Progressive Democrats who’ve condemned Israel over its war offensive in Gaza are demanding that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries do more to protect them against primary challenges from pro-Israel Democrats.
In a closed-door meeting at party headquarters last Thursday, the three lawmakers who lead the Progressive Caucus’ PAC met with Jeffries and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), the head of House Democrats’ campaign arm. They told the Democratic leader he needed to keep the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee out of Democratic primaries.
In fact, the progressive leaders argued, Democrats’ efforts to recapture the House next year might depend on it.
“If we have to spend a lot of money to keep our incumbents in office, then that’s less money that gets spent on frontline districts and districts we can pick up, so it is a real problem,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the PAC. “And that’s why it’s really important to be clear to AIPAC that they need to stand down and that we are going to vigorously defend our members.”
The Israel-Hamas war is forcing Jeffries to navigate a treacherous divide between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian members just as he’s gearing up for a battle to retake the chamber next year.
Jeffries has committed that his party’s campaign arm will work to reelect incumbents who’ve harshly criticized Israel over its response to the Hamas attack last month. His vow comes as several of them, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), have drawn primary opponents backed by deep-pocketed groups aligned with Israel. Jeffries heard out the progressives’ concerns about AIPAC, a group that he still maintains close ties to, according to a person familiar with the conversation, and talked through the dynamics of several of the races.
Democratic Party divisions on the Israel-Hamas conflict are reverberating throughout the party. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who’s one of the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus PAC, was apparently delayed to the meeting because of ceasefire protesters at his house — an example of how politics for pro-Israel progressives have been complicated by the outbreak of violence in Israel.
The moment is also an opportunity for Jeffries and other new Democratic leaders to shore up support on their left flank. Although they haven’t always been on the same page on the Israel conflict, with Jeffries staking out a more pro-Israel stance, progressives are willing to set aside their differences — if they get the necessary help.
Pennsylvania Rep. Summer Lee, a progressive first-term lawmaker facing a primary challenge, acknowledged that Jeffries had contributed financially to defending incumbents. But she urged him to do more.
“I hope that he will speak out as urgently and aggressively as those who are speaking out against us,” Lee said.
It was a call echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who said in a brief interview that with “the highly racialized targeting of many of these members, we absolutely need leadership that would defend our members from that.”
The meeting marked the second time in recent months that top progressives have gone to ask leadership for help. Progressives first asked Democratic leaders to clarify their position on protecting incumbents over the summer, after Jayapal dubbed Israel a “racist state.” Jeffries and his team reassured liberals at the time they would continue the policy of defending incumbents.
It’s not a controversial position in the party, even among Democrats who had been sharply critical of the party’s left flank on Israel-related issues. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who’d voted to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) over her criticism of Israel, acknowledged that Jeffries had “the responsibility to make sure we get to 218” but also “that we are supporting our members.”
Still, it’s unclear how much Jeffries can do to dissuade AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups. The United Democracy Project, a super PAC run by AIPAC, and DMFI PAC, which is run by Democratic Majority for Israel, are already ramping up for the 2024 cycle. UDP is running a negative ad against Lee in her district as well as an ad hitting Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). Lee faces a credible primary challenge from Bhavini Patel, and Westchester County Executive George Latimer has been floated as a challenger to Bowman.
DMFI is also running an ad against Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, that highlights her criticisms of the Israeli government.
“These anti-Israel members, they’ve already crossed that threshold. So then the real question is, as I said before, is can we have an impact here?” said DMFI president Mark Mellman, describing how the PAC decides where to spend money.
Last cycle, DMFI PAC spent $7.5 million in independent expenditures, and UDP spent $26 million, according to OpenSecrets. United Democracy Project did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not just House leaders who are signaling they’ll defend incumbents — the Black Caucus PAC is publicly committing to standing behind them, too. Several of the targeted lawmakers are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Bowman called “ a problem to me, because this is a country that historically has undermined Black leadership.”
“The [CBC] PAC has endorsed them already and we will support them the way we support all of our endorsed candidates,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the head of the CBC PAC.
Meeks said he hasn’t talked specifically to any of those members, many of whom are members of the CBC, about their primaries but plans to support them.
AIPAC’s heavy spending has particularly rankled Democrats, many of whom criticized the flood of outside money. The small-dollar fundraising that buoyed many progressive members in their first races has dried up this year, making them more vulnerable to primary challenges. Small-dollar fundraising, defined as donations under $200 apiece, is down for campaigns and committees across federal campaigns in both parties, giving extra influence to big-check donors and outside spending.
Bush, for example, only reported about $20,000 in cash on hand as of the most recent FEC filing deadline. She said she felt confident, though, about the support she had in her district, adding that she saw a bump in donations after her opponent, Wesley Bell, announced he was challenging her. She told POLITICO in an interview that on top of financial support, she wanted leadership to openly back her and to rebut attacks on her congressional tenure.
“The support is really the truth about what’s going on,” she said. “Because the thing is, people will try to smear this work.”
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) a co-chair of progressives’ PAC, was particularly concerned by AIPAC’s spending in Democratic primaries given the group’s Republican donors.
“We just wanted to continue talking about how to make sure that an entity like AIPAC — if they don’t play in Republican primaries, they shouldn’t be playing with Democratic primaries,” he said of the group’s conversation with party leadership.
Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.