Politics

Can Aruna Miller Upset the Largest Self-Funder in House Race History?

Maryland hopeful has many of the credentials that have boosted Democratic women this year

Maryland state Del. Aruna Miller greets voters at an early polling place in Gaithersburg, Md, on June 18. She stands behind the electioneering line which prevents a candidate from being too close to a voting site. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — If there’s one electoral trend from 2018 so far, it’s that Democratic women are winning primaries in House districts across the country.

But in Maryland, which has no women in its congressional delegation for the first time in more than 40 years, the most competitive woman running for the Democratic nomination in the open 6th District is at a big disadvantage.

State Del. Aruna Miller checks many of the boxes for the sorts of candidates Democrats are nominating this year: She’s an immigrant, has a science background, and she’s outraised her primary opponents in the race.

But she’s running against a self-funder, who has spent more of his own money on a House race than any other candidate in history — besides himself, when he ran unsuccessfully for another open Maryland seat in 2016. David Trone, the co-owner of Total Wine & More, spent more than $13  million running in the 8th District last cycle, when he finished second in the primary. He’s on track to spend more than $11 million of his own money on this year’s 6th District primary.

Miller is Maryland’s best shot to send a woman to Congress. Republicans are also likely to nominate a woman for this seat. Defense consultant Amie Hoeber lost by 16 points to Democratic incumbent John Delaney (who’s leaving Congress to run for president) in 2016, and she’s running again this year. Although Delaney had a close election in 2014, winning by less than 2 points, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates this year’s race Solid Democratic.

From the Archives: ‘There’s a Big Step Between Marching and Running’ — Former Congresswomen On Getting Women to Run

Her new comfort zone

At 7 p.m. on Monday, it was 92 degrees outside the Gaithersburg Department of Parks and Recreation and Culture, an early voting location in Montgomery County.

Turnout was a slow trickle.

At least 10 campaign volunteers from various local races swarmed each languid soul who braved the night’s humidity to vote ahead of the June 26 primary. 

Miller, a transportation engineer, stood with her toes just outside the blue tape on the sidewalk designed to keep electioneering away from the polling place.

She sold herself as the only candidate with experience — she’s served in the General Assembly since 2011 — and who lives in the district. She also told people she’s an engineer and that Maryland has “no women whatsoever” in Congress.

“It’s an opportunity to bring greater diversity to the table,” she told one voter. 

UNITED STATES - JUNE 18: Aruna Miller, who is running for the Democratic nomination in Maryland's 6th Congressional District, talks with citizens during early voting at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park in Gaithersburg, Md., on June 18, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Miller’s main rival in the Democratic primary is wine magnate David Trone, a self-funder who has poured more than $11 million of his own money into his campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Look, I don’t have the big money that my opponent does, so we’re doing it the grass-roots way,” Miller said, having moved into the shade for a brief interview.

She admitted that it’s daunting to run against someone with so much money, but she’s gotten comfortable being out of her comfort zone. 

“I’ve spent my entire life trying to fit into a space that didn’t have me in mind,” Miller said. 

“Coming here as an immigrant child, I didn’t know English. Growing up in the Midwest — hardly any minorities there — and then being in the field of engineering that’s male-dominated, and then to be a woman of color in a male-dominated legislature,” she said.

Miller immigrated to the United States from India when she was 7. Her parents never became U.S. citizens, and politics wasn’t discussed at their dinner table growing up. She didn’t decide to become a citizen until after her father passed away, just in time to vote in the 2000 presidential election.

Al Gore’s loss was her political awakening. But Miller didn’t run for office right away. 

“I didn’t even want to run. For the reason that’s obvious: I looked around and said, ‘There’s nobody that looks like me that’s elected. No one’s going to like me,’” she recalled. 

She won a seat in the state House of Delegates in 2010. Local activists and her husband were the ones who convinced her she could run for Congress when Delaney announced his presidential bid last year. 

“There’s a statistic out there: You have to ask a woman seven times before she actually decides to run for office. And I fell into that statistic perfectly,” she said.

Miller says she’s running this race on her record. She supports single-payer health care and she touts her work in the legislature on gun control, attacking Trone for making political donations to candidates with A ratings from the National Rifle Association. 

“I’m a qualified candidate, I just happen to be female,” she said.

Buying a seat?

Eight Democrats are running in the primary, and Miller isn’t the only woman. But it’s essentially a two-person race between her and Trone.

Trone’s campaign did not make him available for an interview this week but pointed to earlier media coverage in which he argued his self-funding makes him independent from special interests. 

Miller had raised $1.4 million as of the pre-primary reporting period. She has the backing of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and EMILY’s List, which has helped her campaign with fundraising and political guidance. But the pro-abortion rights group that has spent so heavily on women in primaries, including for former Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards’ losing Senate bid just last cycle, hasn’t made any independent expenditures for Miller in this expensive media market. 

The dearth of women at the House-level from the Old Line State is especially pronounced now that Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who was propelled to the Senate with help from EMILY’s List in 1986, has retired. 

“I know no one who I look at where I say there’s the next Barbara Mikulski more than I do when I look at Aruna Miller,” said state Del. Maggie McIntosh, a former Mikulski campaign manager and state director who has endorsed Miller.

But the disparity in spending has made it much harder for Miller to compete with Trone’s media saturation. 

“He was everywhere, so it was hard to miss — TV, online, Facebook, all the social media,” said Janet Ardman, a 61-year-old Montgomery Village resident who cast her vote for Trone on Monday night.

“I read a lot about him, but didn’t read a lot about the others,” she said when asked about her choice. 

The fact that he’s self-funded not one but two races didn’t bother Ardman. “It’s the way of the world,” she said with a shrug. 

Still, some Democratic strategists see Trone’s heavy spending backfiring.

“Aruna’s opening is that people know who Trone is and they’ve known for weeks,” longtime Democratic strategist Martha McKenna said.

“Here is an experienced state legislator, woman of color, and engineer who is running in a state that currently has no woman in her federal delegation. That’s the upset story that’s happened across the country in every Democratic congressional primary this cycle,” McKenna said.

“Is $12 million just a buzzsaw that’s going to be impossible to overcome? And if it is, what does that say?”

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