Jan. 6 Cop Bets MAGA Backlash Will Power Him to Congress

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
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When Harry Dunn launched his campaign for Congress earlier this year, he immediately made clear exactly why he was running.

The former U.S. Capitol Police officer’s announcement video depicts a violent re-enactment of Jan. 6, 2021. Dunn walks down a lookalike Capitol Hill hallway surrounded by rioters waving MAGA flags and fighting police. Alarms blare, lights flash, and people scream.

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Speaking directly to the camera, Dunn delivers what might as well be his campaign motto. “We can’t ever let this happen again.”

Dunn, of course, understands why: he experienced the real Jan. 6. His accounts of the violent, racist treatment he endured from pro-Trump mobs that day thrust him into the national spotlight.

For three years, Dunn has used his platform to demand justice by testifying before Congress, appearing frequently in the news media and on cable TV, and writing a memoir.

To hear Dunn tell it, the obvious next step in his quest for accountability is to run for Congress himself—as a Democrat, in Maryland’s open 3rd Congressional District, a safely liberal seat where the primary will determine who gets sent to Washington.

The villains in Dunn’s campaign are clear—former President Donald Trump, Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 election like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), rioters who wreaked havoc on Capitol Hill. They’ve all featured extensively in Dunn’s campaign materials.

Obviously, Dunn is not directly running against any of those conservative boogeymen. His more immediate competition are the 22 other Democrats who have filed to run in the May 14 primary—a field that includes established state lawmakers who are running on their records, and talking about other core Democratic issues like abortion, and climate change.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, however, Dunn hardly seemed concerned with litigating his differences with the competition.

“These people aren’t my opponents,” Dunn said. “I mean, they are to get to the next stage, but these people believe in democracy, these people—meaning the Democratic field that I’m running against—they’re not my opponents, the Republicans who don’t believe that January 6 is a big deal. Those are our opponents.”

By making Jan. 6 the core of his campaign, Dunn is seeking to generate momentum among Democrats disturbed by what happened on that day and its aftermath, but who have lacked an outlet to channel their energy at the polls since it happened.

Clearly, the pitch is resonating so far among Democrats nationally: in the first three weeks of his campaign, Dunn raised $2.75 million, according to the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue’s January report.

That haul tops what was raised by Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) in the same period—even though their competitive races will decide the balance of the U.S. Senate. (Dunn’s first quarter campaign finance report of 2024, due in April, will give the fullest glimpse so far of just how much he has raised.)

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The Maryland primary, then, is poised to be a unique test for just how much of a motivating factor Jan. 6 and its aftermath continue to be for core Democratic Party voters. If Dunn can win a crowded primary race stocked with more seasoned politicians by focusing squarely on his own story, it will send a signal that will reverberate far beyond suburban Maryland.

With the House and Senate majorities, as well as the White House, on the line this election cycle, many Democrats hope Jan. 6 can be a coalition builder and cash cow. In Dunn’s campaign they see confirmation that the insurrection is still fresh in voters’ minds, and can translate his momentum into Democratic wins.

Of course, Dunn’s competition argues that the district’s voters won’t be satisfied with his relatively limited focus. In order to win the race, Dunn will have to do more than run dramatic Jan. 6 ads, said Mike Rogers, a Democratic state lawmaker who is running in the primary.

Rogers—an army veteran and two-term delegate in the Maryland General Assembly—detailed policies to boost education, small business, and the environment as well as his ground game to turn out his core constituents.

“The person that wins this race is the person that gets their voters to the polls,” Rogers told The Daily Beast. “So with respect to Harry Dunn, you have to ask the question: Who are his voters?”

Dunn was raised in Maryland but lives outside the 3rd District, in Montgomery County. His endorsements are primarily from national politicians, while some of his opponents—like state Sen. Sarah Elfreth—boast extensive local support. (Elfreth recently also picked up coveted endorsements from the League of Conservation Voters and the Maryland State Teachers Association.)

On the campaign trail, Dunn has had to confront the full spectrum of election year policy issues as Democratic messaging extends well beyond Jan. 6 this campaign season. Democrats across the country—and in Maryland’s 3rd District—are focusing on policies to enshrine abortion access, boost economic growth, and protect the environment.

Dunn’s campaign website outlines his positions on each of those issues and 13 others for good measure, including protecting the Chesapeake Bay and preventing gun violence. Yet a section on his “Plan to Protect the People’s Democracy” published last week is easily the most comprehensive.

At this point, the race has not been subject to extensive polling. One February survey from RMG Research showed that no candidate broke 10 percent support from likely primary voters. Of the frontrunners, Elfreth had 9 percent, Dunn 7 percent, and Rogers 6 percent.

While Dunn’s profile as an officer who defended the Capitol is unique among congressional candidates so far, he’s not the only Democrat who has banked on tapping their anti-insurrectionist bona fides for a campaign.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) highlighted his role as a member of the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 in campaign ads and just won a close California Senate primary. A photo of Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) cleaning up the Capitol rotunda after the riots went viral at the time and has since become a defining example of his servant leader brand as he runs for a New Jersey Senate seat.

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“Candidates that have identified themselves with January 6 understand the urgency of what is at stake, because we saw it firsthand,” Dunn said. “So I think the urgency of what is at stake right now helps people stand out.”

Dunn’s rising profile comes at the same time Trump and his allies have dug in on their own Jan. 6 narrative. Earlier this month, Trump played a clip of incarcerated rioters singing the national anthem from jail at one of his rallies. He proceeded to call the perpetrators of the insurrection “hostages” and “unbelievable patriots.”

Trump’s repeated invocation of the insurrection has invigorated Democrats to push back on his message. The former president’s refusal to let his party’s Jan. 6 discourse fizzle out has made Democratic messaging even more timely and salient.

“Now that Trump is campaigning on the pro-January 6 side, it has really reignited the issue again,” said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at UCLA and one of the Biden campaign’s 2020 pollsters.

Though he’s a political newbie and outsider, Dunn is perhaps more familiar with the inner workings of Capitol Hill than some congressmen. And he remains friends with many—some of whom have endorsed his bid and credit him for saving them from violence on Jan. 6.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a darling of anti-Trump liberals, endorsed Dunn because “democracy needs a first responder.”

The California Democrat argued Jan. 6 is connected to Republican dysfunction in Congress more broadly, which has reached new heights under the chaotic GOP majority that has attempted to rule since flipping the chamber in 2022.

“January 6, represents chaos, obviously, at its worst, and the extension of January 6, has been the chaos that Republicans have brought,” Swalwell said.

Given his firsthand experiences on Jan. 6, Dunn is an ideal promoter of such a message. His successful fundraising proves that his campaign strategy is resonating. But in more competitive head-to-head races with Republicans—including the presidential race—Democrats are working through their insurrection messaging, hoping a focus on pro-democracy themes will help move the needle.

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President Joe Biden has leaned into the insurrection as a stark reminder of Trump’s chaotic reign. His first re-election video opened with a shot of the Capitol Building under siege, and his State of The Union address featured Jan. 6 heavily—Biden said “his predecessor” was seeking to “bury the truth.”

For Democrats, speaking out about Jan. 6 appears to be landing with voters, even three years later. A January poll from the Washington Post showed that 55 percent of Americans—including 24 percent of Republicans—think the day should never be forgotten.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD)—the lead manager in Trump’s second impeachment—sees Jan. 6 as an issue that can bring those disillusioned Republicans to the Democratic side, or at least to consider voting for Democratic candidates.

“January 6 is actually not a narrowing issue, it’s a broadening issue,” Raskin told The Daily Beast. “There are commanding majorities of Americans all over the country who reject political violence.” (Raskin has not endorsed in the race.)

Will Rollins—a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Jan. 6 rioters from Southern California—is challenging Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) for the second time. The race is in a closely watched, competitive district and Rollins talks extensively with voters about the insurrection.

Unlike Dunn, Rollins has an election-denying Trump backer in Calvert to use a foil to talk about the issue. Rollins is trying to leverage the insurrection to frame Trump’s more recent anti-democratic rhetoric, like his comment that he would want to be a dictator for his first day in office.

“Most Americans—including a decent number of Republicans are opposed to that—for good reason,” Rollins told The Daily Beast. “And I think that that’s what’s going to end up helping us recapture the House Majority because we’re gonna be able to bring those folks into our coalition.”

Dunn has mastered that message. But his biggest challenge may not be convincing Democrats he’s their best fighter for democracy—instead, his campaign may hinge on whether he can persuade them he is an effective fighter on the broad range of issues that the party cares about.

Despite his stiff competition, Dunn insists he’s doing just that. When he speaks to voters, he says there’s “even more excitement when I talk about defending women’s reproductive rights or continuing to stand up for democracy and lowering health-care costs and those issues that resonate with people.”

“It just excites them further,” he said, “to see that I’m more than just, January 6 officer.”

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