Choice for Maryland Democrats Comes Down to Star Power Versus Experience

Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer who was on duty during the Jan. 6 riots and is running for elected office for the first time, has become one of the nation’s top political fund-raisers by leveraging the power of his emotional testimony delivered during televised congressional hearings about the attack.

His $4.6 million war chest is larger than any other House candidate in Maryland — and more than all but three non-incumbent Democratic House candidates across the country, according to campaign finance records.

But those contributions and his “save democracy” battle cry face a stiff test from a crowded field of fellow Democrats squaring off Tuesday in a closely watched Maryland House primary that will signal where concerns about Jan. 6 and its aftermath stand among a list of issues for voters on the left.

Mr. Dunn’s main competition is Sarah Elfreth, a state senator who has raised $1.5 million for her campaign and received $4.4 million more in help from outside groups, campaign finance reports show.

Nearly all of that spending has come from United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Mr. Dunn has also pledged to support the Jewish state.

Both Ms. Elfreth and Mr. Dunn have vowed to make campaign finance reform a top priority in Congress. Mr. Dunn has sworn off help from outside groups as part of his pro-democracy platform.

He said the outside money spent in the race was ironic considering that the candidates are running to replace Representative John Sarbanes, a retiring Democratic lawmaker who worked to limit the influence of money in campaigns during his nine terms in office.

“It kind of sucks,” Mr. Dunn said. “I wanted to make it one of my objectives in Congress to get big money and corporations out of influencing elections. And now I’m facing it. I know that’s how the system works, but that’s not how it should be.”

Still, much of the money he has raised is largely related to the national platform he gained after receiving attention as one of four officers who testified at the first public hearing of the House committee investigating the attack aimed at disrupting the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

Mr. Dunn’s testimony detailed how his fellow officers were bloodied in the incursion and how rioters used racist slurs against him. He quickly became a fixture on cable news and, in 2023, received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Biden for his role in protecting the Capitol.

He has described himself as the candidate best equipped to combat former President Donald J. Trump’s conservative movement, a message that has resonated with liberal donors across the country.

Ms. Elfreth has leaned into her political résumé as a contrast. She was the youngest woman ever elected to the Maryland Senate when she won her seat in 2018. Since then, she has passed 84 bills with bipartisan support, according to her campaign.

Like Mr. Dunn, Ms. Elfreth said she would make campaign finance reform a priority in Congress.

“I plan to do my damndest to get money out of politics, but in the meantime, this is the system we have,” she said.

Maryland’s Third Congressional District includes Annapolis, the state capital, and Howard County, a rapidly growing area with exurbs, including Columbia and Ellicott City, in the orbit of both Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The primary winner will immediately become the odds-on favorite to capture the heavily Democratic district in a general election against the Republican nominee, which will also be decided on Tuesday.

Other Maryland Democrats in the primary include Clarence Lam, a state senator from Howard County and a physician on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, who has raised $736,100; Juan Dominguez, an Army veteran and son of Cuban immigrants, who has collected $377,000; and Michael Coburn, a criminal defense lawyer who has raised $230,000.

No other candidate has collected more than $200,000, campaign finance records show.

The Maryland contest is one of three primaries in Mid-Atlantic House districts that include candidates from the “save democracy” movement.

In Pennsylvania last month, a broader campaign on women’s rights, abortion access and inflation proved more valuable than a narrow focus on defending democracy when Janelle Stelson, a former news broadcaster, easily defeated Mike O’Brien, a retired Marine Corps officer who made preservation of democracy central to his candidacy.

In Virginia next month, Yevgeny Vindman, who goes by Eugene, is running for a House seat by highlighting the key role played by his twin brother, Alexander, in spotlighting Mr. Trump’s effort to strong-arm Ukraine into digging up dirt on Mr. Biden. Mr. Vindman is seeking to replace Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who is running for governor.

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