GAITHERSBURG, Maryland – President Donald Trump wasn’t in attendance during a Tuesday debate in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, but his controversial comments and policies came up several times during the night.
That was not much of a surprise in a district that is considered solidly Democratic blue and where the Democratic candidate, David Trone, is believed by most independent political observers to be on the verge of election to the House.
In his campaign, Trone has said Congress must stand firm against divisive and ugly rhetoric from the president — a theme he repeated in the debate.
“We have a leadership in Washington that encourages the nastiness, the bigotry,” he said.
Republican Amie Hoeber largely avoided mention of the president, as has been the case in her uphill race.
The two candidates, along with Libertarian Kevin Caldwell and the Green Party’s George Gluck, are running for the open seat that has been occupied by Democratic businessman John Delaney since 2013, who is pursuing the presidency in 2020.
The race has been the state’s most competitive House contest, although the nonpartisan website FiveThirtyEight gives Trone a 99 percent chance of winning and other analysts rate the 6th District as safely Democratic.
The two-hour debate, one of several held for district candidates, was organized by The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and held at Gaithersburg synagogue Shaare Torah. Candidates kept the discussion civil on contentious issues such as immigration, health care, policy on Israel and gun control.
Their answers elicited occasional cheers from an audience of more than 100. Many wore shirts and stickers showing support for candidates, mainly Hoeber or Trone.
Early voting in Maryland started Thursday and runs through next Thursday.
The diverse district encompasses the more conservative Allegany, Garrett and Washington Counties as well as chunks of more liberal Frederick and Montgomery Counties.
Hoeber, 76, and Trone, 63, both live outside the district in Potomac, but Maryland law does not require congressional candidates to live in the district where they seek office. Both have run for office previously, and have spent a lot of money doing it.
Trone criticized Trump and his derogatory comments about women and minorities, saying the president is leading “in the wrong direction” when advocating for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
“We need a path to citizenship,” he said, adding America needs more immigrants.
Hoeber, who worked as Deputy Under Secretary of the Army under President Ronald Reagan, said the United States should revise visa laws and use technology to better screen immigrants.
“We can in fact secure our borders without building a brick wall, although the brick wall in Israel seems to work very well,” she said.
Both Trone and Hoeber said they favored good relationships with Israel, and both said they were against a movement pushed by some to boycott, divest and impose sanctions against Israel.
Hoeber said she opposed discrimination against any group, and said she and her staff had been the subjects of threats while out campaigning. She said that the country should lead by example and educate children about accepting all people. She did not mention Trump.
Trone is back on the campaign trail after undergoing surgery and treatment last month for a tumor discovered in his urinary tract.
When asked about health care, Hoeber said the main problem is that many Americans can’t afford it. She proposed making it more affordable by pushing for tort and insurance company reform, as well as price transparency for patients.
Trone said the Obama-era Affordable Care Act was a “good start,” but needs revising.
Gluck, a Rockville resident and native of Czechoslovakia who has run for office six times, said he supports a Medicare for all health care system, similar to systems in some European countries.
Hoeber said part of her solution to the opioids crisis would be to provide more grants to local groups that would help treat patients.
“The local communities do it best,” she said.
Trone also called attention to Americans struggling with opioid addiction, and said it is one of the most important campaign issues.
When asked about guns, U.S. Army veteran Caldwell said the right to have a gun is part of the Constitution, and proposed increasing school safety to protect students.
He said he had to undergo more security at a Neil Diamond concert than to go through a school. He said it’s not the guns that are the problem.
“Guns do not kill people, people kill people,” Caldwell said.
Trone called Caldwell’s comments, “horrible,” and said although he grew up around guns, the pro-gun culture of the United States must change. Trone added that gun suicides continue to claim thousands of American lives. In 2015, 22,018 people took their lives with a firearm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Trone, the co-owner of Total Wine & More, has put up $12.7 million of his own money during the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Trone edged out seven other Democrats in the primary for the seat, receiving 40.4 percent to his next-closest rival, state Del. Aruna Miller’s 30.7 percent.
He touted his childhood on a chicken and egg farm, and his independence from special interest groups.
“We’re not taking PAC money, we’re not taking lobbyist’s money because that’s the wrong thing to do. We’re here for the people,” he said.
Trone spent $13.4 million of his own money in his 2016 8th Congressional District Democratic primary loss to Jamie Raskin. It was the highest amount a candidate had ever spent on their own race.
Hoeber has spent $514,000 of her own money on this year’s 6th District race. Her husband, telecommunications executive Mark Epstein, donated $400,000 to the Value in Electing Women PAC, which doled out at least $780,000 in support of Hoeber, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The super PAC Defending Main Street, spent at least $250,000 in favor of Hoeber.
Hoeber was the 2016 Republican nominee in the 6th District, but Delaney beat her by a 56 percent to 40 percent margin. In that race, Hoeber got support from super PAC Maryland USA. Epstein gave the PAC $3.8 million.
In Hoeber’s 2018 latest filings with the FEC, her campaign reported it had about $135,000 left in the bank. Trone had about $3.1 million on hand.
Hoeber reiterated that she is running on a platform of “compassion and civility,” and took a shot at Trone’s spending during her closing arguments.
“I am not trying to buy this election,” she said. “I’m trying to earn this election.”
Trone made no mention of her attack during his time, instead focusing on his platform, and why he decided to run for Congress.
“I’m here for the right reasons,” he said. “I’m here to make a difference, I’m here to drive change.”