Top Pro-Israel Group Reshapes Democratic Primaries With Multimillion-Dollar Barrage
The 2021 election of Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), center, has become a model for pro-Israel groups hoping to beat back growing pro-Palestinian sympathy among Democrats. (Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images)
The country’s most influential pro-Israel group has dramatically escalated its direct involvement in elections, reshaping Democratic primaries with its endorsements, campaign contributions and lavish super PAC.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) founded a super PAC, United Democracy Project, that has already spent nearly $3.5 million to influence just five congressional primaries, according to a HuffPost analysis of federal election disclosures. The size of the spending is a source of anger and anxiety for more left-leaning groups.
“They clearly are trying to intimidate people with large sums of money from small groups of people,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a more liberal pro-Israel group.
James Zogby, a pro-Palestinian activist and president of the Arab American Institute, said the new burst of spending confirmed the oft-denied influence of pro-Israel money in U.S. politics.
“It certainly makes [Minnesota Rep.] Ilhan Omar’s, ‘It’s all about the Benjamins’ comment seem less problematic than it appeared to some at the time,” said Zogby, referring to Omar’s 2019 tweet of rap lyrics implying that campaign money drove pro-Israel sentiment on Capitol Hill. (Omar apologized for the comments amid accusations of anti-Semitism.)
For decades, AIPAC, a right-leaning group that advocates for U.S. aid and diplomatic support for Israel with as few conditions as possible, has been known as a lobbying powerhouse capable of significantly shaping U.S. foreign policy.
But in previous election cycles, AIPAC deferred to its donors to bundle campaign contributions under the auspices of independent groups.
It is entirely consistent with progressive values to support America’s alliance with the Jewish state.Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC
In response to a small, but significant shift among some congressional Democrats toward greater criticism of the Israeli government, however, AIPAC launched United Democracy Project, alongside its first-ever list of direct candidate endorsements and campaign donation bundling program.
The group announced its new political ventures in December, but the full impact of its involvement has only become clear in recent weeks as it unveiled its endorsements and began spending big sums.
AIPAC’s “strength was that they had bipartisan support. They need that to continue, but they’ve made a calculation that they can’t sit around,” said Adam Loewy, a trial lawyer and AIPAC donor from Austin, Texas.
AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann would not directly say whether the group’s growing involvement is a response to the advent of left-wing factions like the “Squad.”
“It is entirely consistent with progressive values to support America’s alliance with the Jewish state,” Wittmann said in a statement. “We are engaged in races where there is a distinct difference between candidates on supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship — which is in the progressive tradition.”
Loewy was more explicit about how the Squad and its allies had affected AIPAC’s calculus.
“AIPAC always had a saying, ‘Everyone is either a friend or a potential friend,’” he said. “There’s another category here. You’re not gonna have a potential friend in [Minnesota Rep.] Ilhan Omar. It’s just not going to happen.”
True to its history as a bipartisan, single-issue organization, AIPAC has endorsed 326 members of Congress and congressional candidates from both parties, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks at the 2019 AIPAC conference. AIPAC cultivates both parties, but its endorsement of Republicans who objected to the 2020 presidential election results has prompted some blowback. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)
But the nature of U.S. support for Israel is not a matter of debate among Republicans the way it is among Democrats, and AIPAC’s spending priorities reflect that reality.
AIPAC has begun intervening financially in Democratic primaries in two key ways: bundling donations by encouraging individual donors to earmark contributions under AIPAC’s auspices; and launching a super PAC, United Democracy Project, not subject to federal campaign finance limits.
United Democracy Project reported raising $15.7 million in the first quarter of this year. Its largest individual donor is Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, who is also a prolific contributor to official Democratic Party organs and candidates.
In just a few weeks since it began spending that money, United Democracy Project has invested nearly $3.5 million in just five races. All of the contests are Democratic primaries in the U.S. House where AIPAC is backing more moderate Democrats against left-leaning candidates or members of Congress with more critical postures toward the Israeli government.
The super PAC has spent:
More than $282,000 in support of Rep. Shontel Brown in her rematch against Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District;
More than $1 million in support of attorney Steve Irwin, who is running against state Rep. Summer Lee in Pennsylvania’s 12th;
Over $885,000 in support of state Sen. Don Davis, who is running against former state Sen. Erica Smith in North Carolina’s 1st;
Nearly $893,000 in support of state Sen. Valerie Foushee, who is running in North Carolina against Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam;
And more than $333,000 in support of Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat facing a runoff against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros in Texas’ 28th.
The Turner-Brown rematch in Ohio’s 11th on Tuesday is the first test this cycle of the right-leaning, pro-Israel lobby’s stepped-up spending.
In that race, AIPAC is supplementing the work of the super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), which unlike AIPAC, only supports Democratic candidates.
DMFI came into existence in 2019 to combat the shift toward pro-Palestinian sympathies in the growing left wing of the Democratic Party.
Brown’s victory last August in the special primary election to fill Ohio’s predominantly Democratic 11th district is DMFI’s biggest victory to date. DMFI, which spent over $2 million to elect Brown, took justifiable credit for offsetting Turner’s fundraising edge and turning Turner’s anti-establishment record into a liability in the eyes of voters.
Pro-Israel groups hope to defeat Nina Turner, a left-wing icon and former Ohio state senator, for a second time on Tuesday. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
This time, DMFI wanted to make sure Brown stayed in Congress, spending an additional $1 million in support of her reelection.
Brown’s win “sent a very important message that being pro-Israel was not just wise policy, but also good politics,” said Mark Mellman, president of DMFI. “We thought it was very important to confirm that message with another victory in the same place with the same two candidates, and that’s why we’re again the number-one spender in this race.”
Of course, these interventions have not gone totally unanswered on the left.
J Street, which supports a more proactive U.S. role in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace, has also escalated its investment in Democratic primaries. J Street’s federal PAC, JStreetPAC, has endorsed 146 candidates this cycle, including Summer Lee, Jessica Cisneros, Erica Smith and Rep. Andy Levin, who are running against AIPAC-backed Democrats. And the group launched a super PAC, the J Street Action Fund, in January, with the g
oal of countering more conservative pro-Israel spending in elections.
“We’re adjusting to the change in the rules of the game,” Ben-Ami told HuffPost.
Thus far though, J Street has raised modest sums compared to AIPAC. The group’s first intervention was a $100,000 investment in digital advertisements in support of Cisneros’ primary run in Texas.
More spending is coming, but J Street acknowledges that it cannot match AIPAC, DMFI and similar groups dollar for dollar.
There’s change coming and I don’t think they know how to deal with it.James Zogby, Arab American Institute
“We have decent financial capacity, but we don’t have their financial capacity,” J Street spokesperson Logan Bayroff told HuffPost in a follow-up interview.
AIPAC and DMFI are not identical, but they are both part of a constellation of U.S.-based pro-Israel groups that fight against meaningful U.S. pressure on the Israeli government, which they believe is understandably concerned about Palestinian terrorism and other threats. While these groups tend to officially support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do not think that the U.S. needs to facilitate the resolution of that conflict with anything more than gentle nudges. And notably, AIPAC, unlike J Street, doggedly fought then-President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran on the grounds that it jeopardized Israel’s security.
Many Palestinians, progressive foreign policy experts, and some left-leaning U.S. lawmakers, by contrast, see Israel’s continued military occupation of Palestinian lands conquered in 1967 as a key impediment to a just peace, and believe that the United States, as Israel’s chief financial and diplomatic sponsor, has a special responsibility to encourage an end to that occupation. Absent U.S. intervention, Israel’s power over a stateless people will prevent the occupation — and the cycles of violence it inspires — from ending in a fair or timely fashion, according to these more pro-Palestinian voices.
The 2018 election of Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), left, and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) increased pro-Palestinian sentiment in Congress and scared right-leaning pro-Israel groups. (Photo: Jim Mone/Associated Press)
A growing number of these pro-Palestinian figures have abandoned a two-state solution in favor of a single, binational Arab-Jewish state on the land that is currently Israel. To achieve this goal, a contingent on the left has heeded Palestinian civil society groups’ call for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The BDS movement, which has prompted charges of anti-Semitism from Israel and even some liberal critics of Israel, seeks to isolate Israel as the international community once did to South Africa’s apartheid government.
The BDS movement still does not have much purchase in Congress.
But the election of a tiny number of pro-BDS lawmakers, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), has at least had the effect of making groups like J Street seem moderate by comparison.
J Street continues to oppose BDS — and support a two-state solution facilitated by U.S. pressure and diplomacy.
“It does clarify that where J Street stands is right in the middle,” Ben-Ami said.
J Street itself has nonetheless moved to the left in the past two years. It now supports legislation that would prohibit Israel from using U.S. aid in territories that Israel has occupied since 1967. The bill, “The Two-State Solution Act,” has 45 co-sponsors in the House, but no chance of advancing further at present.
As a result of these shifts, some advocates for Palestinian human rights and independence view the unprecedented super PAC spending by right-leaning pro-Israel groups as a sign of desperation from people who are losing the philosophical debate.
“They see themselves as the little Dutch boy in the story putting his finger in the dike,” Zogby said. “There’s change coming and I don’t think they know how to deal with it.”
Zogby predicted a backlash to these pro-Israel groups’ “heavy and very transparent hand.”
Indeed, there were signs of that blowback even before AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, got going in earnest. The progressive caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party, which had granted its stamp of approval to five different Democratic candidates in North Carolina’s 4th, withdrew its support for Valerie Foushee in mid-April after it emerged that AIPAC had bundled a majority of Foushee’s first-quarter campaign contributions. The caucus objected to Foushee accepting support from AIPAC given AIPAC’s endorsement for 109 out of the 147 congressional Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results.
Greg Casar, right, speaks to the press alongside fellow Texas progressive Jessica Cisneros. A pro-Israel super PAC is spending big sums against Cisneros, but Casar escaped unscathed. (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)
And on Monday, the editorial board of North Carolina’s News & Observer newspaper cited the influx of AIPAC money for Foushee as a reason to endorse Allam.
“The heavy AIPAC support is clearly targeted at keeping Allam, a Muslim who has criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, out of Congress,” the newspaper wrote in its endorsement. “Foushee’s campaign should be about what she stands for and not what an increasingly conservative super PAC stands against.”
Bayroff, the J Street spokesperson, also noted that the five progressive candidates on the receiving end of AIPAC’s super PAC spending are all women of color and suggested it spoke to AIPAC’s bias.
Wittmann rejected the accusation, noting that two of the candidates it is supporting in those races — Foushee and Brown — are women of color as well.
“Our focus is exclusively based on the candidate’s views on the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said.
In any event, AIPAC supporters like Loewy accept pushback from progressives as the kind of collateral damage that is worth the possibility of greater influence in Washington.
“I’m happy [AIPAC’s] doing it,” Loewy said. “But I know there will be some drop-off from liberal AIPAC supporters uncomfortable with how aggressive they’re getting.”
Arguing that AIPAC’s more aggressive tactics are already yielding results, Loewy cited as an example the steps that Austin progressive Greg Casar took to head off pro-Israel spending ahead of his March 1 Democratic congressional primary. In a letter to an Austin rabbi in January, Casar renounced BDS, expressed interest in visiting Israel and indicated that he would not support singling out U.S. aid to Israel for scrutiny. The letter cost Casar the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America, but also spared him the brunt of a pro-Israel super PAC.
With a landslide primary victory in Texas’ solidly Democratic 35th Congressional District in hand, Casar is now all but assured to win a seat in Congress this November. In that way, Casar’s fate embodies the carrot-and-stick message that AIPAC wants all candidates to internalize: Accommodate yourself to the Israel lobby’s policy demands, and you may be spared a multimillion dollar assault on the airwaves.
Pro-Israel groups’ heavy spending is “working,” said Loewy, who nonetheless contributed the maximum legal donation to Casar’s primary opponent, Eddie Rodriguez. “I think the Casar race is a very good example of how it’s working.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.