Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat is publishing a series of stories highlighting local races for county, state and federal elected offices in the Nov. 8 general election. Today’s story focuses on the 6th Congressional District.
For much of Maryland’s electorate this year, the November ballot features only a handful of off-year contests regarded by insiders as truly competitive. Such is not the case, however, for 150,000 voters in northern and western portions of Montgomery County who remain residents of the state’s 6th Congressional District.
At first glance, it’s a return engagement of 2020, in which Democratic Rep. David Trone of Potomac handily defeated Republican state Del. Neil Parrott of Hagerstown, 59% to 39%. But the intervening redistricting process triggered by the decennial census has made a world of political difference — taking a district that was blue and turning it a distinct shade of purple.
An initial attempt at redistricting by the Democratic-dominated General Assembly was rejected by a state judge this past spring. A subsequently successful effort to draw a map that would pass judicial muster removed about 100,000 voters from Democratic-dominated Montgomery County who had been part of the old 6th District — replacing them with a similar number from Republican-leaning sections of adjacent Frederick County.
The upshot has been an increasingly heated contest in which available public and private polling shows Trone and Parrott separated by only a few points in the campaign’s closing weeks – as each charges the other with spreading falsehoods and distortions about his opponent’s record, while also endeavoring to paint his rival as being outside the political mainstream.
“Fire far-left David Trone … . We can’t afford another two years of the Biden/Pelosi/Trone agenda,” declared a recent fundraising appeal from the Parrott campaign, echoing its mantra of seeking to link Trone closely to President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. For his part, Trone in an interview last week asserted that “Parrott sits out there in extremism, Marjorie Taylor Greene land” – a reference to the controversial Georgia member of Congress known for her embrace of right-wing conspiracy theories and close association with former President Donald Trump.
Stark choice for voters
Such rhetorical grenades do serve to underscore that this year’s 6th District race offers voters a stark choice between two candidates with sharply different political philosophies who disagree on just about every major policy issue high on this year’s political agenda.
Parrott, in an interview last week, said that, if elected, he would “definitely be interested in joining” the House Freedom Caucus, which includes Greene and about 40 other of the House’s most hardline Republican conservatives. (Rep. Andy Harris of Cockeysville, currently the only GOP member of Maryland’s House delegation, is also a Freedom Caucus member.)
However, in a district that is now politically marginal – a recent analysis by the political website 538.com gives it a Republican lean of a single percentage point – Parrott also appears to be seeking some political distance from many Freedom Caucus members who continue to echo Trump’s baseless claims that he was the winner of the 2020 election.
“Processes were followed and … and you can’t operate by other rules. This is who the president is, and you have to go forward with that,” Parrott replied when asked whether he acknowledged Biden’s election as legitimate. He also indicated he is prepared to accept the electoral outcome if he comes up short next month, saying, “I think there are processes in place, and you see where that goes. At the end of the day, you have to accept the result.”
Parrott is largely following the national Republican playbook in this year’s election, emphasizing issues such as the economy and inflation that polls show to be top of mind for many voters.
“Going door to door … when I ask what is the main issue, the vast majority of responses are,
‘Things are costing too much, and we need to turn this around’,” Parrott said. “I ask people, ‘Do you think we’re going in the right direction, or do you think we’re going in the wrong direction?’ No one is telling me that we’re going in the right direction.”
Trone – facing a less politically friendly district than the one from which he was first elected in 2018, as well as the headwinds that traditionally buffet the party in power in off-year elections — is emphasizing his efforts to work across the aisle with his Republican colleagues. He pointed to two recent studies – by the Common Ground Committee and the Washington-based Lugar Center – showing him among the highest-ranked members of Congress in terms of co-sponsoring legislation and engaging with legislators outside of his own party.
Trone co-chairs a bipartisan task force on addiction and mental health, which he has sought to make his signature issue on Capitol Hill; he lost a nephew to drug addiction nearly six years ago, prior to his election to Congress. “That bipartisanship, I think, is what’s helped us to get across the line so much stuff on addiction and mental health,” he said, adding, “I am relentlessly on the Republican side of the aisle, getting people on our bills and our issues. I think people respect that.”
Parrott, however, has sought to question Trone’s commitment on this front by raising the issue of border security. It generated some sparks Monday evening when the two candidates met in their first face-to-face forum of the campaign at Frostburg State University, located in the western part of a district that stretches nearly 200 miles from Gaithersburg to the edge of the Maryland Panhandle.
“Stopping opioids and fentanyl before they get into our country would be a huge benefit,” Parrott during last week’s interview. “And David Trone won’t do anything to enforce our border and make sure it’s secure – whether we’re talking a border wall or electronic surveillance.”
Trone – who co-chaired the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking established by Congress — last week dismissed Parrott’s complaints as “pure myth,” gibing, “Neil Parrott doesn’t understand the complexities of it; he just goes to the talking points.”
Trone said fentanyl “is coming over the border in a thoughtful, planned way by two cartels that control one-third of the GDP in Mexico, that act as a de facto country of their own, and whose leadership brings it over in vehicles driven by American citizens. [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] are crystal clear: They cannot stop the fentanyl coming over that border because there are so many cars. It’s not crossing the border by someone carrying it as they’re trying to flee persecution in El Salvador or Venezuela.”
While boasting of his efforts at bipartisanship, Trone also makes no apologies for being what he called a “team player” for the Biden administration agenda that Pelosi has steered through the House – often by narrow partisan votes.
“It’s a three- or four-vote majority in the House, and if we don’t stick together, we have nothing that’s going to going to get accomplished,” Trone said. “We’re here to accomplish things for the American people – so if we don’t have unity, that’s not going to happen.”
While a number of his Democratic colleagues across the county have kept a president with relatively low approval ratings at arm’s length as they campaign this fall, Trone said he was “honored to have the president in the district” earlier this month, when Biden visited a manufacturing plant in Hagerstown. This past spring, Biden was a guest at Trone’s Potomac residence for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
“We are big supporters of the president. Do we wish inflation and the war in Ukraine aren’t what they are? Yeah, we do,” said Trone, echoing White House contentions that inflation has been fueled by energy and trade disruptions arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But he also contended, “At the end of the day, the Biden presidency will go down in a pretty positive light for all of these monumental, trillion-dollar [pieces of legislation] that he got accomplished with virtually no margin of error 50-50 in the Senate, three votes in the House.”
He cited the legislative packages enacted during the first two years of the Biden administration that have provided infrastructure funding and aid to expand domestic high-tech manufacturing, while targeting climate change. “These are long-term things,” Trone declared, his voice exhibiting a hint of frustration. “We will reap the rewards for decades and decades to come. But they haven’t happened yet, and Americans are all about today and immediate gratification.”
Trone speaks from the vantage point of a businessman who spent nearly one-third of a century methodically building the nation’s largest privately owned chain of alcohol beverage retail outlets. His success had made him a multi-millionaire who has largely self-financed his four races for Congress, starting with an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in the neighboring 8th District 8 in 2016. Since then, Trone has spent a cumulative total of more than $46 million from his own pocket over four campaigns– $12.5 million of that in his current re-election bid.
“We have David Trone who’s tried to come in from outside the district and is trying to buy the election again,” Parrott charged, echoing complaints from past Democratic as well as Republican rivals of Trone’s. As he has in the past, Trone contended last week that his practice of largely self-financing his candidacy has insulated him from outside influence.
“We never take PAC [political action committee] money, we don’t take lobbyists’ money,” he said. “That means I get to decide what the folks in the district want to accomplish – and not have anyone else making decisions for us.”
Residency issue and party support
While Trone has resided in the adjacent 8th District during his two terms as the 6th District’s representative, this year’s redistricting moved the lines northward: It placed Trone further outside the district, which previously began just across River Road from his home in Potomac but now begins in the Gaithersburg area. Parrott has repeatedly raised the residency issue in campaign ads. (The U.S. Constitution requires only that a member of Congress be a resident of the state in which the district that he or she represents is located.)
“No one spends more time in the district and is more present myself – and that can be verified by talking to any of the public officials,” asserted Trone, who – harkening back to his days in retailing — plays up his level of “customer service” in the 6th District. He maintains four offices — in Cumberland, Frederick, Hagerstown and Gaithersburg — in the far-flung district. Trone said this is twice the number of offices maintained by his 6th District predecessor, Democrat John Delaney, who also was an 8th District resident.
In fact, the two 6th District Republican nominees prior to Parrott – Annapolis-area resident Dan Bongino in 2014 and Amie Hoeber of Potomac in 2016 and 2018 – also lived outside the district while they were running. Parrott sidestepped a question about whether Republicans should have nominated someone who lived in the district instead of Bongino and Hoeber, saying, “I just think it’s very beneficial to have someone who represents you live in the district… . You can talk to the constituents every day. You just won’t get that when you don’t live in the district.”
Biden is not the only potential 2024 presidential candidate to show up in the 6th District this month: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who emerged on the national scene as part of the tea party movement of a decade ago, campaigned for Parrott in Frederick County this past weekend. But another possible 2024 Republican presidential contender, outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, has yet to offer an endorsement of Parrott – who, after 12 years in the House of Delegates, is giving up that slot this year in his bid for Congress.
Hogan – who endorsed a rival of Parrott’s, Matthew Foldi of Gaithersburg, in the July primary — has so far been silent on the 6th District general election race, while endorsing two other Republican congressional challengers elsewhere in the state. The governor and Parrott have not always seen eye-to-eye, including at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — when Parrott joined fellow Del. Dan Cox, now the Republican gubernatorial nominee, and 15 other plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a stay-at-home order issued by Hogan early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Little common ground
As Trone boasts of a high rating from the Common Ground Committee on efforts to reach across the aisle, it is difficult to discern much common ground between the two major party nominees in this year’s contest.
In last week’s interview, Parrott downplayed the threat of climate change, saying, “Climate change has happened since the very beginning of time. The climate doesn’t stay the same; it definitely cools or warms with different cycles, whether people are here or not.”
An engineer by profession, Parrott said he would have voted against the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed Congress late last year because “a lot of it went to Green New Deal policies, which are unfortunately hurting the average American by making the cost of energy go up higher.”
Trone, who voted for the infrastructure measure, calls climate change “the biggest long-term issue we have to focus on,” declaring, “If we want to put our heads in the sand and say everything is OK, it will be OK for my life – but what about our kids and their kids?” He praised Biden’s decision shortly after taking office to rejoin the Paris Agreement, an international treaty negotiated in 2015 in an effort to slow global warming; Trump had withdrawn the United States from the agreement early in his presidency, a move with which Parrott said he agreed.
The differences between Parrott and Trone have been the starkest – and the rhetoric the sharpest – on social issues. A flyer mailed out by the Trone campaign has labeled Parrott a “homophobic extremist,” citing stances such as Parrott’s opposition to a legislative ban on so-called “conversation therapy” for LGBT youth that Hogan signed into law in 2018, along with opposition to same-sex marriage.
In 2012, Parrott helped lead an effort by opponents of same-sex marriage to put the issue on the November ballot after the General Assembly had voted to legalize the practice. The referendum vote narrowly upheld the legislature’s action. “I think marriage since the beginning of time has been between a man and a woman, and that’s a social more that’s been there,” Parrott said. “However, in Maryland, the people have decided what they want, so those are the laws we’re going to stand by.”
On a more recent issue, Parrott – who has praised this year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the Roe v. Wade decision – said he believes abortion “primarily should be dealt with state by state.” But he also said that if elected, he would be “supportive” of a bill recently proposed by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to bar abortion nationwide after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother – which Parrott contended was consistent with laws in a number of other nations.
Trone – who termed the overturning of Roe v. Wade an “abomination” – said he would support Biden’s plans to codify the ruling via legislation if the Democrats retain the majority in Congress next month. He called the Graham proposal as a “de facto ban” on abortion, while declaring, “What I don’t think the American people want on the abortion issue is extremism, and that’s what my opponent has embraced.”
Such statements have prompted charges of “slander” from Parrott, who charged: “My opponent has put out flyers … just lying on this issue. He says I wouldn’t have exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother, and that’s just not true.”
The Trone campaign, however, has stood by its characterization of Parrott’s stance, with a campaign spokesman pointing to a series of bills that Parrott has sponsored or co-sponsored in recent years to restrict abortion that made no mention of exceptions for rape or incest. The Trone spokesperson also contended that – since Roe v. Wade protected the health and life of the mother in the event of state laws to the contrary – overturning the ruling, which Parrott supported, had opened the way for states to enact laws lacking such protections.
As Election Day approaches, a recently disclosed poll commissioned by the Maryland Republican Party shows Trone narrowly ahead by 42% to 37%, notwithstanding the advantages of incumbency and his large campaign treasury. Trone acknowledged a similar finding by polls taken by his campaign: “We’re ahead, but it’s in striking distance, within the margin of error.”
With the counties in the western portion of the district – Washington County where Parrott resides, along with Allegany and Garrett counties – all with sizable Republican registration advantages, Trone is nervously looking to the eastern end of the 6th District, and particularly his home county, to deliver.
Democrats have a narrow registration edge over Republicans in Frederick County, while the Democratic advantage in the Montgomery County portion of the district is better than 3-1. “What’s really going to matter is Montgomery County and Frederick County turning out and voting. If we get the turnout we expect, we’ll be fine,” Trone said. “Montgomery County is really the key.”
Louis Peck, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, can be reached at: email@example.com.