Maryland U.S. Democratic Primary Debate Raises Questions on Frontrunners’ & Party’s Readiness to Take on Hogan. Can Frydenborg Emerge As Third Option?

I was one of the candidates participating in Saturday’s event.  While I posted a writeup of the debate (video here, just not great quality) on my own campaign website and I would argue my portrayal there is accurate and fair, here is a more journalistic, more analytical, more detailed exploration of the debate, the race overall, and relevant contexts.

Yes, I am using my own news website to promote my ideas I am putting forth as a candidate for U.S. Senate for Maryland and I won’t apologize for it!  This is part of a series of articles discussing my ideas to fix America as a future U.S. Senator.

By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, Threads @bfchugginalongLinkedInFacebook, Substack with exclusive informal content) March 6, 2024; see related March 2 article Petty Feuding Between Trone and Alsobrooks Does Not Honor Ben Cardin’s Legacy. Vote for Me Instead! and see all of Brian’s Maryland U.S. Senate race coverage here; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request at its discretion.

Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner (THAT’S ME ON THE RIGHT!)

SILVER SPRING—Until recently, the assumption was that whomever won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate would be the next U.S. Senator from Maryland, replacing Ben Cardin’s long-held seat.

But the entry of relatively-recently-former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a two-term Republican who was one of the nation’s most popular governors during his tenure and left office in early 2023 with ridiculously high approval ratings, into the race has rapidly shifted this thinking: Inside Elections downgraded the rating of the Maryland Senate race from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic, as did the Cook Political Report’s Senate Race Ratings system.

But Saturday’s candidate forum debate gave Democrats even more reasons to worry about the November Senate race.  This weekend’s debate—moderated by The Washington Post’s hero columnist Jennifer Rubin—was the first Maryland U.S. Senate Democratic primary debate of 2023 and only the second overall between the folks who form the pool of potentials to challenge Hogan, taking on increased significance and stakes than if Hogan had not entered the race, but before we get into the debate, we need to look at how we got here.

The Maryland Democratic Party’s Plan Has Failed

First, let’s talk about Maryland’s Democratic leaders’ approach to this.  It was clear early on in this race that they had planned beforehand to consolidate behind Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks depending on certain circumstances, and those circumstances were met and met some time ago: there is no doubt she has the most impressive list of endorsements of any candidate in this race by far when it comes to Maryland politicians.  And I want to be clear: it’s great that Country Executive Alsobrooks has deep relationships with fellow officials and lawmakers throughout the state, speaking to her star power and deep roots established over decades of hard work and results in the state.  Part of this may have been motivated by all the buzz around No Labels and Larry Hogan making a Senate run from him seem distant until recently—perhaps the idea being that without a serious Republican challenger, picking an up-and-comer who only had county-level experience as an office-holder would not matter much in the end—but it is hard to know what exactly was going on in this behind-the-scenes process.

U.S. Representative David Trone’s entry into the race, obviously, was not a welcome development for their plan.  Whatever that plan was, it was not to put together a significant series of prominent public events put together by the statewide Democratic Party to put Alsobrooks, Trone, or any other competitors on the stage to face scrutiny from the public and from each other in actual debates: the chance to do that came and went long ago.

Here we are now, then, with little over nine weeks to go until the primary and both candidates having little name recognition statewide and facing little scrutiny or even media coverage thus far with a far more competitive general election on the horizon after the entry of Larry Hogan, known by virtually everyone in the state.  Rather than be tested in a rigorous primary process, the two main candidates have been kept from what in many cases in many states would have been a more robust, open, and public contest.  And now time is running out: the May 14 primary is fast-approaching and early voting begins May 2, less than two months away.

And this second debate event was only held at that two-month-away mark, just a few days ago.  Neither of those two events were run by or vigorously promoted the state Party, neither were properly broadcast live (there was a Zoom video broadcast that was later posted for the latest debate, but the audio/video quality, pathetically, was horrific: my middle school plays had better audio/video quality by far than the video of the last debate that is the only video posted thus far; still, you can make out most of what I say quite clearly with if you’re willing to trudge through).

In fact, all of 2023 went by with only one minor debate in Prince George’s County and that came only early in December, one that was deliberately closed and not even trying to open a broader discussion: the event, organized by Latino Democrats of Prince George’s County (LDPGC), limited participation to just three candidates: Alsobrooks, Trone, and Juan Dominguez, the sole Latino running in the race, with a $200,000 fundraising threshold requirement for participation that was suspiciously close to the total that Dominguez had declared raised by that point.  To be clear, I am not implying any sort of nefarious collusion between Dominguez’s campaign and LDPGC, and I have connected with Juan repeatedly, who has always been friendly, respectful, candid, and professional towards me.  I did try to engage with LDPCG repeatedly and the interactions were repeatedly rude, dismissive, and perfunctory, it being all too clear they wanted nothing to do with me.  While I hope to improve my relationship with the organization in the future, it was crystal clear to me they did not want an open forum of any kind, just the two major candidates and the one Latino candidate, with a fundraising threshold conveniently designed to keep everyone else out and just the right threshold to allow Juan to participate.  Such a constricting, limited, undemocratic approach based solely on a financial metric seemed wholly inappropriate for the very first debate of the primary season, especially in the Democratic Party.  I made my displeasure publicly known at the time and even successfully crashed the event, garnering about as much TV coverage as the three candidates on stage.  In any event, the respectable Juan, whose voice would still have been a thoughtful one in this race had he stayed in, has since dropped out of the Senate race and is instead running for Congress in Maryland.

My best guess was that the Maryland Democratic establishment (to the degree you can call it that: I am no conspiracy-theory-minded Bernie Sanders voter) that had decided on Alsobrooks (not saying Alsobrooks or her campaign were part of this) decided once after Trone entered the race that their endorsements would still be enough and that the best thing would be to shield her from a vigorous competition with Trone that might do damage unnecessarily and/or even give an advantage to him, their non-preferred candidate, but that, hey, either way, the Democratic nominee was expected to easily win against whatever Republican would be nominated.

But now that Larry Hogan has entered the race, neither Alsobrooks nor Trone have been tested nor challenged much in any kind of tough debate format thus far during this election cycle, and there won’t be any more debates after May 14 until, presumably, one of them would debate Larry Hogan.  The only way for the candidates to be forged into sterner stuff, to have them really get experience on the field of battle in this particular campaign before debating Hogan, are the remaining primary debates. Without another candidate making substantive challenges to the two frontrunners (and I make the case below why that should be me), we should not expect a dramatically better debate performance from either Trone or Alsobrooks in any of the other remaining primary debates than their performance from this weekend, nor first debate, whoever get the nomination, against Hogan.  And that should worry us all.

About the Debate…

Soon into the debate, it was clear that two of the five second-tier candidates were utterly unprepared and have no business running; they literally declined to answer multiple questions on the grounds that they just straight-up admitted they know little to nothing on the issues in question.  Two others out of the five made points almost exclusively related to one to two of their pet issues and generally failed to connect their candidacy or experience to the broader set of issues.  One of these two spoke very slowly and said little, the other more articulate and more seriously, but neither will have any impact on the race.

The two frontrunners Trone and Alsobrooks did just fine, neither really outperforming the other or damaging or gaining at each other’s expense in a significant way.  While overall their answers were generally competent and articulate—each definitely having some good moments and good points—both had some pretty bad moments, too.

At one point, Alsobrooks was unwilling to answer a basic question as to what is something she should have done differently in her career as a public servant: she entirely dodged the question and just talked about how “listening” is important, coming off as insecure and inauthentic in being unwilling to just give an honest answer about a simple lesson learned.  Even before that, Alsobrooks was asked a simple question about her evolving position on the death penalty.  She took up the full allotted time to answer to give a word salad that gave no clear indication of what her current position on the death penalty was.  Trone, understandably, responded by essentially saying: “You didn’t answer the question at all, what the heck is your actual position?”  Alsobrooks then responded by… attacking Trone for being rich (yes, really).  Not just rich, but really rich.  And for spending a lot of that rich money of his on this race, in which he is polling comfortably ahead of her (though there is so little independent/non-partisan polling that it’s still actually possible the race is wide open).  Her attacks on him had nothing to do with the issue being discussed or the question asked and just came off as her trying desperately to hit him in a rehearsed way on his wealth and to portray him as an out of touch rich guy, a line of attack that seems to be 90% of her attacks against him in general, a large portion of her campaign e-mails and communications, and certainly most of her attacks against him during the debate, with at one point Alsobrooks calling Trone a one-man super PAC.  Such a charge is not really accurate or fair since his situation is that he is a person who is largely funding who own campaign, which is most definitely not a super PAC.

I recently addressed Alsobrooks’s gratuitous classist attacks against Trone, as well as Trone’s silly attacks against her as a “career politician,” though I think when I made it clear over the weekend in my debate introduction that attacking someone for being a career politician would be like attacking Ben Cardin—the man whose seat they are trying to replace and who had forty years of government experience before running for the U.S. Senate—I might have preemptively discouraged Trone from using that line of attack against her; still, he might have felt comfortably enough ahead not just with the one mainstream poll but with his consistent campaign polling that (even some are polls his campaign organized, still shows him up along with an independent poll as up by a lot) that he might have decided to not use that line of attack against her on his own regardless of what I said, but if he had tried that line of attack, my introduction would certainly have deflated such an attack.  He was definitely less aggressive in attacking her than she was and than he was at the December LDPGC debate.

As for Trone, at one point he fumbled what should have been a great opportunity from moderator Jennifer Rubin, who asked how he would win over independents and Republicans.  He started talking about how to beat Larry Hogan, not really answering the question, so Rubin cut him off and pressed him.  He then basically said he didn’t need Republicans.  Not only was this cringeworthy, it avoided playing on an obvious strength of Trone because he represents a rural district with a lot of Trump voters.  This was a totally unforced gaffe, one he realized because he later gave the answer he should have: that if anyone could win over independents and Trump voters between him and Alsobrooks, it would be him given the nature of his district, his bipartisan record, and his background as a businessman.  Instead, it is is disturbing that he could have whiffed so easily on what should have easily been a home run for him.  And like Alsobrooks, he did not look that good when they mixed it up.  Finally, he, too, often came off as giving lists that voters might not have understood, but was generally strong in touting his record and accomplishments, especially when talking about his objectively strong bipartisan record in the House (conversely, every single member of the county council—the legislative branch at the county level in Prince George’s County—with which Alsobrooks has to deal is a Democrat, a point Trone could have made to contrast his political experience favorably against Alsobrooks’s but failed to).

And while each often gave good answers, they didn’t seem stellar.  As noted, sometimes they listed accomplishments in such a shallow perfunctory way without really explaining them, though I would give Trone a slight edge because talking about his work in Congress was more transferrable to being a prospective U.S. senator than some of the accomplishments Alsobrooks touted.  To be fair to her, that is an issue not so much with her specifically as with the nature of county-level executive politics compared to legislating at the Congressional when it comes to running for Senate—which is part of Congress—and it’s one of the most serious issues I have and that many others have and will have with Alsobrooks’ candidacy: that as a county executive, even if she was the best county executive in the nation, that type of government experience is just of such a different nature and of such a different level and type of work done compared to legislating and working within the Senate that is will be seen as many as not the right kind of experience for the job.  Conversely, a member of the House like Trone has a type of experience that is much more relevant to and like the work of the Senate.  In other words, this point—and it is a big one that Alsobrooks has not been pressed to address on the campaign trail, by Trone or by a media highlighting, understandably, the historic nature of her candidacy making her possibly the first African-American U.S. Senator in Maryland history and only the third African-American woman elected and the fourth overall in U.S. Senate history—is her political Achilles’s heel and she cannot afford not to address in a deeply thought-out, deeply competent way.  While the historic nature of her candidacy is most certainly to be celebrated, that does nothing to address the concerns raised by what we can call the “county question,’ which would be just as valid were we talking about a County Executive named David Trone whose candidacy would not the historic nature that Alsobrooks’s candidacy clearly does.  Yet some of her supporters in the audience when I raised this point on stage and with whom I spoke after were in denial about this and dangerously seemed to think this was a non-issue.  It may be for her enthusiastic supporters—and many of them are enthusiastic—but it is almost certainly going to be one of the top concerns about her candidacy not just in the primary but certainly even more so if she were to face off directly against Hogan, a contrast that would be her biggest weakness apart from her relatively lack of name recognition compared to Hogan, who left office with as high as a 77% approval rating little over a year ago as a Republican in a deeply blue Democratic state.

I already mentioned that there was a real failing in terms or producing a quality audio/video recording in the past debate, but I want to be clear that this and other failings were not the failings of the main organizers and sponsors—the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County, Montgomery County Young Democrats, and Greater Silver Spring Democratic Club—which undertook a Herculean effort to organize this event with their partners, stepping into the galactic-sized black hole left by the state Party and other major Maryland Democratic organizations in failing to produce the only real open debate so far (again, that earlier one was prohibitively exclusionary).

I will also say that most of the local news media absolutely failed on this event: some of the top local weekend stories in the area had to do with someone killed in a crash, a bus driver finding a missing person, a neglected dog found in a park, a fire at a restaurant, and the University of Maryland suspending its fraternity/sorority events…  Nothing from the local television stations on this event at all.  This isn’t responsible local journalism.  I also contacted and engaged in a conversation with C-SPAN with the blessing of the main organizer to get live TV coverage, but it was too difficult on short notice to arrange coverage at the time.

Yours Truly, the Clear Third Place in the Debate (No, Really!)

Three newspapers, including two major ones, did actually cover the event, and I received substantive coverage in two out of the three, including both big ones.  Rubin’s own Washington Post actually quoted me:

But even lesser-known candidates framed themselves as an alternative to sending Hogan, who left two terms in office with high job approval ratings, to help tip the razor-thin balance of power in the chamber toward Republicans.

“We need a Democrat, not Larry Hogan,” said candidate Brian Frydenborg, a journalist who has never held public office.

The biggest Maryland-based paper, The Baltimore Sun, also quoted me:

The other five Democratic candidates have struggled to compete with Trone and Alsobrooks for money and attention in the race.

“Let’s make this a three-person race. We can do better,” said one of them, Brian E. Frydenborg of Montgomery County, a writer, researcher and consultant.

Apart from me, no other candidate besides Rep. David Trone and County Executive Alsobrooks were quoted in these three papers.

A local outlet that did actually cover the debate, MoCo360, quoted me, too, again making me the only candidate quoted apart from the two front-runners:

In his closing statement, Frydenborg bemoaned the frequent verbal warfare between Alsobrooks and Trone, amid the dearth of substantive policy differences between the two. “I think David and Angela have excellent backgrounds in many ways, [but] I’m very disappointed about the way they talk to each other and the sniping,” he said. “It’s not about the issues. I don’t know what they were attacking each other over—I can’t understand it half the time.”

A new local outlet, The Baltimore Banner, decided to poke fun at me for partaking of honey in between questions; reporter Pamela Wood could have followed up on such Pulitzer-worthy reporting with an inquiry and that would have revealed I was recovering from severe bronchitis and that the honey was part of my doctor-recommended efforts to keep my voice functional, but apparently honey is more on the minds of Maryland voters than the substantive answers I gave to serious questions, despite the applause some of those responses generated from the audience even though I literally had only one person I actually knew attending and most of the audience was composed of supporters of Trone and Alsobrooks, with even one of the second-tier candidates having a respectable support group in the audience.  I had at least as much applause as that other second tier candidate with a small following present, and I think actually more.  All this in spite of Honeygate!

Considering that I was the only second-tier candidate who was substantively quoted by The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and MoCo360, and considering I had at least as much or more applause than any candidate other than Trone or Alsobrooks, I think it is absolutely and objectively fair to declare myself a third-place finisher in this debate, far ahead of the rest of tier-two even as I am, admittedly, far behind the two frontrunners.  Yes, it would be delusional on my part to even suggest I am somehow nipping at the heels of Trone or Alsobrooks and I will not.  Still, anecdotally, almost everyone I spoke with from the audience told me I was in their top three.  But anecdotes aside, by using the type of media coverage and applause I received as relatively more objective measures and, as few metrics beyond that are available, there are none other to award a third place, even if it is distant one.  So I fairly award myself what I admit, again, is a distant third place in my capacity as a political analyst, a role in which I have a pretty good track record for years now.

Conclusion: Reasons to Seriously Worry, Reasons to Seriously Support Me (or at Least Keep Me in the Debates!)

Both Rep. Trone and Country Executive Alsobrooks are impressive, accomplished individuals; both have accomplished more in their lives than I gave (though I will point out I am 11 years younger than Alsobrooks and 25 years younger than Trone).  But I still believe my specific type of experience makes me a better candidate specifically for the U.S. Senate: over two decades of engaging academically and professionally with national-level and international-level issues on-the-ground from Washington to Jerusalem compared with far less—less than a quarter of that just—for Rep. Trone and none for County Executive Alsobrooks.  If we were going to be voting for the best business leader or best county-level leader, I would recommend voting for Trone or Alsobrooks, respectively, over myself.  But we are not.  We are voting for an office that I am many would agree that would be better filled by someone with more experience on the relevant issues and how the work at the Senate and international level, and that person—the only person fitting that description—in this race is me.  And frankly, I think Congress would be a lot better off with far more policy wonks, academics, and serious researchers in office than there are now: it is their work that often enables people like Rep. Tron and County Executive Alsobrooks to craft and execute the best policies in Congress and county government, respectively.

While Trone was spending most of his life running an alcohol retail business, I was engaging on issues ranging from gun violence to racism, from genocide in central Africa to the Israeli occupation of Palestinians, from terrorism to humanitarianism and all while Alsobrooks was involved in the important issues at the county level in Prince George’s County, but not on these issues as they play out at the U.S. Senate-level and international-level.  Trone’s accomplishments as a businessman are impressive as is his work in the House, as are Alsobrooks’s achievements in Prince George’s County.  But I have by far the most experience with the relevant issues at the level a senator will be engaging with them and it is not even close.

In a race where none of us can compete with the relevant resume Ben Cardin brought to the table when he ran in 2006, my diverse set of experience spread out over more than two decades can be said to be more relevant to being qualified to be a U.S. senator than many more years as a businessman (and just a few in Congress) or many years as a county-level politician.  At the very least, voters deserve to have the chance to hear from and engage with a journalist and academic such broad and deep expertise on the national-level and international-level issues at stake in this race in addition to hearing from a businessman recently-turned Congressman and a top county-level leader.  Let’s broaden the conversation, allow voters to make a more informed decision, challenge the frontrunners to be better candidates if one of them is to face Larry Hogan, and open up the Democratic Primary to be a three-person race before complacency, false assumptions, a reluctance to have the frontrunners go through a rigorous primary that would make them better candidates, and questionable levels of the type of relevant experience might hand a crucial Senate seat to Larry Hogan and the Republican Party at a time when America is in the fight of its life against internal Trumpist insurrectionist fascism aided and abetted for nearly a decade by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his fascist allies.

Does this all mean that we should panic?  No.  But does it mean that we should be worried about the final outcome of this race in November?  Yes.  Would allowing a third candidate like myself—a candidate of substance and seriousness who wants to focus on issue and experience, who has respect for the Democratic Party and the two frontrunners, can operate on the spectrum of presenting a viable alternative on one end to, on the other end, training the frontrunners to be better candidates by forcing them to: address their weaknesses, answer hard questions, and defend serious challenges to their ideas and qualifications—be better for everyone involved—Democrats, the two frontrunners, Marylanders, and all Americans—no matter who wins the primary?  Yes.

Whether for a better primary or a better candidate, vote for and support me for U.S. Senator for the great state of Maryland or increase the risk of a Hogan—and Republican—victory in November.

See related March 2 article Petty Feuding Between Trone and Alsobrooks Does Not Honor Ben Cardin’s Legacy. Vote for Me Instead! And see all of Brian’s Maryland U.S. Senate race coverage here as well as Brian’s official campaign website.

© 2024 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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