U.S. Rep. David Trone, left, and Republican challenger Neil Parrott Credit: Submitted photos

The final outcome of the battle between U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Potomac) and his Republican challenger, Del. Neil Parrott of Hagerstown – the state’s most competitive congressional race this year thanks largely to redistricting – remained unclear early Wednesday.

With all Election Day precincts reporting, Parrott held a 51%-49% lead, with a little more than 4,500 votes separating the two candidates in the 6th Congressional District. While Parrott had a nearly 15,000-vote edge in votes cast on Election Day, Trone cut into this with leads in early voting tallies and, perhaps most significantly, mail-in ballots – a category in which the Democrat was ahead by nearly 3-1.

Only 13,200 mail ballots have been tallied so far in District 6, according to figures compiled by the State Board of Elections. But 43,000 mail ballots cast in the district had been returned as of Monday, and, with 72,000 requested, this number could go higher. Mail ballots had to be postmarked prior to the close of the polls at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

About 60% of the mail ballots were requested or returned by Democrats in the district, creating the potential for Trone to close the gap as the mail-in ballot count resumes this week.

“Tens of thousands of ballots are still outstanding, and it may take a few days for every vote to be counted,” Trone said in a statement posted to Twitter early Wednesday morning, while adding: “… I’m confident I’m headed back to Congress to keep fighting for the people of the 6th District.”

In the two other congressional races involving portions of Montgomery County, there was no question about the outcome: Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park) was overwhelmingly re-elected to a fourth term in District 8 with 76% of the vote, while former Prince George’s State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey was chosen as the new member of Congress from District 4 – which includes a small portion of eastern Montgomery County – with 89%.

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The District 6 contest attracted the attention of both national political parties: President Biden made a visit to a Hagerstown manufacturing facility last month, in part to boost Trone – long a major Democratic Party fundraiser. Later in October, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – widely seen as a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – made a stop in Frederick to campaign with Parrott.

Trone and Parrott had previously faced off in 2020, when Trone handily won, 59% to 39%. But this year, they were running in a district dramatically altered by a congressional redistricting plan enacted by the Maryland General Assembly — after an earlier plan had been rejected by a state judge, ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by Parrott and several other plaintiffs.

The final redistricting plan removed about 100,000 voters from Democratic-dominated Montgomery County, leaving about 150,000 6th District voters in the northern and western portions of the county. At the same time, it added about 100,000 voters from Republican areas of politically purple Frederick County to the 6th – transforming a reliably Democratic congressional district into one assessed by the political website 538.com as leaning Republican by a single percentage point.

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The politically diverse district extends nearly 200 miles west from Gaithersburg to the edge of Maryland’s Panhandle, and includes three strongly Republican counties – Allegany, Garrett and Washington – in addition to all of Frederick County and a portion of Montgomery.

First elected to the House in 2018 in a race in which he spent $17.5 million of his own money – a record for a self-financed congressional campaign – Trone, co-owner of a nationwide retail chain of nearly 230 stores selling alcohol beverages, opened his wallet again this year.

According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, Trone pumped more than $12.5 million in personal funds into his campaign – and, as of mid-October, had spent more than $8.4 million.

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That was about 18 times the approximately $470,000 spent by the Parrott campaign — prompting complaints by Parrott, an engineer by profession, that Trone “is trying to buy the election again.” As he has in the past, Trone defended his practice of largely self-financing his candidacy as insulating him from outside influences.

Trone utilized his huge campaign warchest – “The Democrats wish they had a human ATM in more districts this year,” an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report wryly observed – to saturate the district with nearly $2.6 million in paid TV spots from July through mid-October.

Parrott, after emerging from a six-way primary in July, was not back on TV with paid spots until the closing weeks of the general election campaign, when he made a modest ad buy.

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Parrott largely borrowed from this year’s national Republican playbook, accusing Trone of pursuing a “woke socialist agenda” and seeking to tie the incumbent closely to both Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He repeatedly hammered at concerns about the economy and inflation that pre-election polls showed to be top of mind for many voters.

For his part, Trone 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.

Facing a less politically friendly district than the one from which he was first elected four years ago as well as the headwinds that traditionally buffet the party in power in off-year elections, Trone emphasized his efforts to work across the aisle with his Republican colleagues – particularly in his role co-chairing a bipartisan task force on addiction and mental health.

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At the same time, Trone made no apologies for being what he called a “team player” for supporting the Biden administration agenda as it cleared Congress, often by narrow votes.

“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. We will reap the rewards for decades and decades to come,” Trone asserted in an interview last month, while adding with frustration, “But they haven’t happened yet, and Americans are all about today and immediate gratification.”

Amid sparring over the Biden legislative agenda, Trone and Parrott differed sharply on issues ranging from the threat posed by climate change to the need for additional restrictions on gun ownership. The rhetoric often became the most heated when it came to social issues.

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A flyer mailed out by the Trone campaign labeled Parrott a “homophobic extremist.” Cited were Parrott’s stances against a legislative ban on so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBT youth  passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2018, along with Parrott’s opposition to allowing same-sex marriage in the state a decade ago.

Trone followed up with a TV ad blasting Parrott for proposing in a 2005 letter to the editor in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail that men, women and children who tested HIV positive be tattooed for identification purposes. Parrott called a news conference to say he had recanted his call for the tattooing of HIV-positive individuals a dozen years ago – when he was elected to the first of three terms in the House of Delegates — and accused Trone of misleading voters.

Meanwhile, abortion opponent Parrott praised this year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, which Trone called an “abomination” while expressing support for legislation to codify the decision. 

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He also accused Parrott of opposing exceptions in abortion laws for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother, sparking heated denials from Parrott – who accused Trone of “slander.” But Trone stood by his charges, citing the absence of such exceptions from abortion-related legislation that Parrott had sponsored in the House of Delegates.

Although Cruz came to the district to campaign for Parrott, another potential Republican presidential contender, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, kept his distance — never offering a general election endorsement after backing one of Parrott’s challengers, Matthew Foldi of Gaithersburg, in the July primary.

While seeking to separate himself from efforts by Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox to deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election, Parrott joined forces with fellow Del. Cox and 15 other plaintiffs at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to file a lawsuit challenging the stay-at-home order issued by Hogan.

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