The brand-new Democrats waging a cynical, confusing war against Donald Trump

Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer, greets supporters at an election night watch party on 14 May 2024 (Getty Images)
Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer, greets supporters at an election night watch party on 14 May 2024 (Getty Images)

“He doesn’t even live here!”

The news of Harry Dunn’s plans to run for Congress in Maryland’s 3rd congressional district went off like a fart in a crowded movie theater, at least among his soon-to-be-opponents. So much for any focus on local issues whatsoever: it was time to prepare to hear the phrase “January 6” on repeat for four months.

Dunn had become a fixture on CNN because of his past career as one of hundreds of Capitol Police officers assigned to protect lawmakers on the day of the attack. Of several who testified to the January 6 committee in 2022, Dunn provided a unique, deeply personal and raw perspective as a Black officer subjected to racist taunts by rioters during the hours-long siege on America’s seat of democracy.

Once a virtual nobody, Dunn was now a well-known figure in DC circles. He was spotted at house parties hosted and attended by Washington journalists, and continued to appear in the odd cable news hit long after congressional hearings related to the attack concluded. And now, he was rocketing to the top of the power rankings (or close to it) of Democratic candidates vying in a crowded primary for a seat in Congress.

His first act was to announce his candidacy, unsurprisingly, in a CNN interview. Of course, he was the only candidate to run for the seat who scored an in-studio interview with a national news network over the course of the primary: another perk of being Washington-famous.

The district, Maryland’s third, is not “inside the Beltway” — but it’s about as close as one can get. Sandwiched between Washington DC and Baltimore, the district includes Anne Arundel and Howard counties, including the state’s capital of Annapolis and wide swath of suburbia, before extending up Interstate 70 to the west. If any voters were sufficiently TV-brained to elect a Capitol cop with zero experience and few concrete ties to his would-be district, they lived here.

Just one problem: Dunn was a resident of Montgomery County. As in, another suburb of Washington DC. It’s close to district 3, but it is not, in fact, part of it.

Dunn’s lack of connection to the area — and lack of political experience — was not lost on voters, members of Maryland’s political class and especially his opponents.

Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer, greets supporters at an election night watch party on 14 May 2024 (Getty Images)
Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer, greets supporters at an election night watch party on 14 May 2024 (Getty Images)

It even appeared to be understoon by Dunn himself, as he spoke to voters in my hometown of Severna Park in early May. The candidate met with a handful of potential supporters on May 6 at the house of a self-described “MSNBC junkie” (the jokes write themselves), covered by local outlet Maryland Matters. Even as he told those voters that he was hoping “to let people know that I’m more than January 6,” Dunn made the admission: “[If] January 6 doesn’t happen, I’m not standing before you today. I’m at work at the Capitol.”

That ended up being an understatement. Throughout his campaign, Dunn focused his message almost exclusively on Donald Trump and the battle against MAGA-aligned Republicans in Congress. Those MAGA Republicans, he argued, were working in the primary to keep him from making it to Congress — a claim that seemed outlandish, given the nature of a closed Democratic primary in a state where Trump’s brand of Republicanism never caught on in any serious way. He faced constant questions, meanwhile, regarding why he was running for a seat in a district where he had never lived.

The anti-MAGA messaging continued on, even when it became clear that it was a useless tool. Text messages and statements sent by the campaign over the course of several months rarely, if ever, focused on his actual Democratic opponents, including frontrunner Sarah Elfreth, the state Senator who eventually won the primary.

The former cop ended the race in second place, buoyed undoubtedly by his support from activist anti-Trump donors nationwide. But he was unable to beat Elfreth, who was backed by the local Democratic political establishment. Meanwhile, his rivals were left questioning what could have been, had a thumb not been pressed so firmly on the scale.

One senior staffer for a campaign that fought unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination against Dunn and Elfreth in the 3rd district denounced a “DC consultant class” that they said had poured money behind a losing candidate on a pointless bid to satisfy their own obsessions.

“Dunn’s loss is an indictment of the DC consultant class that think they can drop a national figure into a local race and win with flashy ads,” said the source, who spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity in order to be candid about the state of politics in Maryland. The same source lamented that Elfreth, who received a surge of AIPAC-linked donations as the race progressed, was the only candidate able to fight back against the barrage of spending Dunn’s team was able to unleash thanks to their national connections.

“The saddest thing this proves is that you can only fight back against that if you’re a lifelong politician that can garner mysteriously-motivated big PAC donations,” they said.

One trip down I-95 to the south reveals that a similar dynamic is playing out in Virginia, where the departure of Abigail Spanberger in district 7 has triggered another crowded Democratic primary race. Like the MD-03 campaign, Virginia’s 6th was set to be a battle between local personalities but has been upended by the entrance of one of cable news’ favorite #Resistance champions: Eugene Vindman.

Eugene Vindman, left, and his brother Alexander, right, were central figures in the 2020 impeachment of Donald Trump. Eugene Vindman is now a candidate for Congress in Virginia (Getty Images)
Eugene Vindman, left, and his brother Alexander, right, were central figures in the 2020 impeachment of Donald Trump. Eugene Vindman is now a candidate for Congress in Virginia (Getty Images)

A former US Army colonel, Vindman and his brother Alexander worked for the White House National Security Council before they were famously fired by Donald Trump during the course of events leading up to his first impeachment trial in 2020. Eugene and Alexander, twin brothers, are credited with alerting the public to a phone call then-President Trump had with Ukraine’s president on which Trump pressed Zelensky to open a criminal investigation into Joe Biden in the hopes of damaging the latter politically.

Now, Eugene is running for the House of Representatives. Despite having never held elected office, not having a history of activism or service with local Democratic Party groups, and without serious connections to Virginia’s political establishment, he’s leading the race in fundraising as the June 15 primary approaches. He also has the endorsement of The Washington Post, which in its endorsement of him did not list any qualifying or even notable factors beyond his participation in the impeachment process.

Unsurprisingly, his entrance into the race — and the oversized mark his national attention is causing — is not going over well with others in the race, or even some Democrats who have yet to endorse a candidate.

“We need somebody who understands the entire district, not just the I-95 corridor,” Vindman’s rival, Carl Bedell, said.

Another critic of Vindman’s is state delegate Joshua Cole, who tweeted that he had “never” seen the former colonel involved in local Democratic Party politics in Virginia “at all”.

“I want to have someone representing me who understands what it’s like to live here in Fredericksburg, who knows what it’s like to understand Culpeper, who knows what it’s like to understand King George County,” he told NOTUS, a nonprofit newsroom run by the nonpartisan Allbritton Journalism Institute. “We understand Donald Trump is a boogeyman right now, but there are other real-life issues that we are concerned about too.”

“It does get under some folks’ skin that he’s trying to parachute into the district and win by talking about a bunch of national issues and just saying ‘Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump’. And just waltz into Congress, just based on that,” added Matt Borja, a Democrat running for school board in Culpeper County, to NOTUS.

It remains unclear if Vindman will fare better than his counterpart in Maryland. But either way, the attention of Washington’s media class is having a measurable effect on these local races, as low as the stakes may be in a race where there is little daylight between the candidates.

If he shares Dunn’s fate, the “consultant class” — WaPo’s editorial board very much included — may be overdue for a long, hard look at the kind of candidate whose proliferation they are encouraging, and whether it isn’t just another bad investment.