At 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Harry Dunn towers over most people.

So it’s fascinating to watch this retired U.S. Capitol Police officer talk to prospective voters at the opening of his congressional campaign headquarters in Ellicott City.

“Hello, how are you?” he says, leaning down to shake hands and smile. “So nice to see you.”

Dunn talks about where he might move if elected. He lives in Prince George’s County, outside the 3rd District, and recently retired. If he loses, he’ll be OK, he assures those who ask.

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He has a bestseller out, “Standing My Ground,” about the political awakening of a career law enforcement officer who defended the U.S. Capitol when President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021, attempting to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden.

To those milling under a blue-and-white balloon arch on March 12, this is why they showed up. Dunn, through congressional hearings and media appearances, is for them a symbol of what happened that day.

Harry Dunn, a candidate for Congress in the 3rd District, dons a silly hat and laughs with a supporter at the opening of his campaign headquarters in Ellicott City.
Harry Dunn, a candidate for Congress in the 3rd District, dons a silly hat and laughs with a supporter at the opening of his campaign headquarters in Ellicott City. (Rick Hutzell)

“It’s safe to say that we are one election away from the extinction of our democracy, as we know it.” he said. “Donald Trump himself said he wants to be a dictator on day one. We only have ourselves to blame if we let him do it.”

That, more than where he lives or how much he knows about Annapolis or Columbia or any place in between, is what matters to his early supporters.

“He knows how much our democracy is at risk,” said Sandie French, a former Howard County school board member.

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Dunn is one of 22 Democrats vying in the 3rd District primary on May 14. The winner could easily be headed to Congress to represent this heavily blue district, though nine Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination.

He surprised the field with his entry in December. He did it again this month by telling Maryland Matters that he had $3 million in his campaign account — twice what other candidates said was needed to win — and launched the race’s first television ad.

No one is surrendering, so far.

What they’re all looking for, even Dunn, is a breakthrough. It’s the moment when the ground shifts in a wide-open election like this, and a candidate suddenly has the momentum needed to secure the nomination. Maybe it’s driven by money and name recognition — maybe it’s not.

“I’ve always run grassroots campaigns, ones that rely on regular people to get the word out,” state Sen. Clarence Lam of Howard County told “Midday” host Tom Hall on WYPR on Monday. “When we see that there are folks who are able to bring in a lot of dollars, we double down and try to get our message out.”

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The 3rd is one of four Maryland open seats in Congress, a rare field of opportunity. The one poll released so far indicates that no one is leading the race to succeed outgoing U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes and represent voters across Howard County, half of Anne Arundel and a slice of Carroll.

Primary voters aren’t paying much attention yet, and even the three nominal front-runners — Dunn, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth and Del. Mike Rogers of Anne Arundel — are polling in single digits. Labor lawyer John Morse of Annapolis barely registered but hopes U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent endorsement will change that.

Another campaign finance deadline is coming up this week, and candidate forums loom in April. But with just five weeks until early voting starts, time is running out.

Elfreth has spent it knocking on 10,000 doors. It’s old-school politics, updated with an app that helps her identify which doors open to likely primary voters. The strategy has worked well in her home Annapolis district, and she’s deploying it weekends during the General Assembly session.

Once that ends in April, Elfreth expects to pick up the pace.

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“This is what the voters want,” she said on a Sunday swing through a Fulton neighborhood. “A face-to-face conversation with candidates.”

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, one of almost 20 Democratic candidates for Congress in the vacant 3rd District, talks with Hampton E. Brown III during a door-knocking swing through Ellicott City on March 24, 2024. She said she has knocked on 10,000 doors on weekends since announcing her campaign. She leaves campaign literature when no one is home. Once the General Assembly session ends in April, that pace will quicken.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth talks with Hampton E. Brown III during a door-knocking swing through Fulton. (Rick Hutzell)

She and a campaign aide worked both sides of the streets, walking fast. No one home? Leave a flyer. Skip the house with a campaign sign for one of her competitors and move on. Ring the next doorbell. Leave a flyer when no one answers and move on again.

Rainy days are bad for this — wet literature, soggy clothes. So are Ring home security cameras.

At one door, Elfreth gets a muffled reply though one that sounds like a question. Maybe, “Who’s there?”

“Hi, my name is Sarah Elfreth. I’m a candidate for Congress and I wanted to introduce myself,” she says into the camera.

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“Who are you?”

This door doesn’t open, but a few houses away, another one does.

“Sarah Elfreth!” Hampton E. Brown III says, stepping barefoot onto his doorstep.

Brown doesn’t know the senator, but he’s been getting her campaign emails. He quizzes her on transportation and wants to know how, if elected, she’ll work for Maryland.

“How are you going to set yourself apart?” he suddenly asks, a grin creeping across his face. “I would suggest that you come out and say we want to take the District of Columbia back into the state of Maryland.”

Elfreth doesn’t flinch over what would be political suicide for a Democrat. She listens as Brown explains how this would benefit D.C. residents and the Maryland economy. It could be done, he says, without their consent.

The senator works her way back into the conversation. “We might have to respectfully disagree on this.”

Elfreth meets few people like Brown, with their own ideas on how to win. Far more are like Steven Cohen, who lives across the street. He wants to know what’s important to Elfreth, and why she wants to be in Congress.

“It seems more than toxic,” he says. “Why do you want to do this?”

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, one of almost 20 Democratic candidates for Congress in the vacant 3rd District, said she has knocked on 10,000 doors on weekends since announcing her campaign. She leaves campaign literature when no one  is home.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth said she has knocked on 10,000 doors on weekends since announcing her campaign. (Rick Hutzell)

Elfreth explains that her style in Annapolis is to introduce legislation on issues important to her and find allies in both parties. She asked U.S. Ben Cardin and his predecessor, Barbara Mikulski, how this would translate to Congress.

“They said it’s going to be tough,” she tells Cohen.

Elfreth listed her priorities as codifying abortion rights into federal law, addressing gun violence and restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Cohen wanted to know about protecting LGBTQ rights and removing roadblocks facing small businesses.

And then Elfreth pointed out the rapidly approaching primary and closed the deal.

“Can I count on your vote?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Cohen said. “Yeah.”

If endorsements are important, Elfreth was telling the voters she met on two big ones coming out in the next few days, the Maryland State Teachers Association and the League of Conservation Voters. But Morse got a doozy earlier this month from the nation’s best-known progressive, Sanders.

“John is standing up for a sustainable economy that is focused on everyday people, not the corporate special interests or the billionaire class,” the former presidential candidate’s campaign announced March 12 on X. “I hope Maryland’s 3rd District will support his grassroots campaign.”

John Morse, one of almost 20 Democratic candidates for Congress in the vacant 3rd District, holds his host's dog while talking to a voter during a fundraiser March 22, 2024 at a home in Cape St. Claire. Morse considers himself the most progressive candidate in the primary field, and recently won the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
John Morse holds his host's dog while talking to a voter during a fundraiser Friday in Cape St. Claire. (Rick Hutzell)

“He’s completely changed the conversation,” Morse said. “And I’m the only person talking about these issues in the race.”

He considers himself the progressive candidate and says he is the only one calling for a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war because of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He leans heavily into his ties with unions, with endorsements from flight attendants as well as auto, transportation and communications workers.

“We know that unions are the greatest way to create systemic change, and really elevate not just the middle class, but everybody,” Morse said. “It’s how we fix a lot of society’s ills.”

Friday night in Cape St. Claire, Morse was talking to a handful of potential supporters at the home of Lori Glattly. She’s a legislative advocate for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. She’s known Morse since he was an intern.

“Nobody else is talking about labor issues,” she said.

No one else is holding his host’s dog during a campaign stop, either. But there was Morse, with a 14-year-old pug in his arms as he talked about schools, life in Annapolis and working toward a breakthrough moment.

“I haven’t ever run for political office,” he said. “But you see the need, and you jump in.”

John Morse, one of almost 20 Democratic candidates for Congress in the vacant 3rd District, held a fundraiser March 22, 2024 at a home in Cape St. Claire. Host Lori Glattley has known the labor lawyer since he was an intern in her office at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
Lori Glattley, who has known labor lawyer John Morse since he was an intern in her office at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, put her support for his run on her refrigerator. (Rick Hutzell)