In Maryland, AIPAC has poured $4.2M into a congressional primary where Israel is not an issue

By Ron Kampeas

ANNAPOLIS, MD – DECEMBER 6: Sen. Sarah Elfreth, right, is the youngest woman to ever serve in the Maryland state Senate. She gives a hug to Joy Walker, the Office administrator for Senater Thomas V. Miller Jr., the president of the Maryland Senate during an orientation in the Senate Chamber. There is a large number of women who are joining the Maryland General Assembly. The freshman class has one of its largest groups of women. (photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The United Democracy Project, a campaign finance group affiliated with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, has dumped $4.2 million into today’s (May 14) Democratic primary in Maryland’s 3rd District to back state Sen. Sarah Elfreth.

No one is sure why, including Elfreth.

“I’m uncomfortable with dark money as well,” she told Maryland Matters, a political news site, regarding UDP, which is a super PAC. She made the comment in April after three of her opponents staged a press conference decrying the huge injection of outside money into the race to replace Rep. John Sarbanes, who is retiring. Super PACs may spend unlimited amounts of cash on a race, but are barred by law from coordinating with campaigns.

“I don’t like it, Elfreth added. “But I’m not in a position to say no to people who want to amplify my message.”

Polls show Elfreth and Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer, leading the crowded field. Dunn physically battled with rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, when former President Donald Trump spurred his followers to mob the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn his defeat.

Dunn and Elfreth started the campaign with virtually identical positions on Israel, backing emergency defense funding for its war against Hamas, a bottom line for AIPAC.

In direct campaign funding, Dunn is beating Elfreth, $4.5 million to $1.45 million. But the UDP funding has given the two candidates similar war chests.

The effect of the unsolicited giving has been to drive Dunn to accept the endorsement of J Street, the dovish Jewish Middle East lobby that is AIPAC’s chief rival. He is also echoing UDP’s harshest critics, who say the super PAC is a front for wealthy Republican donors who want to meddle in Democratic races.

“Candidates who receive this support accept the endorsement of an organization that has backed candidates and members of Congress who incited the rioters I fought on January 6th and tried to overthrow our democracy,” Dunn said last month.

UDP’s spokesman, Patrick Dorton, said in an email that the lobby wants to give her the best chances of winning. But he notably did not mention Israel.

“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,” he said. (Cardin boosted Elfreth last week as “ready for the job” when they appeared together at an event, but has not endorsed her.

Haunting the race is UDP’s recent outing in California, where it spent $4.6 million in an unsuccessful bid to keep a state legislator, Dave Min, from advancing in a congressional primary for reasons no one could discern. Min, who had not been critical of Israel before or during his campaign, advanced anyway. (UDP has had victories as well, most recently in a Republican primary in Indiana.)

Dorton has claimed for weeks that Dunn is not the target, telling Jewish Insider in April that UDP hoped to keep out “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.”

“Not Harry Dunn” appears to be John Morse, a labor lawyer who has the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an outspoken Israel critic. Morse has boasted of being the most outspoken among the field of 20 or so candidates in calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza war.

But that rationale has become less pressing: Polls show Morse far behind. Still, UDP continues to boost Elfreth with its ads.

Susie Turnbull, who backs Dunn and who has held senior positions in the Democratic Party and in the organized Jewish community, said the net effect will be to bring unwanted attention to Israel for no good reason.

“What they are doing is putting a flashing light on Israel if [Elfreth]’s successful, and a flashing light on the whole issue if she is not,” she said in an interview.

The race has given AIPAC a prominent place to invest its funds in Maryland at a time when the most AIPAC-aligned candidate in one of the state’s senatorial primaries has said he refuses PAC funding.

A Democratic primary Tuesday will determine who will vie in November to replace retiring Sen. Ben Cardin, who is Jewish. Maryland’s other senator, Democrat Chris Van Hollen, is one of the most vocal critics of Israel in its war with Hamas in the Senate, so many Israel advocates see the race to determine his counterpart as essential to creating balance in the state.

The two leading candidates in the Democratic primary to replace Cardin are Angela Alsobrooks, the executive of Prince George’s County, and Rep. David Trone, a liquor store magnate.

Little separates them when it comes to policy, except when it comes to Israel. In a Washington Post Q & A posted Friday, Alsobrooks opposed Israel’s entry into Rafah, a city on Gaza’s border with Egypt that is packed with hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians as well as what Israel says are Hamas’ remaining battalions. Trone, who noted that his wife and children are Jewish, did not mention Rafah.

Both candidates spoke of the dire need for humanitarian aid, but only Alsobrooks blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and backed conditioning defense assistance to Israel.

Alsobrooks has the backing of the PAC affiliated with J Street. Trone, on the other hand, does not have the endorsement of AIPAC’s affiliated political action committee. He says he refuses PAC funds on principle. His $100,000 pledge to AIPAC last year makes him a “minyan”-level donor to the group.

Trone has an apparently unlimited capacity to spend — the $62 million he has poured so far into the race makes it the second most expensive self-funded campaign in Senate history. He is outspending Alsobrooks by almost 10 to one. Polling shows the two neck and neck.

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