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Rich people are spending more than ever to run for Congress. There’s a big test coming in Maryland.

Wealthy office seekers poured more of their own money than ever into their efforts to run for Congress last year. Now the biggest of them all faces a major hurdle.

Democratic Rep. David Trone has donated more than $57 million of his own money to his Maryland Senate campaign ahead of next week’s primaries — a staggering amount that is already among the largest self-financing campaigns in US history. But he’s not alone: ​​Self-financing congressional candidates gave more to their campaigns in 2023, $131 million, than in any strange year dating back to at least 2003, according to an NBC News review of campaign finance data.

Led by nearly $37 million from Trone last year alone, it’s part of a recent explosion of spending by wealthy candidates that has fundamentally changed the way campaigns are won and lost — and may have made it harder than ever for the not -rich to make it. Washington, as candidates are not bound by donation limits and can donate unlimited amounts to their own campaigns.

The trend is impacting everything from primaries with open seats in deep red or blue districts across the country to the battle for the Senate. Trone continues to spend heavily — including on ads with prominent backers such as Attorney General Anthony Brown — as he looks to win the Democratic primary over the resignation of Senator Ben Cardin’s seat ahead of what is expected to be a costly battle in November against former Republican Governor Larry. Hogan. Angela Alsobrooks, a Prince George’s County executive who is running for the Democratic nomination, has also received support from some of Maryland’s most prominent Democrats — but was outspent by Trone by a 9-1 vote.

Maryland Senate Candidate Angela Alsobrooks (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file)

Maryland Senate Candidate Angela Alsobrooks (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file)

“I don’t believe this is the way democracy works. I believe we need to make reforms in these campaigns,” Alsobrooks said during an April debate sponsored by Baltimore Fox affiliate WBFF, criticizing Trone’s self-financing and saying its own fundraising was evidence of its “broad and growing coalition’. She added: “Money can’t buy you love, and it really can’t buy you in Maryland.”

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Trone has pushed back, saying that relying on his wealth means he is not dependent on big donors. During the debate, he mentioned corporate PACs that have given money to Alsobrooks in the past and questioned whether these companies have America’s best interests at heart.

“We need to get the money out of the politics that are really poisoning our system. I’m the only candidate on this stage who won’t accept money from Exxon. I don’t think they’re helping us in terms of the environment,” he said.

Onotse Omoyeni, a spokesman for Trone, echoed Trone’s comments in a statement to NBC News, saying the congressman “has refused money from the special interests that pay career politicians to stand in the way of progress.”

“In the Senate, he will not simply refuse that money: he has already implemented major reforms in our electoral system, including banning all dark money and special interest money in elections,” Omoyeni added.

Trone is leading a large self-financing package

Trone’s high-profile spending is part of a long-term pattern for the mega-rich co-owner of Total Wine & More. He loaned his own campaigns about $46 million between 2015 and 2022 before announcing his Senate bid. That includes $13 million in his first run for Congress, when he lost a primary for a deep blue open seat on the outskirts of Washington, DC. In 2018, he spent even more to win his current district.

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But Trone’s self-financing is just the biggest example of a broader trend in congressional races. Candidates gave $61 million to their 2023 House campaigns and $70 million to the Senate, with nearly half of that coming from Trone in his Senate bid.

Republican Matt Dolan of Ohio ($7 million) and Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida ($3.5 million) were the Senate’s second-largest self-funders in 2023, followed by Republican Bernie Moreno of Ohio ($3 million), who defeated Dolan in the Senate. primarily earlier this year.

Seven other Senate candidates whose campaigns are still active all gave themselves seven-figure checks last year: six Republicans (Robin Ficker of Maryland, Brad Wilson of Utah, Keith Gross of Florida, Tim Sheehy of Montana, Sandy Pensler of Michigan and Dave McCormick of Pennsylvania) and one Democrat, Stanley Campbell of Florida.

Seventeen candidates for the House of Representatives gave their campaigns at least $1 million last year; former Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., lent his campaign $2.4 million to finance his bid for a return to Congress, and Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Mich., gave his campaign more than $2 million.

There has been a fairly steady increase in congressional self-financing of campaigns in recent years, and there has been a quantum leap since the early 2000s.

Congressional candidates lent their campaigns about $14.6 million in 2003. The amount of off-year self-financing rose to nearly $22 million in 2005 and $36 million before exploding to over $62 million in 2009, after the election of President Barack Obama and during the 2003 election. beginning of the Republican tea party wave .

Own financing decreased in the following years. But the Donald Trump years revived self-financing after the famed businessman took over the White House. Wealthy candidates poured nearly $93 million into House and Senate campaigns in 2017 and $64 million in 2019, before a huge jump to nearly $126 million in 2021 — followed by $131 million in 2023.

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Likewise, the number of candidates willing to start their campaigns with early money has also risen: the eleven Senate candidates giving themselves at least $1 million in the year off is more than all other years except 2021, when thirteen candidates did that. and the seventeen candidates for the House of Representatives doing this is more than ever.

These early infusions of personal wealth do not necessarily determine who wins the campaigns. Only 11 of the 90 congressional candidates who have given at least $1 million to their campaigns in the offseason since 2003 have gone on to win House and Senate races.

That’s about 12%, a relatively low winning percentage overall — but a figure that seems much more impressive considering that there are thousands of congressional campaigns every year, and most of them lose. And that figure doesn’t take into account candidates who borrow seven-figure sums for their campaigns the same year as their election, as Trone did during his multiple bids for the House of Representatives.

Leaning on personal wealth early in the process can be a key driver for a campaign, giving it the opportunity to quickly ramp up things like staffing, messaging and advertising without having to wait to build a fundraising infrastructure.

That’s one reason why self-funding is particularly attractive to non-incumbent candidates: a recent OpenSecrets analysis found that 88% of self-funding in 2023 went to candidates in open seats or challengers, rather than to incumbents. That stock includes Trone, as he is running for an open Senate seat. But even without him involved, a significant majority of self-funding still comes from candidates in open seats or from challengers running against incumbents.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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