Critics accuse pro-Israel Republican mega-donors of trying to tip the scales in a Democratic primary

A pro-Israel super PAC has spent more than $4.2 million trying to boost Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published May 11, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Sarah Elfreth and Harry Dunn (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sarah Elfreth and Harry Dunn (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It’s not a surprise that Republican mega-donors are spending big to influence the 2024 election. What is curious is that they – and a super PAC that represents the far-right of the pro-Israel spectrum – are spending millions to tip the scales in a deep-blue district, seeking to ensure the victory of a candidate who is campaigning as a liberal Democrat.

Barring some unforeseen disaster in the general election, the next member of Congress from Maryland’s third district, incorporating Annapolis and the Baltimore suburbs, will be a Democrat. The only real question ahead of the May 14 primary election is which one it will be.

People who have given to former President Donald Trump and his allies would like it to be state Sen. Sarah Elfreth. The 35-year-old, serving in the state legislature since her first election in 2018, is not a right-wing extremist. Her campaign website boasts of endorsements from the Sierra Club and a number of local unions; it does not even mention Israel.

But Elfreth has nonetheless benefited from a massive infusion of cash  being spent on her behalf by a super PAC, United Democracy Project, that is an arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In March, the super PAC, to which donors can give unlimited amounts, spent $600,000 on a television ad campaign emphasizing Elfreth’s support for prenatal child care and abortion rights.

Filings with the Federal Election Commission show that the super PAC, which describes itself as “Democrats, Republicans and Independents” who support “America’s partnership with our democratic ally Israel,” has since spent funds on direct mail and a phone banking operation for Elfreth. It also dropped another $800,000 on ads the week before the primary, bringing the total spent trying to elect her to more than $4.2 million, dwarfing the $1.4 million raised by the campaign itself. Elfreth has also been endorsed by the Pro-Israel America PAC, which was founded by former AIPAC staffers and describes her as having “traveled to Israel on a life changing trip that will forever influence her worldviews.”

Elfreth’s most well-known competitor is former U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, 40, who gained notoriety for his actions during the Jan. 6 insurrection and subsequent testimony on Capitol Hill. A regular on MSNBC, he’s leveraged his national profile to raise more than $4.5 million and win endorsements from the likes of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

Dunn’s position on Israel is firmly within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. In February, he told Jewish Insider that Israel “has a right to defend itself, and I support the goals of returning all the hostages home and eliminating Hamas,” but added that he is “glad President Biden has advocated for an approach that reduces unnecessary civilian casualties.” The only candidate to publicly make the Israel-Palestine issue a central one for their own campaign has been former labor lawyer John Morse, who enjoys the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and has pinned a post on his X profile calling for a “permanent humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.”

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UDP’s intervention, then, is peculiar by its own standards. In the past, it has intervened in other Democratic races with a stated aim of defeating any would-be member of the progressive “squad,” meaning critics of Israel like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. In the 2022 cycle, it spent nearly $33 million on congressional races, including $3.2 million trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., from winning in Pennsylvania, and more than $1.8 million to help Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, defeat a progressive challenge (Cuellar has since been indicted for alleged corruption).

Earlier this year, it also spent $4.6 million in a failed attempt to prevent California state Sen. Dave Min from winning the primary for Rep. Katie Porter’s, D-Calif., old seat.

Susan Turnbull, a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party who previously served on the board of director for Hillel, told Salon she was troubled to learn of the pro-Israel intervention in the primary race. She herself identifies as a Zionist and supporter of Israel’s right to exist, but says the people backing Elfreth’s candidacy are not merely pro-Israel, but pro-Israel’s right-wing government.

Turnbull, who has endorsed Dunn, said her concern is that AIPAC-affiliated “mega-donors” have taken it upon themselves to make this race about Israel, “above and beyond every other issue that matters to the American people,” and are “attempting to determine races across this country.”

“As a Democrat, I am especially opposed to that notion,” she said. “Someone who is supporting… Donald Trump donating in a race in a Democratic primary to change the potential outcome of that race. That’s my problem with it.”

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UDP did not respond to a request for comment. But a spokesperson previously told the local news site Maryland Matters that, while it appreciated Dunn’s “support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship” – he himself is endorsed by J Street, the liberal answer to AIPAC – Elfreth’s “leadership on abortion rights, climate change, and domestic violence makes her a stronger candidate.” The spokesperson, Patrick Dorton, added that there are other “anti-Israel” candidates in the race, “who are not Harry Dunn, and we need to make sure that they don’t make it to Congress.”

As a super PAC, UDP is not allowed to coordinate its spending with any candidate for office. But the group’s donors have responded to its support for Elfreth by donating directly to her campaign. Overall, more than 40 people who have donated at least $10,000 to UDP or AIPAC’s traditional PAC contributed to Elfreth’s campaign this year. Among them are some big-time GOP donors.

Edward Levy, for example, former president of AIPAC, gave $6,600 this year to Elfreth’s campaign; he’s likewise donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to various arms of the Republican Party, and more than $650,000 to AIPAC-affiliated PACs, including UDP and the separate AIPAC PAC.

Larry Mizel, a businessman who served as Donald Trump’s 2016 state fundraising chairman in Colorado, has also donated $3,300 to Elfreth and over $300,000 to UDP and AIPAC PAC. Mizel made headlines last year when he hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for a dinner in Israel, fueling speculation he would back the erstwhile Trump rival. He donated over $41,000 to the RNC in January.

Real estate developer Robert Kargman has given $5,500 to Elfreth.  He too has given to UDP and AIPAC PAC, donating some $14,000 – and much more to various Republican candidates. In 2020, he gave $25,000 to Donald Trump’s reelection; in 2020, he helped fund the congressional campaign of Laura Loomer, a far-right activist and “proud Islamophobe” who has celebrated the drowning deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

Other notable contributors to Elfreth’s campaign include Robert Sarver, who gave the maximum of $6,600. He is the former owner of the Phoenix Suns, forced to relinquish control of the basketball after facing allegations of misogyny and racism (a former coach of the team said Sarver repeatedly used the n-word). Sarver has also lavished the GOP with donations – more than $179,000 by the time of the 2020 election.

Daniel Kraft, son of New Englands Patriots owner and Trump megadonor Robert Kraft, has also donated $3,300 to Elfreth’s campaign since it won the backing of the super PAC. Kraft has also given to numerous Trump-backed congressional candidates over the last year, including Michigan Senate hopeful Mike Rogers and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.. (He’s also recently supported other Democrats, including Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif.).

John Morse, the Sanders-backed labor attorney, told Salon that Elfreth is getting support from UDP and affiliated donors because they believe she is “someone who will turn a blind eye to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza.” Their intervention in a Democratic primary, he argued, is an effort to “control both parties” and deceive voters.

“The super PAC tries in vain to bolster her liberal bonafides and notably never mentions Israel,” he said. “That’s because the vast majority of Democrats favor a ceasefire. They’re doing this across the country to try to trick voters.”

Elfreth’s campaign manager, Pat Murray, rejects such accusations. He declined to address questions about why GOP donors are supporting the state senator and whether she intends to keep their donations, instead choosing to highlight the support she has received from environmental groups and labor unions – and describing the talk of money as a smear.

“We are disappointed that other candidates launched last minute negative attacks,” Murray said in a statement to Salon, “but that’s a clear sign that they know Sarah is the frontrunner and in a strong position to win on Tuesday.”

Dunn, in his own statement to Salon, did not mention Elfreth by name but argued that candidate receiving “dark money spending bankrolled by MAGA Republicans” is effectively cosigning their politics. “Any candidate who receives this support [and] refuses to condemn their meddling in this race,” he said, “essentially accepts the endorsement” of those who “incited the rioters I fought on January 6th.”

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Donald Trump Harry Dunn Sarah Elfreth