A powerful, pro-Israel political action committee has chosen to back a Democratic candidate in Central Maryland’s crowded, competitive 3rd Congressional District race, bringing with it a debate over how federal campaigns are financed.

The United Democracy Project, the super PAC arm of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, launched a television ad on behalf of state Sen. Sarah Elfreth’s run for the open seat. The district includes the northern portion of Anne Arundel County, all of Howard County and a sliver of Carroll County.

Elfreth is one of 22 Democrats vying for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who has made his political mark opposing corporate money in politics and championing federal campaign finance reform. Laws he has proposed would expose money sources behind super PACs like United Democracy Project.

The Federal Elections Commission website lists AIPAC’s individual donor contributions, and the candidate committees they give it to. But United Democracy Project’s super PAC status allows nonprofit corporations to donate the same as an individual. This can make front-end donors harder to track, and causes some to call the funding “dark money.”

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In response to the ad, three Democratic candidates running for the seat huddled under golf umbrellas outside the Annapolis State House to to denounce the super PAC’s involvement during a news conference.

“We are up against outside spending,” said former U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn. “And I think it’s insulting to Congressman Sarbanes who was the one who held the seat.” A notable competitor with national name recognition, Dunn was one of hundreds of officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Dunn later testified before Congress on what he and his colleagues faced that day.

Dunn said he had met with AIPAC and had “a great conversation” but, “I don’t want their endorsement.” He said 3rd Congressional District candidates should condemn the super PAC financing.

Dunn has pledged to refuse corporate political committee donations and received the endorsement of End Citizens United/Let America Vote. The group is working to overturn the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that freed corporations from campaign spending limits.

A contender for the spot, and well-funded according to his campaign representatives, Dunn was the first in the race to roll out an ad.

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Democratic candidates for Maryland's 3rd Congressional District held a news conference Wednesday, April 3, 2024, to denounce corporate money in federal campaigns. Standing left to right are former U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, John Morse of Severna Park and businessman Juan Dominguez. (Brenda Wintrode)

“Our democracy thrives on the voices of Marylanders, not the depth of a few wealthy pockets,” said businessman and candidate Juan Domniguez.

Also speaking out was John Morse. The Annapolis Democrat and labor union attorney said all members of Maryland’s delegation should reject AIPAC support, including the ones who already receive it. Morse has been endorsed by labor unions and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The United Democracy Project did not respond to requests for comment.

Elfreth’s campaign manager, Pat Murray, said the campaign did not know about the ad before it started running — “We learned about it the way everyone else learned about it.”

“The things that are happening with outside groups are beyond our control,” he said. “We certainly welcome anybody who wants to amplify Sarah’s message.”

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The two-term Anne Arundel County senator has run a campaign based on “in-state grassroots support” that has earned her the endorsements of 20 former and current officials from all levels of government, he said.

“At the end of the day, we all recognize that there is a significant need for campaign finance reform,” he said.

Once she’s in office, Murray said Elfreth would be a proud co-sponsor of the work that Sarbanes began.

In 2022, AIPAC spent $17 million supporting 365 candidates from both major political parties who they say support an American-Israel alliance, according to their website, and they candidly publicize their singular focus, who they support and who they don’t. The group backed U.S. Rep. Glenn Ivey over former Rep. Donna Edwards in a contentious primary for a Prince George’s County-centered U.S. House seat in 2022.

The group is expected to spend $100 million this year, according to Politico.

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Politicians garnering their support include members of Maryland’s federal delegation: Democratic U.S. Reps Kweisi Mfume, Ivey, Steny Hoyer and they have supported soon-to-retire Dutch Ruppersberger. AIPAC also gives to Maryland’s only Republican, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris. But in Democratic politics, the group typically opposes progressives — such as New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib — and backs their primary opponents.

Red boxing

The 30-second spot highlights Elfreth’s legislative achievements and uses messaging, B-roll footage and still photos from her campaign website. Since federal election law prohibits campaigns from collaborating with political action committees, campaigns open to PAC support will make content publicly available on their websites.

Candidates flag their media with red lines or red boxes, indicating they are open to outside groups boosting their messaging. This signal, called “redboxing” is legal, and has become commonplace.

A red line on the media page of state Sen. Sarah Elfreth's congressional campaign website. Many federal candidates commonly use red lines and red boxes around campaign messaging, a legal practice signaling they are open to donors creating campaign ads on their behalf. (screenshot)

Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform for the Campaign Legal Center, co-authored a study that found more than 200 federal candidates used redboxing in the 2022 elections.

“These same candidates frequently benefitted from super PAC spending that was hundreds of times greater than candidates who did not redbox,” the study excerpt says.

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In an interview, Ghosh said the practice hurts voters.

“Their electoral voice is diminished when special interests who fund super PACs are given more and more prominence and a direct role in financing campaigns and campaign messaging,” he said.

Ghosh said redboxing undermines a campaign’s independence from the super PAC, which is not allowed to take direction from candidates.

“They [super PACs] are allowed to spend money on elections, but they need to decide how to spend, what to say, etc., on their own — independent, without any any kind of input or guidance from candidates,” he said.

With redboxing, campaigns also give up control over who makes advertisements on their behalf.

Murray, Elfreth’s campaign manager, won’t know if United Democracy Project plans to run more ads on Elfreth’s behalf until he sees them, just like everyone else. In the meantime, the plan remains “to run the same race that we were running.”

“We’ve built an infrastructure that is very much grounded in this district and geared towards communicating with this district’s voters,” he said.

The next deadline for filing candidate campaign finance reports is April 15.

This article has been updated to correct where John Morse lives.

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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