine & More – has so far pumped more than $12.5 million of his own funds into this year’s campaign (in 2018, he spent $17.5 million out of pocket – a nationwide record for a self-financed congressional campaign.) By comparison, Parrott – an engineer by profession — had raised just $382,000 in campaign funds for the 18 months ending July 18.

In this week’s debate over debates in the 6th District, Filson said the Frederick County LWV had decided to use the virtual format in all of the forums it is sponsoring this year. The format became widely utilized at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and remains popular due to residual concerns among some groups about transmission of the virus in large gatherings.

The virtual format “allows working families, single parents, non-drivers, individuals with mobility issues and the hearing impaired to see and hear the candidates’ positions and then make their own informed decision,” Filson said, adding that the Frederick County LWV “has found over the past three election cycles [that] the virtual format with an available recording reaches three to five times the audience [of] an in-person forum.”

In a recent email sent to the Parrott campaign, Filson said that if the LWV had honored Parrott’s request for an in-person forum, “we would be obligated to honor any other requests” from candidates participating in five other virtual events the LWV is sponsoring in Frederick County this fall. “We do not have either the personnel nor financial resources to support an effort of that scope,” he told the Parrott campaign.

While insisting on an in-person forum, the Parrott campaign indicated it had no objection augmenting that with electronic distribution of the event. “We would love to have the in-person debate broadcast, recorded, and distributed as widely as possible across the maximum number of platforms,” the Parrott campaign said in its statement.