2016 | Politics

Raskin Captures Democratic Nod to Succeed Van Hollen in 8th Congressional District

Trone's record spending falls short as he finishes second; Matthews is third

Jamie Raskin celebrates with supporters Tuesday night at the Silver Spring Civic Building

Joe Zimmermann

State Sen. Jamie Raskin, an outspokenly liberal member of the General Assembly who has been at the forefront of battles ranging from legalizing same-sex marriage to abolishing the death penalty over the past decade, Tuesday captured the Democratic nomination for the 8th Congressional District—all but guaranteeing that he will succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen when the next Congress is seated in January 2017.

"My voice is tired tonight, but my heart is on fire," Raskin told several hundred supporters gathered at the Silver Spring Civic Building Tuesday night. “We were told that the only way you could win in a congressional district… is through massive expenditures on TV advertising and putting up a wall of propaganda and attack ads against our opponents, but we refused to believe that. We ran an old-fashioned, totally positive grassroots campaign.”

Raskin overcame a late-starting bid by Total Wine & More co-owner David Trone, who poured more than $12.75 million of his personal fortune—a record for a self-funded House race—into the contest after declaring his candidacy in January. While Trone relied heavily on a relentless TV ad blitz, Raskin did not begin TV advertising until a month before the primary, relying instead on direct mail and personal gatherings to rally the network of local Democratic Party activists who enthusiastically backed his candidacy.

With 94 percent of the vote reporting at 10:45 p.m., in the 8th, centered in Montgomery County but also including portions of Carroll and Frederick counties, Raskin had 33.1 percent of the vote to 27.7 percent for Trone, for a margin of 5,800 votes.

Running in third place was former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews with 24.5 percent. The one-time local TV news anchor entered the contest 10 months ago, appealing to women voters and tapping into a network of contacts in official Washington and across the country to lead the field of candidates in outside fundraising. But two of her advantages—campaign funds and an appeal to more moderate, business-oriented voters—were undercut with Trone’s surprise entry into the contest.

Trone made a major effort to woo absentee voters, and, as of Tuesday, there were more than 7,200 absentee votes waiting to be counted this Thursday, with the Trone camp hoping that as many as 2,000 to 3,000 additional absentees might arrive in the mail prior to the May 6 deadline. Such votes would have to be postmarked by 8 p.m. April 26. However, the size of Raskin’s lead made it unlikely that the unusually large number of absentee ballots could alter the result.

Matthews conceded to Raskin late Tuesday night, and another contender, state Del. Kumar Barve, also issued a statement congratulating Raskin.

At the Civic Building, Betsy Johnson, a Chevy Chase resident and the political chairwoman of the Maryland Sierra Club, said she has been working with Raskin for months rallying support prior to the election.

"He's a passionate progressive who knows how to get legislation passed," she said. "What more could you want?"

She said the Sierra Club has endorsed him in part because of his interest in climate change.

Edward Kimmel, an attorney from Takoma Park, wandered through the election party touting a large homemade sign with Raskin's image and wore glasses decked with campaign stickers. "Everyone claims they're going to do the right stuff for the progressive agenda, he said. "But Jamie has actually done it on a state level."

The six other candidates in the Democratic primary trailed far behind with state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez at 5.5 percent; former White House aide Will Jawando at 4.6 percent; Barve at 2.3 percent; David Anderson, an official of a Washington-based internship and seminar program, at 1.1 percent; former State Department official Joel Rubin at 1 percent; and former biotech industry official Dan Bolling at 0.5 percent.

Frederick County attorney Dan Cox took 45 percent in the District 8 Republican primary to win the right to face Raskin. But, in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1, Cox—a conservative who vowed to join the House’s Freedom Caucus, a group of tea party supporters, if elected—is given virtually no chance of victory in November.

Van Hollen’s decision to jump into the Senate race within days of veteran Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s decision to retire created a political rarity: a vacancy in the 8th Congressional District. It had been three decades since the 8th District seat last came open, and the list of potential Democratic candidates quickly grew.

Barve announced in late March 2015, followed over the next couple of months by Raskin, Gutierrez, Jawando, and Matthews. They were joined in early July of last year by former council member Valerie Ervin of Silver Spring, followed in the summer and fall by Anderson and Rubin, respectively.

In an expensive media market where insiders initially estimated it would take $1 million to $3 million to wage a successful bid for the Democratic nomination, campaign financing—or lack thereof—quickly became a factor in the contest. Barely two months after announcing her candidacy, Ervin withdrew, bemoaning the amount of money that the entrants were under pressure to raise.

By that time, Matthews and Raskin had established themselves as the early frontrunners, having each reported raising more than $500,000 within weeks of announcing their candidacies. Raskin, a law professor at American University who was first elected to the state Senate in 2006, boasted strong support among party activists—many of whom viewed Matthews with suspicion for what they saw as a previous lack of local community involvement.

Matthews, who is married to MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews, sought to counter this criticism by developing a grassroots campaign organization. At the same time, Matthews drew heavily for financial support on well-known names in official Washington as well as corporate America and the Hollywood entertainment community, and held the financial advantage over the rest of the field until Trone came along.    

Barve, initially seen as among the frontrunners due to a 25-year career in the Maryland General Assembly, struggled to keep up on the fundraising front. In line to become only the fourth Indian-American ever to serve in Congress, he attracted solid financial support from the Indian-American community across the country, but struggled to expand his fundraising base beyond that. He also suffered from representing a state legislative district split between District 8 and neighboring District 6, meaning that many long-time constituents were unable to vote for him for Congress.

But it was Trone’s surprise entry in late January 2016 into what had been a seven-way contest that brought the debate over money in politics to the forefront of the race.

Trone, who had spent the prior three decades building Bethesda-based Total Wine & More into the country’s largest privately owned retailer of alcoholic beverages, vowed not to accept any outside donations except for individual contributions of $10 or less. He said he would spend “whatever it takes” of his own fortune to win, eschewing contributions from lobbyists and political action committees.

Trone was targeted by several of the other candidates, who repeatedly criticized him in debates for $150,000 in donations to Republican candidates over a 15-year period in states where he had business interests. As he contended that his self-funding would enable him to be free of influence from special interests, some opponents complained that the logical conclusion of his argument was that only multimillionaires were qualified to run for Congress.

But Trone proved to be an adept counterpuncher: Along with Matthews, he repeatedly criticized Raskin and Barve for voting for a controversial 2011 plan to redraw Maryland’s congressional redistricts—contending that such gerrymandering was a major cause of the legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill. And, during the final week of the campaign, he launched a TV attack ad that went after both Matthews and Raskin for accepting donations from PACs and lobbyists.

In a year in which outsider candidates have met with a large degree of success, Trone was sometimes compared—usually unfavorably—to another self-funding candidate from the business world with the initials DJT: Donald J. Trump. While Trone condemned Trump’s stance on issues, he repeatedly contended that someone with a different type of background was needed to fix Washington. This line of argument was usually offered in response to Raskin’s assertions that his decade of legislative experience in Annapolis made him better suited for Capitol Hill than Trone, Matthews, and the four other candidates in the field who had not previously held elective office.

The often intense sniping among the candidates tended to mask their limited differences on public policy. Anderson sought to position himself a bit to the right of the others on issues such as child care assistance and Social Security, but, on most domestic policy, all campaigned as solid liberals with few differences.

Anderson and Trone did part from the rest of the field in criticizing last year’s Obama administration deal with Iran as not going far enough. Reflecting Democratic Party divisions over international trade, there was a clear division over President Obama’s efforts to strike a 12-nation Pacific trade agreement—with Trone, Matthews and Anderson voicing support for the deal, and the other six candidates opposed to it in its current form.