PAC-ing a punch

Harry Dunn is pushing back hard against AIPAC’s super PAC. But the pro-Israel PAC says it’s not concerned about his candidacy

The pro-Israel group is supporting one of Dunn’s opponents, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Harry Dunn, a former U.S. Capitol Police officer, arrives to officially file his candidacy for Congress in Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, at the Maryland State Board of Elections office in Annapolis, Md., on Thursday, February 8, 2024.

Harry Dunn, the ex-Capitol Police officer who rose to national prominence in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and is now running for Congress in Maryland, declared war this week on the United Democracy Project, the AIPAC-affiliated super PAC, after the group launched a $600,000 ad buy supporting one of his opponents.

But UDP, while backing state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, says that it doesn’t have any concerns about Dunn’s positions on Israel. Elfreth is seen as another leading candidate, alongside Dunn, among the more than 20 Democrats in the race. UDP is not currently running any negative ads in the district.

Dunn has offered a furious response to the news of UDP’s spending, in which he has echoed talking points about UDP common among far-left AIPAC opponents, without directly addressing UDP’s role as a pro-Israel group.

“A SuperPAC funded by MAGA extremist donors who also gave to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert just dropped $500k in our race. They want to buy this election. They will fail,” Dunn said on X. “We can’t l[e]t MAGA buy this election.”

In a further sign of concern about the UDP investment, Dunn announced plans for a press conference about the UDP spending on Wednesday. He plans to denounce “the intrusion of a MAGA Republican-funded super-PAC into the race for Maryland’s Third Congressional District, and [call] on every candidate in the race to condemn and reject this spending,” according to a campaign press release.

The release goes on to state that UDP is “meddl[ing]” in the primary and is “coming after our movement to protect American democracy,” adding that “dark money groups are trying to buy this seat.”

Dunn, in an interview with Jewish Insider earlier this year, said he’s supportive of additional aid to Israel and Israel’s goals of eliminating Hamas and freeing civilian casualties. 

Despite his quick and fiery response to its spending, UDP says it’s not worried about Dunn.

“While we appreciate Harry Dunn’s support for a strong US-Israel relationship, Sarah Elfreth’s leadership on abortion rights, climate change, and domestic violence makes her a stronger candidate for the voters of Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties,” UDP spokesperson Patrick Dorton said. “There [are] 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.”

Internal polling by Elfreth’s campaign that was first published by Maryland Matters suggested a close race between Elfreth and Dunn, with state Sen. Clarice Lam rounding out the field as a potential third viable candidate. None of the other candidates appeared viable, according to the survey.

Elfreth also has the backing of a range of local unions, political groups and elected officials. Dunn has seen blockbuster fundraising from a national donor base, owing to his post-Jan. 6 public profile, which will help him remain competitive.

Other candidates have taken public stances more critical of Israel, including state Del. Terri Hill, who, according to local media, sponsored a resolution criticizing Israel’s military campaign and calling for a ceasefire. Hill, however, no longer appears as a cosponsor of the legislation on the Maryland legislative database

John Morse, who was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has also leaned into calls for a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

AIPAC hasn’t yet made a formal endorsement in the race.

Elfreth, for her part, is taking a largely pro-Israel stance, but is not fully hewing to AIPAC’s positions on the war in the Middle East.

She told Jewish Insider that she doesn’t support placing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. She added that she “strongly believe[s] that all nations have a responsibility in supporting humanitarian aid to the region” as “the only way” to begin the “very long road towards a peaceful two-state solution” in Gaza, but said that humanitarian-related conditions on arms sales would not be “appropriate from the legislative branch.”

“I trust that President Biden and his advisers are negotiating [increased humanitarian aid] with Israeli leadership,” she said. “And I think that’s where it would be more effective to have that conversation.”

She said that she would support a permanent cease-fire conditioned on the return of the hostages and the provision of additional humanitarian aid. She also said that the long-term goal in the region must be peace and a two-state solution, but reiterated that the process must begin with a hostage release and humanitarian aid. 

“We can’t stop with ‘a cease-fire will solve everything,’” she continued. “It is under those conditions, the beginning step of building toward a lasting — I have no illusions, I think this will take my lifetime to achieve but it has to be the goal — of the beginning step of a lasting two-state solution.”

When pressed, she also said that Hamas must be removed from power in Gaza in order to move toward long-term peace, adding, “I’m not a military expert, so I’m not quite sure how to do that.”

Elfreth said she didn’t have strong knowledge about the U.S.’ recent decision to abstain on a U.N. Security Council vote for a cease-fire, but pointed to concerns about one-sided legislation pushing for a cease-fire at the local level.

“There have been a lot of state and local resolutions on this issue that are not as balanced and nuanced as the situation deserves,” she said. “I would like to see all sides reflected in those resolutions.”

She described Iran’s influence in the region and the situation in the West Bank as further obstacles to peace.

Asked about tackling the threats that Iran and its proxies pose not only in Gaza but also throughout the region, Elfreth said she doesn’t have the foreign policy expertise to offer specific solutions, but said that Israel’s safety must be central to the U.S.’ strategy.

“Ensuring that our only democratic ally in the region remains in the region is the first block,” she said. “It’s naive to think that it would ever stop with Israel. And I think there are significant threats to democracy across the world if we don’t take Iran as seriously as they deserve to be taken… This is not at all isolated to the current front of the war.”

Elfreth also repeatedly expressed concerns about some of the public statements and decisions made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but said that conversations about Israel’s leadership and governance should be handled in private between the two allies, when asked about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) speech denouncing the Israeli leader.

She compared the situation to her own concerns about and disagreements with former President Donald Trump and his leadership — ”I think we can all appreciate, as Americans, supporting a country without necessarily supporting its leader.”

Elfreth visited Israel for the first time in July alongside state lawmakers from around the country, describing the trip as “life-changing,” including visits to a kibbutz that was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, an Iron Dome battery, a Hezbollah tunnel on the Lebanese border, the West Bank and religious sites. 

Reflecting on her meeting with a Palestinian Authority official in the West Bank, she described him as a “public servant who was passionate about representing his people and finding a longer term two-state solution.”

But she also said that he had used “some verbiage… that I didn’t quite agree with” and that an evasive answer he provided about the PA’s failure to hold elections for more than a decade raised concerns that “the PA was very interested in retaining power above finding a lasting two-state solution.”

Like many lawmakers who visit the region, she described her time there as “incredibly sobering,” highlighting Israel’s small size and the many threats it faces. Her biggest takeaway, she added, was that “fundamentally” there must be a Jewish state.

Back home, Elfreth said she has worked on increasing funding to houses of worship that have faced threats and vandalism, as well as working to strengthen hate crimes laws.

“We can’t legislate against hate, we can do everything we can to make sure people will feel safe in their own communities,” she said. “We can make sure our laws are going to make it really uncomfortable for people to feel comfortable expressing hate in our communities.”

Speaking about her run more generally, the state senator played up her bipartisan work in the state senate, leaning into her experience as a lawmaker and accessibility to the community, and emphasizing that she’s running for Congress to make progress on issues that matter to her community.

“Everybody I’ve talked to seems to want somebody who has a proven track record of being an effective legislator and being a part of the community and showing up and delivering for the communities of the 3rd Congressional District,” she said. 

“It’s not an allusion to any of my opponents in particular… I think we have far too many people in Congress who are focused on getting a slot on cable news or gaining Twitter followers and not enough who just want to do the work,” she continued. “That’s what I bring, and maybe it’s not as exciting as other candidates and what they can bring to the table. But I’m in this to do the work and to be a good and effective representative for my district.”

Jewish Insider’s senior national correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed reporting.

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