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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Elfreth tops Dunn in hard-fought 3rd District House primary

State Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) poses with members of her campaign staff after her victory celebration Tuesday night. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Buttressed by a stunning $4.4 million in spending from a super PAC affiliated with a pro-Israel organization, state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) won a hard-fought congressional primary in the 3rd District Tuesday, topping former U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn by a wider margin than expected.

Elfreth stopped short of declaring victory when she spoke to her jubilant supporters in Annapolis around 10:15 p.m., saying she wanted to wait “until every vote is counted.” But she also made it clear that she expects to be the nominee and will help end the eight-year drought of Maryland having no women in its congressional delegation.

“It’s been a while since Maryland has sent a woman to the House of Representatives in D.C.,” she said. “Tonight, with your help, we are a step closer.”

Elfreth will be the heavy favorite in the general election against Republican Rob Steinberger, an attorney and businessman.

With all Election Day precincts reporting in Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, along with early voting tallies and a count of some mailed-in ballots, Elfreth had 35% of the vote Tuesday to just under 25% for Dunn. The primary featured 22 Democrats who were seeking to replace nine-term Rep. John Sarbanes (D), each offering a little something for everyone.

Sarbanes announced in late October that he would not seek another term.

Elfreth was one of five state lawmakers in the Democratic field, and based on her record of service, a loyal following in her legislative district, robust fundraising and political moxie, the 35-year-old senator was destined to be one of the frontrunners in the primary.

But her stature changed once a group known as United Democracy Project, which is affiliated with the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, invested heavily in the race, airing TV ads, printing mailers and running phone banks on her behalf.

AIPAC’s decision to play heavily in the 3rd District remains one of the great mysteries of this election cycle, because Elfreth and Dunn did not differ significantly in their public pronouncements on the conflict in Gaza. But the PAC’s investment was enough to offset Dunn’s initial financial advantage.

Both the United Democracy Project and AIPAC issued statements Tuesday night hailing Elfreth’s win.

“Sarah Elfreth’s victory underscores that it is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with the Jewish state as it battles aggression from the Iranian regime and its terrorist proxies,” AIPAC said in its statement. “Activists from the pro-Israel community were actively engaged in supporting her campaign.

“We are proud to support both Democrats and Republicans who understand that a strong Israel is in America’s interest. The outcome in this race once again shows that the pro-Israel position is both good policy and good politics — for both parties.”

Dunn’s entry into the race in early January, later than most of his rivals, was also a seismic event — and one most political professionals in the state hadn’t anticipated. A national hero to progressives after battling insurrectionists at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he had raised almost $4.6 million by late April and spent almost $3.9 million on the race, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In fact, before Dunn got into the race, it was reasonable to assume that one of the state lawmakers in the primary — Elfreth, Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard and Anne Arundel) or Dels. Mark S. Chang (D-Anne Arundel), Terri L. Hill (D-Howard) or Mike Rogers (D-Anne Arundel) would prevail.

But Dunn’s quick burst of fundraising and national publicity, even though he did not live in the district and wasn’t well known there when he started, instantly changed the calculus. And in the end, only Elfreth could keep up.

Apart from the AIPAC support, Elfreth ran a meat-and-potatoes campaign, emphasizing issues like abortion rights, climate change and the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and touting her effectiveness in Annapolis. Her campaign also spotlighted her familiarity with local issues, while Dunn portrayed himself as a defender of democracy and worked to introduce himself to the voters.

“Sarah ran a great campaign,” said state Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), who endorsed her Senate colleague even though Chang and Rogers represent the same legislative district as Beidle. “She was really positive throughout.”

Lam wound up third in the race, with about 11.4%. Hill was fourth with almost 7%, followed by Chang at 5% and Rogers with just under 3%.

Elfreth’s supporters gathered at a new airy, high-ceilinged event venue in Annapolis. The crowd of 200 supporters included half a dozen of her fellow state lawmakers, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), other current and former elected officials, and close to a dozen State House lobbyists.

Elfreth’s supporters cheered wildly every time a TV report showed her ahead. Beidle and state Sen. Dawn Gile (D-Anne Arundel) first spoke to the crowd about 9:30 p.m.

“We’re not going to call it yet, but it’s looking good,” Gile said.

Harry Dunn pays tribute to his campaign manager, Taylor Doggett, on primary evening Tuesday. Photo by Nene Narh-Mensah.

Speaking to supporters at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7472 in Ellicott City, Dunn conceded defeat around 10:40 p.m. Dunn said he had just spoken to Elfreth on the phone, and told her that he was available as an “asset.”

Dunn praised the other Democrats in the race, saying he didn’t consider any of them “opponents.”

“I’m not sad,” Dunn said. “I gave it everything I had and y’all did too.”

Dunn said he had also spoken Tuesday evening to U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8th), another hero of the movement to preserve democracy in the wake of Jan. 6.

He said he was humbled and grateful that people voted for him, and spoke with urgency about democracy, which he said was potentially one election away from destruction.

“Everybody has a role to defend democracy right now,” Dunn said. “I encourage you all to stay in this arena with me ’cause I’m not going nowhere.”

Elfreth was the youngest woman ever elected to the Maryland Senate, in 2018. She’s now poised to become one of the youngest women serving in the House of Representatives. According to the website oldest.org, she’d be the fifth-youngest woman ever elected to the House if she wins in November.

In her speech Tuesday night, Elfreth was quick to deflect the attention from herself and spoke of other races on the ballot, including school board contests in Anne Arundel County and the U.S. Senate primary.

“Campaigns are not about the candidates. It’s about the community,” she said. “This campaign was not won in the last 6 1/2 months. It was won over the last decade, and it all comes down to you.”

Elfreth ended her speech by thanking her supporters and exhorting, “Let’s get to work.”

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Elfreth tops Dunn in hard-fought 3rd District House primary