In the darkest moments of her campaign for Congress, Sarah Elfreth listened to a message from a man who died five years ago.

“Stay tough,” House Speaker Mike Busch said in a lengthy voicemail after she announced her campaign for state Senate in 2017. “You’re the future of the Democratic Party.”

Elfreth listened to the recording on the day that her main rival in the Democratic primary, former U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, announced he was millions ahead of her in fundraising.

She played it when TV ads began airing that attacked her over a pro-Israel super PAC spending millions to support her without her knowledge.

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She played the recording for me Thursday morning.

“I mean, you heard him say, don’t get distracted by, basically, the haters. Just keep your head down,” said Elfreth, 35, who if elected would be the youngest member of Congress from Maryland in more than half a century. “I had to practice that a lot.”

Busch was the longest-serving speaker of a state House in U.S. history, not just in Maryland. Often called “Coach” because of his career in athletics and recreation, he used the power of the speakership to benefit his hometown of Annapolis and expanded the definition of Democrat statewide to include younger, more diverse candidates.

Turns out Busch — a disarming Maryland powerbroker known for his easy friendships — was good at seeing the future.

Despite public polling that showed Elfreth and Dunn locked in a close contest in Maryland’s 3rd District, Democratic primary voters resoundingly chose the state legislator over a hero who defended Congress when a mob supporting then-President Donald Trump laid siege to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

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Dunn, a towering figure who frequently appeared on cable news and wrote a book about his experience, entered the race with instant name recognition and generous national support.

“When I saw … Harry Dunn’s first-month fundraising, I think it was like $3 million, that was a challenging day for me,” said Elfreth. “But, you know, we did pretty well ourselves. I don’t know what the total was, it was around $1.5 [million] for the primary.”

Elfreth, the youngest woman ever elected to the Maryland Senate in a district she shared with Busch, has a reputation as a workhorse. She has won passage of a dozen bills in each of her General Assembly sessions.

She is known to rarely turn down a neighborhood picnic, high school graduation, or Future Farmers of America invitation. She says this style emerged as a way of coping with Busch’s death in 2019.

“When he passed away, I had an overwhelming fear that the district would feel less represented with him gone,” Elfreth said. “So I went into complete overdrive and just went to everything. I didn’t say no to anything.”

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She campaigned the same way. Elfreth sometimes could be found literally running between houses during door-knocking sessions across the district, which stretches from Annapolis north through part of Anne Arundel County, all of Howard County and a sliver of Carroll County.

“A lot of folks I met … in this campaign, I’d helped over the years get a vaccination or with a small business loan. God knows all the stuff with the tornadoes and the floods,” Elfreth said. “And it was really cool to hear that back from people.”

It paid off. She got 35% in a 22-candidate field, finishing ahead of Dunn by 10 percentage points.

Right now, lots of people want to talk with Sarah Elfreth. She walked into her neighborhood social club Wednesday night to cheers, handshakes and hugs.

Even Aaron Yealdhall, the raspy-voiced folk singer known as Skribe, stopped what he was playing to say hi.

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“Congratulations, Sarah,” he said from behind his cigar box guitar and amp. “Nice to see you again.”

Elfreth just met her Republican opponent, Robert Steinberger. He hopes former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign for U.S. Senate will open a path to an upset for him.

“Hogan is going to have an unusually large halo effect for the Republican Party,” Steinberger, a corporate lawyer from Arnold, said by phone on Thursday.

It’s an improbable outcome. Even if many of the positions on his website seem moderate, his support for a 16-week abortion ban and tougher immigration enforcement are right-of-center in blue, blue Maryland. Hope is working to make the improbable happen.

On Thursday, Elfreth gave me 30 minutes over coffee.

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She walked into Market House on a morning so bright you had to squint. She was on the phone with U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, the No. 3 Democrat in the House of Representatives.

“Looking forward to working with you, congressman,” she said, before turning to me.

It’s been 60 years since someone from Annapolis was in Congress. Three weeks after U.S. Rep. Dick Lankford announced he wouldn’t seek a sixth term, he voted “present” on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It’s a contrast with Elfreth, who plans to campaign hard for Angela Alsobrooks. If the Prince George’s County executive can beat Hogan, she would be the first Black person elected to the Senate from Maryland.

And Elfreth will work to elect school board candidates across the district, particularly where the conservative group Moms for Liberty’s candidates are on the ballot. The organization opposes discussing LGBTQ+ rights in school or teaching about race, ethnicity, and discrimination.

“I look at the threat Moms for Liberty poses to our boards of education as one of the greatest threats to our democracy,” Elfreth said. “And as a leader in the party in this district now, it’s my job to make sure we all get across the finish line in November.”

There will be trips to campaign for President Joe Biden in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where she built relationships as a past chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. And, as she frequently says, she still has to beat Steinberger in November.

“I’m not going to let up on the gas,” she said. “I’m going to be OK, based on just continuing to run the campaign that I’ve run so far.”

But Elfreth is clearly thinking beyond the election. She plans to talk with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger about the vacancies on the Naval Academy Board of Visitors that will be created by their retirements.

She’s sure to be a champion of the Chesapeake Bay, as she has been in Annapolis. She wants to pick up where U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, the man she hopes to succeed, left off on campaign finance reform.

Elfreth makes this last pledge without irony, given the criticism she received for the more than $4.5 million that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee spent on her behalf.

“Democrats lose when we don’t raise the money. And so, yes, I’ve taken Southwest Airlines PAC money, and I’ve taken money from the solar industry because I believe in it,” she said. “I have my list of people I’m not gonna take money from. I’m happy to tell you about that. But at the same time, I have always taken money from people I agree with or disagree with and voted my conscience.”

Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth speaks to a crowd of supporters and campaign volunteers after taking a significant lead in the Democratic primary race for the 3rd Congressional District.
Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth speaks to a crowd of supporters and campaign volunteers after taking a significant lead in the Democratic primary race for the 3rd Congressional District. (Brenda Wintrode)

Our 30 minutes is up. She didn’t even order coffee.

Elfreth has to run home before the State House ceremony. She adopted a puppy named Ollie in December ― piling housebreaking on top of everything else.

Time for one last question. See, I’ve got a Mike Busch voicemail, too.

The week before he died, he called from the hospital to say his skin cancer medication had caused his liver to fail. He said his absence from the State House was temporary, and that he would soon be “back in the game.”

Busch meant a lot to a lot of people in Annapolis.

What would Elfreth, a woman on her way to Washington, say to the man she regularly invokes as her political mentor? She took a deep breath, looked to the side and paused for a long second.

“Thank you, Coach.”

This column has been updated to correct the name of the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Maryland. Barbara Mikulski served from 1987 to 2006.