Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth won the Democratic primary race for Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, beating out a crowded field of 21 other candidates, including ex-Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn.

Surrounded by supporters, local politicians and a few state Senate colleagues, Elfreth spoke to the enthusiastic crowd with members of her team behind her, many beaming with pride. The Anne Arundel County legislator told the room that it had been some time since Maryland had sent a woman to Congress.

“But tonight, with your help, we are a step closer,” she said.

3rd Congressional District Democratic Primary

Across the district, Dunn walked into a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Ellicott City as the two dozen supporters who remained hours after polls closed broke into applause.

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Dunn told them he had just called Elfreth with congratulations and an offer of support come November.

”I am here to be an asset in any way I can to make sure that we defeat the Republican challenger,” he said.

He thanked supporters and said he gave everything he had.

”The polls say we lost, but this was a success,” Dunn said.

”This was always about us, about our democracy, this movement is not just about my stubborn belief in the importance of democracy, but the urgency that we must face to protect it — I hate Donald Trump,” he said.

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Elfreth stepped into race early

Elfreth was one of the first to enter the race to replace veteran Congressman John Sarbanes, after he decided not to seek reelection to represent the Democratic-majority third district, which includes all of Howard County, northern and central Anne Arundel County and a piece of Carroll County.

At an Annapolis venue off of Bestgate Road, the mood was lively and conversations jubilant just after polls closed. Barbara Sause and Craig Roberts had met Elfreth when she was president of the District 30 Democratic Club. The couple has been impressed with her ever since.

”We called her the next Barbara Mikulski,” Sause said, referring to the former U.S. senator.

The primary results punctuated a Democratic race that served a sampling from the modern American political diet — a celebrity candidate, a negative campaign ad and secretive campaign donations, to name a few.

But Elfreth came out on top. The 35-year-old Annapolitan pitched herself to voters as a veteran lawmaker who will work hard to represent them. In 2018, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Maryland Senate and has since passed dozens of bills in the last six legislative sessions.

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She ran on the issues she’s championed in Annapolis, among them protecting women’s reproductive rights, combating gun violence and preserving the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland state Sens. Dawn Gile and Pam Beidle, both of Anne Arundel County, attend the election results watch event in Annapolis for Sen. Sarah Elfreth on May 14, 2024.
Maryland state Sens. Dawn Gile and Pam Beidle, both of Anne Arundel County, attend the election results watching event for Sen. Sarah Elfreth in Annapolis on May 14, 2024. (Brenda Wintrode)

Elfreth spent the morning of the primary darting between voting centers with her campaign staff. Outside Broadneck High School, she greeted voters and thanked them for casting a ballot.

She heard that voters are supporting her because of her track record helping the community through trying events — the pandemic, major flooding, a tornado and gun violence.

“I’ve been able to be there for my constituents, and I think that is what people want in their member of Congress too,” she said.

Anne Arundel County resident Laura Griffin voted for Elfreth, calling her “community-oriented.” The 76-year-old said she appreciated the senator’s efforts to protect the environment. Others said their reason for voting for Elfreth was her visible presence in the community.

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Elfreth landed multiple national endorsements, including the teachers and firefighters unions, national advocacy groups, and the support of top Maryland politicians, like U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

Dunn built his campaign platform on protecting American democracy, something he physically did along with hundreds of officers on Jan. 6, 2021, during an attempted insurrection. The former cop’s subsequent testimony before a congressional committee earned him national name recognition and an instant flood of out-of state donations. Earning a seat in congress, he said, would have allowed him to continue his dedication to public service.

Dunn received negative press after personnel files surfaced containing records of a 2012 disciplinary suspension. Punchbowl News reported in March that Dunn was suspended from his job for four days for not properly storing his service weapon. The violation was discovered during an investigation into a domestic dispute between Dunn and his now ex-wife. Both were found by police with scratches on them.

In a statement from the former couple released in March, they said: “At no point were we physically violent toward each other or our family, and we never made our home feel unsafe.”

Negative ads and super PACs

Few policy differences existed between the 22 candidates in the Democratic primary. But what did separate a handful from the fold was money — and who gave it to them.

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Elfreth ranked second with $1.4 million, and was the only candidate to come close to Dunn’s more than $4.5 million. State Sen. Clarence Lam trailed far behind, with just over $700,000.

Elfreth, however, reaped sizable outside help from pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The group’s super PAC, the United Democracy Project, started airing ad backing her last month.

Other campaigns, including Dunn’s, spared no opportunity to shame Elfreth for her ties.

AIPAC supports candidates from both major political parties who it says backs an American-Israel alliance, according to their website. The group candidly publicizes its singular focus and who it supports — and doesn’t. In Democratic circles, they oppose progressives — such as New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib — and have backed their primary opponents.

Here in Maryland, AIPAC boosts many in the federal delegation, and in 2022, they 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.

Elfreth also took flak from Dunn’s negative campaign ads highlighting the donations and blasting the number of times she voted for Republican-led amendments in the Maryland Senate.

But that decision may have helped Elfreth. Along the campaign trail, Elfreth said she met people who said they voted for her because of the negative ad.

“They thought it went too far and was inappropriate,” she said.

Barring an uprising of unaffiliated voters backing the Republican candidate, the primary results have all but sealed her November win. She’ll face Republican winner Robert J. Steinberger in the general election.

Among the majority party hopefuls were several state lawmakers, including Anne Arundel County Dels. Mark Chang and Mike Rogers and Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Terry Hill of Howard County. None of the state politicians had to give up their seat to run for Congress.

Also running were combat veteran and businessman Juan Dominguez, union attorney John Morse, and entrepreneur Abigail Diehl, whose family runs Diehl’s Produce locations in Anne Arundel County.

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