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WASHINGTON POST: Del. Neil Parrott takes on Rep. Trone — and his $13 million war chest

There was something a little poetic in the backdrop of Del. Neil C. Parrott’s rollicking campaign rally with Republicans’ hype man of the moment, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), in Frederick, Md., on Saturday afternoon.

The rally was held at Roscoe Bartlett’s farm — home of the last Republican congressman to represent western Maryland before state Democrats drew him off a gerrymandered map in 2011. Now, in Parrott’s rematch against multimillionaire business executive Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), Parrott finally sees an opportunity to turn it red once again — because for the first time in years, race raters view Maryland’s 6th Congressional District as competitive.

And Parrott fought to make it so — joining other Republicans to successfully sue state Democrats over redrawn district lines. The new map is friendlier territory for the GOP in the 6th District in a year of projected disappointments for the state party. Political analysts see Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox (R-Frederick), a Trump acolyte expected to lose to Democratic candidate Wes Moore in a blowout, as a drag on Parrott down the ballot. Cox attended but did not speak at Parrott’s rally.

Still, Parrott climbed onto the pumpkin-decked stage before a crowd of hundreds of conservatives with the energy of someone who thinks he might actually pull this off.

“Now it’s time to take back this congressional district,” Parrott (R-Washington) told the crowd after a shout-out to 96-year-old Bartlett. “Has anybody seen any commercials from the other guy? He’s spending $12 million to go after us. I’ll tell you what, he wouldn’t be spending any of it if he knew he was going to win.”

Trone, the owner of Total Wine & More, crushed Parrott in 2020, when Maryland’s 6th District dipped farther down into the D.C. suburbs. This year he still has the incumbent advantage. And a $13 million war chest — including $12.5 million of his personal wealth, allowing him to dominate Parrott, who has raised over $630,000 this campaign cycle, on the airwaves. Cook Political Report has rated the race “likely Democrat”; others have rated it leans Democrat or even, at RealClearPolitics, a “toss-up.”

Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, said Cruz’s decision to stump for Parrott is a good sign for his candidacy, but noted Trone’s $12 million advantage has him on a totally different playing field. “People like Ted Cruz don’t come just for kicks. They come because they identify seats where there’s a realistic, maybe a possible chance,” Kromer said. “David Trone wouldn’t be spending money on the airwaves if he didn’t see the chance that Neil Parrott could have some upset victory. But at the same time, Trone is still in the advantageous position.”

National Republicans had included the 6th District among their targets in their battle to take control of Congress this year but didn’t devote major resources to helping Parrott, making Cruz’s intervention arguably the most high-profile national help Parrott has gotten this year.

“Let me tell you what the people of Maryland deserve,” Cruz boomed, in a speech seemingly designed to dunk on Democrats. “They deserve a congressman who doesn’t just salute and jump off a cliff and spend trillions of dollars and drive inflation through the roof.”

Parrott has also gotten an assist from David Bossie, a 2016 deputy campaign manager to Donald Trump, current president of Citizens United and longtime GOP leader in Maryland. This week, Bossie promoted internal, partisan polls he said suggest Trone isn’t as secure as he should be. Bossie sees President Biden as the real drag, given Trone has supported all of the president’s major agenda items and appeared with him in Hagerstown to tout them just this month.

Bossie notes Biden may have won District 6 in 2020, but his approval rating has sunk since then and inflation has risen, noting that even under a map friendlier to Democrats, Republicans in the 6th nearly eked out a win in 2014. “This has been a district that Republicans can win,” he said.

Trone has framed his support for the president’s agenda in terms of how it will help the district: how the infrastructure package will help rural western Maryland with investments in broadband and roads. How the Inflation Reduction Act (which isn’t expected to materially impact inflation) will help seniors across the district with health-care costs.

“That is going to kick in and help seniors, but it’s not going to help today,” Trone told a Democratic club at a Gaithersburg retirement community last week, often delivering a dose of reality to crowds to let them know they won’t see the benefits of the legislation for a while, “because 2024 is when they begin to negotiate for those top 100 drugs that come through Medicare.”

While he has faced criticism for seeking to “buy” a seat in Congress — including from Parrott — Trone said self-funding most of his campaign means he doesn’t accept any PAC or lobbyist money, something he said shows voters that their lawmaker “doesn’t owe anybody anything.”

Having spent nearly $7 million of his war chest as of Sept. 30, Trone has run numerous TV ads urging Maryland voters not to vote for his “extremist” opponent while highlighting emotional testimonials from people in the district he has worked with on issues such as combating addiction and mental health crises.

His introductory ads trace his story as the son of a farmer, a background he has often pointed to while hoping to connect with the more rural parts of the district — “David may be a long way from the farm, but he never really left,” a narrator said, as Trone appears on-screen dressed in farmer garb with a pitchfork.

And the ads highlight Trone’s personal mission in Congress. Trone has been laser focused on addiction, mental health, criminal justice and medical research throughout his tenure, after his nephew died of an overdose of fentanyl-laced heroin in 2016. He speaks about those priorities at almost every and any opportunity — including when appearing with Biden at the Volvo manufacturing plant in Hagerstown to tout nationwide job growth. Trone threw in a nod to the mental health investment in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

Speaking in Gaithersburg, he highlighted the same work, getting in the weeds on the opioid crisis, how fentanyl gets into the United States and the resources needed to fight addiction once it gets here. “We’re a policy shop. I’m not a CNN shop or MSNBC. We are policy,” he said.

He’s often touted his business acumen as coming in handy when negotiating with Republicans, and, indeed, the majority of the bills he’s led on mental health and addiction are bipartisan. He serves as co-chair of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force.

“I’m the guy in the middle who gets stuff done. That’s what we do, and that comes with business,” Trone told the room of Democratic voters. “We’re doing the same thing in Congress, working with Republicans side by side. I chase them into the Republican cloakroom. … I can get Democrats all day long, and that won’t do anything.”

State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who pumped up the Democratic crowd for Trone, described him as the kind of lawmaker who “doesn’t get enough credit.” “He is often under the radar, but he gets things done,” Kagan said in an interview afterward. Familiar with Parrott from their years in the Maryland State House, Kagan described Parrott as “a nice guy — but he would not reflect the values of this part of the district for sure.”

Parrott, an engineer and a firm social conservative in Annapolis, built a reputation for leading petition drives seeking to repeal legislation passed by Democrats by statewide referendum. He’s unsuccessfully sought to repeal laws such as same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, among other things. And while he’s taken Democrats to court over gerrymandering, he’s also sued the leader of his own party, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), over Hogan’s early pandemic mandates, which wasn’t successful.

But Parrott has also built a reputation as a friendly lawmaker who’s honest about where he stands, even if, as Kromer noted, his conservative bona fides may not help him win crossover votes that could be important in a tight race.

“He’s one of the most honest guys I’ve ever heard talk — he doesn’t, as you could say, pull the shades down. He’s an open window,” said James Parise, a Frederick resident and quality-control inspector at a local firm, sitting in a lawn chair at the Cruz rally and wearing an “Impeach Biden” ball cap.

At his rally on Saturday, Parrott delivered an “I have a vision”-themed speech in homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., describing his vision as balancing the budget, closing the border, ensuring parents have control in their children’s education and creating a “place where life is protected from the beginning to the end of life.”

Parrott has been a firm abortion opponent in Annapolis. During his tenure he has introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks except in the case of a “medical emergency” threatening a woman’s life, including a provision that makes it a misdemeanor for a physician to violate certain paperwork requirements.

Trone highlighted that bill in a Halloween-themed attack ad produced like a scary movie trailer — with a “Neil Parrott for Congress” sign starring as “the scariest sight our daughters will see this Halloween season.” The same ad also went after him for being in the super-minority of Republicans who did not support a bill to repeal a provision in Maryland law allowing “spousal defense” in a sexual assault case (Parrott, defending the vote, has argued Maryland should not “put police in the bedrooms of people more easily — without making anything illegal that wasn’t already banned.”). And in a separate ad, Trone highlighted an idea Parrott proposed nearly 20 years ago to discreetly tattoo people with HIV, which he believed could prevent the spread.

“The only thing crazier would be sending Neil Parrott to Congress,” a narrator says in the ad, which featured children with prominently displayed “HIV” tattoos.

Parrott called Trone’s ads “slander.” He noted in an interview he almost considered taking the HIV ad to court, saying that he recanted his tattoo idea years ago. “Of course, this is not a good idea,” Parrott said. “We don’t need it. It’s not something I support.” He added he never suggested prominently tattooing children and noted medical advances over the years have improved HIV prognoses, negating the need for a dire measure that seemed appropriate to him in the circumstances at the time.

On abortion, Parrott said he believed the 15-week ban proposed by Republicans in Congress was a “reasonable bill,” adding that he believed any restrictions Congress passes on abortion should include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Back at his rally, Parrott’s conservative supporters said they have felt unrepresented in western Maryland since Bartlett was ousted in 2012. “Out here, there’s a lot of people with Christian values, and they’re just different from city folks,” said Jim Richards, a 66-year-old Frederick County resident who liked Parrott’s opposition to abortion, support for gun rights and position on the border.

Richards noted that he’s watched Frederick County — a key battleground — get more purple over the years, “so it’s a tough race,” he said, noting that when it comes to Republicans taking control of the House, in reality, Maryland’s 6th District probably “isn’t going to make it or break it.”

“We may win the war but lose the battle,” added Richards’s son Evan — but still, under the new redistricted map, at least now there was one.

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