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Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn emerges as wild card in crowded Maryland primary to succeed Sarbanes

The first-time candidate holds a nuanced view of the Israel-Hamas war. Does he have a clear lane in a packed field?

Harry Dunn, the former Capitol Police officer running for Congress in Maryland, backs a bill to send billions in funding to Ukraine and Israel and supports more humanitarian aid for Gaza, he said in outlining his views on the Israel-Hamas war.

Dunn defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack and appears to be an early favorite in the jam-packed Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD). But Dunn will have to translate his profile as a national hero to on-the-ground support to beat out more than a dozen Democrats running in the reliably blue district.

As the race takes shape, it’s not clear how large of a role Israel’s war with Hamas could play as an issue in the primary. Dunn has aligned himself with President Joe Biden on the conflict. 

“Israel has a right to defend itself, and I support the goals of returning all the hostages home and eliminating Hamas. I am glad President Biden has advocated for an approach that reduces unnecessary civilian casualties, and I support that approach,” said Dunn, 40, who served as a Capitol Police officer for 15 years.

The Maryland Democrat, who has never held elective office, supports a bill aimed at providing billions in funding to Ukraine and Israel that the Senate voted to advance on Thursday, he told Jewish Insider. The legislation would provide $60.1 billion in funding to Ukraine and $14.1 billion to Israel along with billions of dollars in humanitarian aid for Gazans.

“Dunn’s entry into the multi-candidate race changed the dynamic in my view. He is a wild card,” said Susan Turnbull, the state’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018 and a former chair of the state Democratic Party. “With so many candidates in the race each with a base from prior elections, the question is what is his base?”

“I believe we need to provide needed assistance to our allies in Israel, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific. Just this week, Congress has had the opportunity to pass a comprehensive funding bill that would have funded these national security priorities, and I would have supported that bill,” Dunn said. “We need a comprehensive approach that supports American national security priorities across the world, including by delivering increased humanitarian assistance to Gaza.” 

Dunn launched his campaign in January, joining a field of more than a dozen Democratic primary hopefuls seeking to represent the district. The race includes several state lawmakers, including state Sens. Sarah Elfreth and Clarence Lam. 

“Dunn’s entry into the multi-candidate race changed the dynamic in my view. He is a wild card,” said Susan Turnbull, the state’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018 and a former chair of the state Democratic Party. “With so many candidates in the race each with a base from prior elections, the question is what is his base?”

Dunn’s opponents did not answer questions from JI on Friday about their policy views on Israel’s war with Hamas, but the state legislators in the race may soon vote on issues related to antisemitism and the war overseas. 

At this early stage, pro-Israel political groups have not yet waded into the congressional race.

“Israel’s war with Hamas funding should be an issue in every congressional race this year. This week the dysfunction in the House shows how critically important the issue is and how we need people who will be leaders on this issue,” said Turnbull, who has held leadership positions with a number of groups including the Jewish Social Service Agency of Washington, D.C.

State lawmakers could take up legislation to combat hate and prejudice, including against Jews and Muslims, state House Speaker Adrienne Jones said in a recent interview about her plan to pass a “decency agenda” during this year’s legislative session. Several state delegates have also filed legislation supporting a “long-term ceasefire in Israel and Palestine.” No lawmakers running in the 3rd Congressional District race sponsor the bill. 

Dunn, who has been a vocal proponent for protecting democracy in the wake of Jan. 6, has been lauded nationally for his service to the country on that day. Biden awarded Dunn the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest honor a civilian can receive, in recognition of his role during the attack.

Dunn could use his national profile to hold the edge in the race for campaign cash, though Elfreth and Lam each posted strong fourth quarter fundraising figures.

“I believe he may eventually have more money available than any other candidate in the race. The question will be how many of the donors are residents of Maryland and especially of the district,” Turnbull said.

Elfreth has amassed the largest war chest, pulling in $403,000 in the fourth quarter of the year, according to a Federal Election Commission filing. Lam raised $355,000 during the same period, which spanned from the beginning of October to the end of December. Each banked more than $300,000 in their campaign accounts. 

The state delegates in the Democratic race — Mike Rogers and Terri Hill — raised less cash. Rogers raised $91,000 in the fourth quarter while Hill raised $75,000. 

“The way that Maryland’s districts are drawn, the Maryland Democratic primary is the race,” said Mileah Kromer, a pollster and political scientist at Goucher College in Maryland. 

The full scope of Dunn’s fundraising won’t come into public view until his first campaign finance report is filed in April, although many expect him to have plenty of cash to spend on TV advertising.

Maryland’s 3rd District encompasses the state capital of Annapolis and its second-largest city of Columbia. The district is a Democratic stronghold, giving Biden 62% of the vote there in 2020. The winner of the Democratic primary will likely be the district’s next member of Congress. 

“The way that Maryland’s districts are drawn, the Maryland Democratic primary is the race,” said Mileah Kromer, a pollster and political scientist at Goucher College in Maryland. 

The race is also a rare opportunity for Democrats with congressional ambitions. Sarbanes has held the seat for nearly two decades after being elected in 2006. 

It’s still early in the primary — the deadline to file for the May 14 primary ballot just passed on Friday — but Maryland political analysts say Dunn has some work ahead of him. He does not live in the district he is running to represent, which is not required of House candidates. Dunn has said he will move to the district if elected to Congress. 

“He will have to spend some serious time in the district and find individuals that can help introduce him,” Kromer said. “The ones who are in the state legislature know where the pockets of power are. I don’t know if he does. He’s gonna find out.”

CORRECTION: The original version of the story misstated the date of the Maryland Congressional primary. It takes place on May 14. The original story also mistakenly reported that state legislators can’t fundraise during the legislative session; they can when running for a federal office.

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