The threat of Republicans snatching a Senate seat in a deep-blue state has Democrats on edge.

Maryland’s must-watch Democratic primary features two starkly different candidates: Rep. David Trone, a wealthy wine and liquor magnate, and Angela Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s County executive. The match-up will test whether Trone’s money can overpower the Maryland Democratic machine, which is backing Alsobrooks.

The primary contest is rooted in delicate questions of personal identity surrounding race and gender. Alsobrooks would be the first Black senator in Maryland history and has led Maryland’s second most-populous county for more than a decade. But Trone and his allies have questioned Alsobrooks’ qualifications, with one of his allies saying in an ad that she would need “training wheels.” That attack drew fierce criticism from Black women and others who called it offensive.

In a typical election cycle, the Democratic nominee would cruise to victory in Maryland, where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage. But the nominee this year will likely face off against former Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican who is arguably the state’s most popular figure.

Even if Hogan ultimately falls short, his mere presence in the general election could force national Democrats to siphon money away from other critical Senate seats they need to hold in Ohio, Montana and elsewhere as they try to defend a razor-thin majority.

Let’s break down three major reasons to watch Maryland’s primary contest.

Who’s David and who is Goliath? The race is a test of money vs. machine.

Each campaign is seeking to paint the other as the Goliath in the race. And arguably, they’re both right.

Trone is rich rich. The co-founder of Total Wine and More, Trone has said he is willing to spend what is necessary to win the seat. He single-handedly made this contest the most-expensive Senate race in state history by dumping some $55 million of his personal fortune into the primary, much of it on TV ads that began blanketing the state more than a year before the primary election.

But Alsobrooks has a claim to the Goliath title, too. She’s got the endorsements of all but one member of the Maryland congressional delegation, and the backing of Democratic star-on-the-rise Gov. Wes Moore. She also has been a top elected official in voter-rich Prince George’s County, a majority-Black and wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., since 2018 and prior to that she served as the state’s attorney for the county. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Alsobrooks snagged the backing of the legendary retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski and the endorsement of The Washington Post editorial board.

So both campaigns have significant strengths, and the race will test the power of the political machine against Trone’s massive money advantage. Trone appears to have maintained a healthy lead on Alsobrooks throughout the primary, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, though Alsobrooks’ campaign maintains it has surged in the closing weeks. Will her late push be enough to overcome Trone’s ads running on repeat in the state?

Race has permeated the campaign. Things have gotten very messy.

Race and gender were always important in the contest between a white man and a Black woman. And the closing stretch of the primary has veered even harder into issues of race.

Alsobrooks staked much of her campaign on history: Not only has Maryland only ever elected white senators, its current federal delegation is entirely male. There have only ever been three Black women in the United States Senate, and many Democrats saw this as an easy path to add another.

Angela Alsobrooks looks to make history as the state's first Black Senate nominee.

Maryland has no shortage of Black elected officials, and about one-third of its population is Black. But previous attempts to win Senate seats ended in primary defeats. This includes in 2006, when Sen. Ben Cardin, who is not seeking reelection, vanquished a slew of challengers, including now-Rep. Kweisi Mfume, and then again when former Rep. Donna Edwards lost the nomination to current Sen. Chris Van Hollen in 2016.

What’s different this time is that the Maryland Democrats have coalesced behind Alsobrooks. So instead of bucking the establishment, she’s got its full backing. If she comes up short, there will be lots to sort out, because while money plays a huge role, Trone also repeatedly stumbled on race, providing lots of openings for her to close the gap.

In March, Trone used a racial slur during a Congressional hearing, attempting to say “bugaboo” but instead using a similar-sounding and dated slur used to demean Black people. He apologized and said he misspoke. Alsobrooks’ allies argue that all-but-disqualified Trone from the race.

Trone later inflamed racial tensions when he questioned Alsobrooks’ qualifications for Senate in an attack ad featuring Black officials from Alsobrooks’ Prince George’s County. One suggested she was not ready to make a jump to a statewide federal position.

A letter, signed mostly by Black women, said the characterization was “not only disparaging and dismissive but also echoes tones of misogyny and racism.” While Trone scrubbed the “training wheels” comment from the ad, he later repeated the phrase in a television interview and said he had the endorsement of top officials from the county while “The people in Prince George’s County who stuck with her are the low-level folks.”

Both campaigns spent the campaign’s final weekend shoring up voters in what’s become a crucial battleground county.

The Hogan factor: Democrats are facing a formidable opponent

Hogan has not had much to do during the primary other than, well, be himself. He left office in early 2023 and enjoyed sky-high approval ratings, in part due to his fervent anti-Donald Trump stance.

Hogan eschewed overtures from the No Labels presidential project in favor of running for Senate in Maryland, recruited by national Republicans as a means of putting Democrats on defense. His entry in the race on the final day of the candidate filing deadline upended what had been a relatively sleepy Democratic primary and scrambled the Senate map as Democrats try to defend a razor-thin majority. It could force national Democrats to siphon money away from other critical Senate seats races, including Ohio, Montana and Nevada, to defend a normally safe Maryland seat against a well-liked opponent with near universal name ID in the state.

Maryland Democrats have tried to cast Hogan as someone who is out of step with voters in the state and a tool for MAGA Republicans attempting to curb women’s reproductive rights.

Former Gov. Larry Hogan has broad appeal in the state.

Abortion may be Hogan’s biggest hurdle to winning the Senate seat. The issue has been a major driver of Democratic victories since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, and it is on the ballot in the fall as Marylanders vote on whether to enshrine abortion into Maryland’s Constitution. Hogan is on record saying he would not support a national abortion ban, but it will be a challenge for him to overcome voters’ long-established understanding of the GOP as the party opposing abortion and Democrats as the ones supporting it.

Hogan undoubtedly looms large in the general election and represents Republicans’ best chance to flip the seat. He currently leads both Alsobrooks and Trone in public surveys by double digits according to an April survey by the Baltimore Sun.

Should he advance to the general election, however, it would be the first time Hogan appears on the same ballot as former president. Biden walloped Trump in Maryland by 33 percentage points four years ago. With Trump being so unpopular in the state, any built in advantage Hogan still has among voters, may be in jeopardy for him come November.

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