Elfreth foes cry foul as AIPAC money seeps into 3rd District congressional race

Democratic congressional contenders (left to right) Harry Dunn, John Morse and Juan Dominguez outside the State House on Wednesday. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Harry Dunn, the former U.S. Capitol Police officer now running for Congress in the 3rd District, stood just outside the Maryland State House in the driving rain Wednesday to indirectly attack the woman who appears to be his strongest Democratic primary opponent — and who works inside the capitol as a state lawmaker.

Joined by two other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the 22-way primary, Dunn did not criticize state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) by name. But he did decry the recent injection of at least $600,000 in pro-Elfreth spending by the United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with the pro-Israel powerhouse lobbying organization, AIPAC.

Dunn, who gained prominence for his heroism at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, last week vowed to swear off special interest money in the race to replace departing U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-3rd) — though thanks to his high profile he has had no problem raising money so far, according to his campaign strategists. During his short news conference with fellow Democratic candidates Juan Dominguez and John Morse, Dunn called the United Democracy Project a beneficiary of “MAGA money,” and said the group’s decision to run an independent expenditure campaign on Elfreth’s behalf is “an insult to Congressman Sarbanes,” a leading congressional crusader against the influence of money in politics.

Despite its affiliation with AIPAC, the United Democracy Project’s 30-second pro-Elfreth ad, which began running on Baltimore TV stations this week, does not mention Israel or foreign policy. Instead, it touts her productivity in the legislature, and focuses on abortion rights, child care, democracy and the environment.

“In Annapolis, Sarah Elfreth gets things done,” a female narrator says at the opening of the ad. “In just five years, she’s passed 80 bills.”

Political campaigns and super PACs are not allowed to communicate or coordinate activities. Elfreth, in an interview Wednesday, said she was unaware that United Democracy Project was coming into the race on her behalf.

“I literally read about it when everybody else read about it,” she said.

The United Democracy Project TV ad does use images and information that appear on Elfreth’s campaign website. Elfreth, who was recently endorsed by the National Education Association and has won the backing of the Maryland State Education Association in her state campaigns, said she was anticipating a possible independent expenditure campaign on her behalf by the teachers’ union and was surprised by the United Democracy Project ad.

The super PAC did not respond to an email this week seeking comment on its decision to get involved in the 3rd District congressional race. A spokesperson for United Democracy Project told the publication Jewish Insider this week that the super PAC views Elfreth as the superior candidate in the primary.

“While we appreciate Harry Dunn’s support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, Sarah Elfreth’s leadership on abortion rights, climate change, and domestic violence makes her a stronger candidate for the voters of Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties,” the spokesperson, Patrick Dorton, said. “There [are] some serious anti-Israel candidates in this race, who are not Harry Dunn, and we need to make sure that they don’t make it to Congress.”

AIPAC has not formally endorsed a candidate in the race, Jewish Insider reported.

An article in Huffington Post published Wednesday suggested the pro-Elfreth ads may be part of a campaign by AIPAC to defeat Morse, a labor lawyer who was recently endorsed by Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and has been highly critical of the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

United Democracy Project just became active in the 2022 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, a website that tracks money in politics. The super PAC spent almost $33 million in the last election cycle and has already raised more than $47 million so far this election cycle.

A scene from a super PAC ad supporting state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) in the 3rd District congressional race. The ad takes images from Elfreth’s campaign website. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The PAC has gained notoriety by playing in Democratic primaries that feature incumbents or high-profile candidates who AIPAC leaders perceive to be insufficiently supportive of Israel. In this cycle, for example, it is supporting Democratic primary challengers to certain progressive Black incumbents, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.).

The PAC supported now-Rep. Glenn Ivey (D) over former Rep. Donna Edwards (D) in the 2022 primary in Maryland’s 4th congressional district. According to Open Secrets, United Democracy Project spent more than $4.2 million running ads in opposition to Edwards and more than $1.7 million for ads supporting Ivey.

The PAC gets a significant amount of funding from Republican mega-donors whose campaign cash has also gone to former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), among other election deniers.

‘Dark money is anonymous’

Standing outside the State House Wednesday, Dunn, Morse and Dominguez called on the other Democrats running in the 3rd District primary to reject money being spent on their behalf by outside organizations like the United Democracy Project.

“Dark money is anonymous,” said Morse. “It’s unaccountable. We don’t know who’s promised what to receive this kind of support.”

Dominguez, an Anne Arundel County businessman, said the outside money flowing in to the district to support Elfreth “is the symptom of a larger problem in our political system.”

Four other state lawmakers besides Elfreth are seeking the 3rd District seat. “The legislators in the race are not out here today,” Dominguez pointed out.

Dunn said he invited several of the Democratic candidates to join Wednesday’s news conference. Some were unable to attend and others did not respond, he said.

In addition to organizing the news conference in Annapolis, Dunn’s campaign this week is also maintaining that the super PAC ads in support of Elfreth contain an improper oral disclaimer. While the full name of the PAC is shown on the screen, the narrator refers to the entity as “UDP” — even though federal election law requires the full name of the sponsoring group to be articulated.

“Given that United Democracy Project’s advertisement does not comply with the FEC’s oral disclaimer requirements, we demand that your system cease airing the advertisement until such time that United Democracy Project can correct the erroneous disclaimer, and that you do not accept any advertisements with the same oral disclaimer,” Dunn’s campaign counsel, Neil Reiff, writes to the Baltimore TV stations that are airing the ad.

Meanwhile, one candidate who was not present outside the State House Wednesday, state Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard and Anne Arundel), issued a fundraising appeal later in the day referencing the pro-Elfreth TV ads.

“An outside group that has supported Republicans, insurrectionists, and MAGA Trump supporters is getting involved in ourDemocratic primary — and I won’t stand for it,” he wrote in an email. “Like you, I’m fed up with the influence dark money has over our politics — it’s one of the reasons I’m running for office. Members of Congress should represent their constituents, not the special interests that bought their seat.”

Another candidate, Del. Terri L. Hill (D-Howard) put out a statement Wednesday criticizing the ad buy.

“At a time where our reproductive, civil and human rights are hanging in balance, protecting our democracy means electing leaders who, based on our shared values, will use their lived experiences, training, skills and education to restore our rights and secure our future,” she said. “This is not the time for those who have only the loudest voice or deepest pockets.”

Elfreth said she’s every bit as supportive of the political reforms that Dunn and other candidates have embraced — and that Sarbanes has championed during his congressional career.

“I’m uncomfortable with dark money as well,” she said. “This our campaign finance system as it stands today. I don’t like it. But I’m not in a position to say no to people who want to amplify my message.”

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