AIPAC Poured Millions Into a Maryland Congressional Primary Where Israel Is Not an Issue

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Maryland State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, right, a Democrat and the youngest woman to ever serve in the Maryland state Senate, hugs Joy Walker, the office administrator for state Sen. Thomas V. Miller Jr., the president of the Maryland Senate, on Dec. 6, 2018. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images via JTA.org)

The United Democracy Project, a campaign finance group affiliated with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, dumped $4.2 million into the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 3rd District to back state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who won the race.

No one is sure why, including Elfreth.

“I’m uncomfortable with dark money as well,” she told Maryland Matters, a political news site, regarding UDP, which is a super PAC. She made the comment in April after three of her opponents staged a press conference decrying the huge injection of outside money into the race to replace Rep. John Sarbanes, who is retiring. Super PACs may spend unlimited amounts of cash on a race, but are barred by law from coordinating with campaigns.

“I don’t like it,” Elfreth added. “But I’m not in a position to say no to people who want to amplify my message.”

The 3rd District covers Howard County and parts of Anne Arundel and Carroll counties.

Elfreth beat Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer, in the primary. Dunn physically battled with rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, when former President Donald Trump spurred his followers to mob the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn his defeat.

Dunn and Elfreth started the campaign with virtually identical positions on Israel, backing emergency defense funding for its war against Hamas, a bottom line for AIPAC.

The effect of the unsolicited UDP giving was that it drove Dunn to accept the endorsement of J Street, the dovish Jewish Middle East lobby that is AIPAC’s chief rival. He also echoed UDP’s harshest critics, who say the super PAC is a front for wealthy Republican donors who want to meddle in Democratic races.

“Candidates who receive this support accept the endorsement of an organization that has backed candidates and members of Congress who incited the rioters I fought on Jan. 6 and tried to overthrow our democracy,” Dunn said last month.

UDP’s spokesman, Patrick Dorton, said in an email that the lobby wanted to give her the best chances of winning. But he notably did not mention Israel.

“She’s one of the most effective legislators in Maryland history, is supported by Senator Ben Cardin and former Senator Barbara Mikulski and is endorsed by dozens of Democratic officials as well as the teachers, the firefighters, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and others,” he said. (Cardin boosted Elfreth as “ready for the job” when they appeared together at an event, but did not endorse her.)

Haunting the race was UDP’s recent outing in California, where it spent $4.6 million in an unsuccessful bid to keep a state legislator, Dave Min, from advancing in a congressional primary for reasons no one could discern. Min, who had not been critical of Israel before or during his campaign, advanced anyway.

Dorton has claimed for weeks that Dunn is not the target, telling Jewish Insider in April that UDP hoped to keep out “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.”

Susie Turnbull, who backed Dunn and who has held senior positions in the Democratic Party and in the organized Jewish community, said the net effect was to bring unwanted attention to Israel for no good reason.

“What they are doing is putting a flashing light on Israel if [Elfreth]’s successful, and a flashing light on the whole issue if she is not,” she said in an interview ahead of the election.

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