Five years ago, Democrat David Trone appeared to have put his days as a GOP donor behind him. The liquor store tycoon had just won a U.S. House seat representing Maryland’s 6th District, despite some critics questioning his progressive bona fides. Over the previous two decades, Trone had contributed more than $150,000 to Republicans nationwide. It was the cost of doing business, he said. Since then, his personal donations have been almost exclusively to Democrats and left-leaning advocacy groups.
Now, Trone is running for a rare open Senate seat in Maryland, one of America’s most liberal states. He’s campaigning as a progressive who will work to safeguard abortion access. “Abortion rights are under attack in many states across our nation,” he recently tweeted, referring to the more than 20 that have enacted bans or restrictions since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. “We need federal protections. As Senator, I'll fight to do just that.”
But in the years since Trone joined Congress, his company has sent tens of thousands of dollars to anti-abortion Republicans across the country.
In the last two election cycles, Trone’s firm, Retail Services and Systems, donated to GOP officeholders who moved to criminalize abortion in states where access to the procedure was at risk, according to a TIME review of campaign finance records. That includes at least $80,200 the corporation contributed to a dozen Republicans in Georgia who passed a 2019 trigger bill that banned abortions after six weeks, as well as Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed it into law. The measure went into effect shortly after the 2022 Dobbs ruling that ended a constitutional right to abortion.
Retail Services and Systems, the parent company that owns Total Wine & More, also donated a total of $12,000 in October and November 2022 to two groups working to elect Republicans to the Wisconsin state legislature, where GOP lawmakers were blocking efforts to repeal an 1849 law that barred virtually all abortions.
Those outlays are indicative of Trone’s and his company’s history of making campaign contributions to candidates throughout the nation, Republican and Democratic alike, to advance legislation or regulatory changes favorable to Total Wine, the nation’s largest privately owned retailer of beer, wine, and liquor, with 254 stores in 28 states.
The previously unreported donations stand to galvanize abortion rights champions in Maryland and beyond. “To me, the test of being a Democrat worthy of support is not what somebody says in a carefully-crafted statement, or how they vote, but it's what they do with their money and their time,” Stephanie Schmid, an abortion rights advocate, tells TIME. “I think that these donations clearly evidence a willingness to sacrifice women and families and parents in Maryland and across this country for his bottom line.”
Trone’s campaign says those contributions came from his business, not Trone himself.
“David Trone stepped down as CEO of Total Wine in 2015 and was not involved with these contributions,” Jared DeWese, a campaign spokesperson, tells TIME. Moreover, he adds, those expenditures pale in comparison to what Trone personally donated to Democrats during that same timeframe. “David’s record of supporting Democrats and the abortion rights movement is unimpeachable. David has donated $8.5 million to the Democratic Party and pro-choice Democratic candidates, and he has been a staunch advocate to protect the fundamental right to have an abortion.” Trone, for instance, has a 100% pro-choice voting record in Congress, according to both Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, and has bankrolled an abortion clinic in rural Maryland.
But the revelations could complicate Trone’s quest to win Maryland’s Democratic nominating contest, according to John Willis, a University of Baltimore politics professor and former Maryland Secretary of State. “Those kinds of things make you question whether you trust this guy,” he says. “Does he let his business interests outweigh his professed political values?”
Since entering Congress in 2019, Trone, 67, has maintained co-ownership of Retail Services and Systems and Total Wine with his brother Robert, with whom he founded the companies in the 1980s. When he stepped down as Total Wine’s CEO in 2015 and president in 2016, he said he would no longer manage day-to-day operations. But Trone has remained involved in the firm. Last year, he and his brother spent $1 million each in Colorado pushing for a ballot initiative to loosen the state’s liquor laws. In December 2021, an Arizona police report revealed that he was visiting a Tempe store location and engaging with delivery workers. And his picture remains plastered on the company website, which says that he and his brother “lead an expert team focused on excellent selections at the lowest prices possible.”
Ever since Trone got involved in Democratic politics, however, he has stopped writing personal checks to GOP candidates and officials, the TIME review found. During his first House bid in 2016 in a heavily blue district, he drew attention for the $150,000 he had previously given to Republican officeholders, including Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and then-Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina. “I sign my checks to buy access,” he told The Washington Post. “We disagree categorically with their political positions on everything social and economic.”
Trone lost the primary to Jamie Raskin, but two years later ran for an adjacent House seat and won. In the intervening years, his company has continued to donate to Republicans in states where Total Wine has an interest, either via the corporation or its subsidiaries.
In Georgia, Total Wine has been lobbying to revoke some of the state’s stringent alcohol laws, including limits on the number of locations where a retail chain can sell liquor, according to Karen Bremer, who heads the Georgia Restaurant Association. In 2006, Trone’s firm established Georgia Fine Wine, a limited liability company, which was the entity that made most of the company’s recent political contributions in the state. It donated roughly five times more to Republicans than Democrats in the last election cycle, the TIME review found. The GOP recipients of the company’s largess not only helped to pass the six-week abortion ban but enacted Georgia’s restrictive 2021 voting law that is anathema to the Democratic base.
Total Wine did not respond to questions about specific donations, but said in a statement that “the company has been run by the CEO and a team of seasoned, professional retail leaders” since Trone gave up his role as president.
Those outlays stand in contrast to Trone’s recent pattern of personal giving, which has included millions in donations to liberal nonprofits and Democrats, including $15 million to the American Civil Liberties Union and more than $8 million to Democratic candidates at every level of government. He also funded an abortion clinic in a remote part of his district where women struggled to find reproductive care. "For generations, Western Maryland has been an abortion desert, and when we needed an advocate, David Trone stepped up to provide critical support for the Women’s Health Center of Maryland, which will expand and protect abortion access in our state while nearby states are banning abortion and shuttering clinics,” Lori Richards, a member of Mountain Maryland Alliance for Reproductive Freedom, tells TIME.
Trone is currently locked in a competitive Democratic primary to replace outgoing Sen. Ben Cardin. After two months of soul-searching, Raskin decided last month not to seek the seat, making Trone’s main opponents Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando.
Alsobrooks has stood out as his most formidable rival, drawing high-profile endorsements and mounting an impressive first-quarter fundraising haul. But she won’t be able to spend anywhere near as much as Trone. The super-rich wine magnate has already spent millions on television advertising and has told associates he’s prepared to dish out as much as $50 million for his bid, according to sources familiar with the matter.
That said, Alsobrooks seems poised to attract national interest as a single mom and Black woman running when there are no Black women in the Senate. Nor are there any women currently in Maryland’s Congressional delegation. Maryland political analysts suspect her story will resonate with the state’s Democratic voters, especially the nearly 60% who are women, according to state voter data.
Abortion-rights advocates say that Trone’s company funding anti-abortion Republicans will be a factor for those women, especially since a substantial portion of those donations were made around the same time he was castigating those same officials for undermining access to the procedure. “For years, radical state legislatures have waged an all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights,” he said in September 2021, after voting with House Democrats to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.
“Abortion rights weren't overturned in a day,” Stephanie Schriock, former president of the abortion rights group Emily’s List, tells TIME. “It's been a decades-long strategy that we have all known was coming. And yet he and his company have been and continue to be supportive of Republicans who are very much part of this strategy, and making it worse, ensuring that abortion is knocked out at the state level.”
Trone has run for Senate as an unabashed self-funder who is beholden to no one. “When someone takes money from PACs, someone takes money from lobbyists, and corporations, those folks aren't just writing those checks out of the goodness of their heart,” he told a Baltimore-area radio show last week. “I just spend my own money, because I give a damn about trying to change the system."
It’s a posture that’s led some detractors to say Trone is a participant in the system he claims to protest. “I find it so hypocritical for him to spend all this time bragging that he doesn’t take money from special interests when he’s a special interest who gives money to anti-choice candidates,” says Susan Turnbull, a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party who has endorsed Alsobrooks. “He can claim it is his company, and not him, all he wants, but let’s be real—that company is the ongoing source of his wealth and funds his campaign for Senate. That’s why you question his beliefs, because what comes first: his business or what he claims to stand up for?”
Trone, for his part, says he would be a reliable vote for abortion rights in the Senate, pointing to his record in the House, and has made the issue a featured part of his platform.
On July 27, his campaign blasted an automated text message out to Maryland Democrats. “24 states have already banned abortion care or are planning to,” it reads. “David Trone is going to fight tooth and nail to make sure fundamental freedoms like reproductive rights are protected federally.” The message then included a link to an online form to sign up for his email distribution list. “Will you add your name in support of abortion rights by midnight tonight?”
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