Skip to main content
Election 2024 Government & Politics

One candidate, two campaigns

Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) speaks at a house party for her congressional campaign in Severna Park this week. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Sarah Elfreth was in her element.

In a glorious sunroom with a spectacular view of the placid Severn River one recent evening, the Democratic state senator from Annapolis held the rapt attention of two dozen people who had come to hear her pitch for her congressional campaign and share their opinions.

“I appreciate this kind of event because I can focus and really talk to everybody,” Elfreth said.

Joined by a colleague from the Anne Arundel County Senate delegation, with a hearty recommendation from the house party host, the widow of another Anne Arundel senator, Elfreth talked fluently about abortion rights, preserving democracy, protecting the Chesapeake Bay, and responding to climate change.

“If you walk away with anything else today, it’s I am a getting-stuff-done Democrat,” she told the group, ticking off some of the 91 bills she’s passed since taking office in 2019. “I usually use another word but there’s a child present.”

The 35-year-old lawmaker — the youngest woman ever elected to the Maryland Senate — left her audience gathered in the home of Ardath Cade, an Anne Arundel civic leader of great renown, suitably impressed.

Mark Mendt, a neighbor and government contractor, said his girlfriend advised him to check Elfreth out and support her.

“This pretty much confirms,” he said.

It constituted a good evening for a promising young candidate running a conventional campaign. By any measure, Elfreth would be among the frontrunners in the 22-candidate Democratic primary to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-3rd). Hardworking, conscientious, ubiquitous in her Senate district, strategic and responsive in her legislative work, Elfreth over the years has developed a loyal following and an important set of political patrons and advisers.

She’s the very model of the kind of young politician that community leaders groom for higher office, and partisan considerations notwithstanding, most voters would probably be proud to have someone like Elfreth representing them in Congress.

But as the primary hits its final days, what happens at typical political events like the house party in Severna Park is almost immaterial. Campaigns like these are often won on the airwaves, and over the past several weeks, Elfreth has found herself with an unexpected, deep-pocketed ally that has literally changed the trajectory of the primary.

Since early April, an organization with a benign name, the United Democracy Project, has sunk more than $4 million into the primary on Elfreth’s behalf. The money is being used for TV ads, mailers and a phone bank operation that largely amplify Elfreth’s message on the campaign trail.

What the ads and literature don’t mention is that UDP is a super PAC created during the 2022 election cycle by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.

Now, it is not an exaggeration to say that AIPAC’s presence in the primary has totally transformed the dynamic.

A potent and deep-pocketed supporter

The 3rd District race seemed like a conventional open seat congressional contest at first, with five state lawmakers competing for primacy. Within that construct, Elfreth was one of the undeniable frontrunners, buttressed by endorsements from several key groups, including the teachers’ union, professional firefighters, the League of Conservation voters and Sierra Club.

“I’m really proud that the same groups that supported me when I was running for Senate are supporting me now that I’m running for Congress,” she told the group at the Cade home.

Departing U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) and iconic former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) — both of whom held the 3rd District seat when it had different boundaries — are also backing her, along with several local politicians.

But the contours of the contest changed dramatically in early January, when Harry Dunn, the former U.S. Capitol Police officer who famously battled insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021 and wrote a best-selling book about it, joined the race. His celebrity instantly brought him thousands of donations, though he was a political novice and did not live in the 3rd District, and plenty of voter interest. He raised close to $4 million during his first several weeks as a candidate, propelling him to the front of the pack.

That’s around the time, in early April, when the first United Democracy Project ad began appearing on Baltimore area TV stations. The ad said nothing about Israel or Middle East policy and instead began touting Elfreth’s legislative record in Annapolis. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like an ad that could have been cut for Elfreth, except that she did not speak in it. And while her campaign and the super PAC are prevented by law from coordinating or even communicating, the first UDP ad used images and footage from Elfreth’s campaign website, a common enough practice in politics that the Elfreth campaign appears to have encouraged.

In the weeks that followed, UDP’s investment in District 3 went up by hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, and now tops $4 million. Added to the Elfreth campaign’s take of over $1 million, more money is now being spent to boost the senator than Dunn has been able to raise and spend.

And no one is sure why AIPAC cares so much about this race.

“I don’t understand what they’re doing,” said Susan W. Turnbull, a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party who has led several national Jewish organizations. Turnbull has endorsed Dunn in the 3rd District primary.

Susan W. Turnbull, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018 and former state Democratic chair. File photo.

As an instrument of the hawkish AIPAC, UDP has been focusing its resources on races where it can bolster strong defenders of Israel — or help to defeat candidates or incumbents that AIPAC has deemed insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state. So, unsurprisingly, UDP has targeted a couple of incumbent progressive Democratic lawmakers in primaries this year who have sharply criticized the Israeli military action in Gaza, U.S. Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.).

UDP invested heavily in an open seat Republican congressional primary that took place this week in Indiana, where a state senator, Mark Messmer, defeated a former congressman, John Hostetler, who wrote a self-published book suggesting the U.S. decision to invade Iraq was orchestrated by Israel.

In 2022, the super PAC played in the open 4th congressional district Democratic primary in Maryland, in an attempt to thwart former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards’ political comeback. According to Open Secrets, a website that tracks money in politics, United Democracy Project spent more than $4.2 million running ads in opposition to Edwards and more than $1.7 million for ads supporting Glenn Ivey, who wound up winning the seat.

UDP’s presence in the primary may have helped Ivey win, and it made some sense: During her nine-year career in Congress, Edwards had been a regular critic of Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the Middle East has barely come up in the 3rd District campaign, and by the UDP’s own explanation to Jewish Insider last month, Elfreth and Dunn’s stances on Israel weren’t dramatically different.

Elfreth told the publication that she traveled to Israel for the first time last summer with other state lawmakers, a trip she called “life changing.” Dunn, in a campaign policy paper, calls Israel “an essential ally.”

“We see Sarah Elfreth as the strongest candidate who most reflects the views of the district,” a UDP spokesperson, Patrick Dorton said in an email to Maryland Matters Thursday. “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.”

UDP told other publications last month that its leaders had concerns about some of the stances on Gaza of other Democrats in the 3rd District race, specifically Del. Terri L. Hill (D-Howard) and John Morse, a labor lawyer who has been endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But both were, at the time and remain, long shots in the primary.

Dunn and other Elfreth opponents have publicly decried the influence of outside money in the race. Some Dunn supporters have quietly suggested that AIPAC’s history of opposing certain Black candidates in high-profile races, like Edwards, Bush and Bowman, was coming into play in the 3rd District. But Dorton pushes back on those complaints.

“UDP is proud to have supported numerous progressive Democratic candidates of color, including in seven of the 10 primaries we were active in last cycle,” he said. AIPAC has also argued that it raised more for members of the Congressional Black Caucus than any other PAC in the 2022 election cycle and was also highly supportive of members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

But that explanation doesn’t sit right with Turnbull, especially when she thinks about the 3rd District.

“When there’s so much antisemitism out there, here you have Jewish money distorting a race,” she said. “And it offends me and it makes me sad.”

Even while AIPAC has supported numerous Democrats through the years, it has also supported many Republicans, including dozens who voted against certifying President Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021. And the United Democracy Project’s donor list also troubles some Democrats.

According to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, “several notable and prolific Republican megadonors — including Bernie Marcus, Paul Singer and Jan Koum — have donated at least $1 million to the United Democracy Project. Many of these donors are known for their ties to the Israeli right, opposition to the Iran deal and GOP-favored domestic policy as part of their politics.”

Dozens of UDP donors, Democrats and Republicans, have now become Elfreth donors as well. She also has many donors in common with Messmer, the Republican Indiana state senator who won his congressional primary earlier this week.

In the first few weeks of her candidacy, through the end of 2023, Elfreth raised about $20,000 from out of state donors. But in the first four months of 2024, that figure jumped to about $400,000. Elfreth’s take from individuals who have also donated to UDP or AIPAC through the years topped $250,000.

Those contributors include Robert Sarver, a major donor to GOP candidates and committees and former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury basketball teams. In 2022, Sarver was suspended by the NBA and fined $10 million for misconduct, including using racial slurs. He wound up selling the teams.

Elfreth’s campaign is not commenting on the independent expenditure from the UDP or its potential impact on the congressional election. Most voters who see the UDP ads are probably unaware that the money is coming from AIPAC and its supporters — and it’s fair to guess that many aren’t even familiar with what AIPAC is.

Dunn has been endorsed recently by J Street, a more liberal pro-Israeli group in the U.S. that seeks a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But beyond the endorsement, J Street is unlikely to devote many resources to the primary with just a few days remaining. Elfreth’s boost from UDP, however, can only be seen as manna from heaven.

‘It’s not what you’re going to see on MSNBC’

At the house party in Severna Park the other night, there was no chatter about AIPAC, Israel, the Middle East or foreign policy — or any of the ads being run on Elfreth’s behalf. Elfreth took questions about domestic violence, funding for mental health programs, gun safety, and term limits.

Gesturing to the river below, Elfreth talked at length about her work on climate change, and how it will always be a top priority. She described how she passed a bill this year to “kick-start the solar industry” and how it illustrates her legislative approach.

Sen. Sarah Elfreth (center) listens while her colleague, Sen. Dawn Gile, urges her constituents to vote for Elfreth in next week’s 3rd District congressional primary. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

“It wasn’t a partisan issue,” she said. “It was, how do I get the solar industry and organized labor and the environmental community and local, state and federal governments together to get the answer? It’s not what you’re going to see on MSNBC. It’s not a quippy thing.”

Ardath Cade, the host, is the widow of the late Sen. Jack Cade, a moderate Republican who served for 22 years and became a power on the Budget and Taxation Committee even though he was a member of the minority party. Cade tells her neighbors that Elfreth was appointed to the same important committee as soon as she was elected.

“For a young person to go and sit on Budget and Taxation right for the beginning is a super honor,” Cade said. “They knew she had a brain.”

It was left to state Sen. Dawn Gile (D-Anne Arundel), who was elected in 2022 to fill “the Cade seat,” as she called it, to serve as the closer for Elfreth. She told her constituents that while she finds several of the candidates in the congressional primary admirable, Elfreth is “the most qualified and the hardest working of the bunch.”

In an interview, Gile predicted that her colleague has the gumption “to pull it off.”

“I know Sarah, I know how hard she works,” she said. “She’s scrappy. She’s a fighter. She’s everywhere.”

All admirable and undeniable attributes. But one other thing is certain: Even if it was in the form of an independent expenditure campaign, Elfreth had a lot more firepower in this race than anyone imagined — or that she could have ever hoped for. Whether the gambit pays off will be known in just a few days more.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our website. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

If you have any questions, please email [email protected].

To republish, copy the following text and paste it into your HTML editor.


Creative Commons License AttributionCreative Commons Attribution
One candidate, two campaigns