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Progressives seek to neutralize AIPAC’s spending threats

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The promise of an onslaught of spending from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has loomed over Democratic primaries for months — but it hasn’t yet materialized.

Progressives critical of Israel, however, think they can exploit even the threat of AIPAC’s involvement in their races, in yet another sign of the schism among Democrats over the escalating Israel-Hamas war.

Their digital ads warn of the group’s influence and seek to energize small-dollar donors. Advocacy groups supporting them have formed an anti-AIPAC coalition to coordinate a defense against the expected influx of cash. Progressive incumbents have sought assistance from their leadership, demanding unified party support to block challenges.

It’s an effort to neutralize AIPAC, which has vowed to drop $100 million this cycle to support pro-Israel candidates, including ousting progressives, in part, for their support for Palestinians amid the war. And there are some signs it may be working. Days after Iran’s attack on Israel, the deep-pocketed lobby group still has yet to turn on the spigots in primaries against some prominent progressives, like Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), the first member of the liberal “Squad” to face a primary this year.

And in the few races AIPAC has jumped into, it has had a limited track record so far. That’s made the group a more effective foil, at least so far, than the heavyweight player many on the left had feared it would be in Democratic primaries.

AIPAC’s affiliated super PAC, United Democracy Project, has spent around $6 million on advertising this year, according to ad tracker AdImpact. Most of that — around $4 million — was against David Min, a progressive running for outgoing California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter‘s seat. Min ended up winning a spot in the top-two primary system anyway, and the candidate UDP backed didn’t. Though it hasn’t directly spent in their races yet, AIPAC has still bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions for the primary challengers to Squad members Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.).

Much of progressives’ attacks have centered on the groups’ donors: Republican donors — including former Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus and billionaire financier Paul Singer — are among its contributors. (Major Democratic donors also give to AIPAC.) Progressives also note that the group has endorsed candidates who voted against certifying the 2020 election.

“Hopefully where we’ve been successful is in letting people know that their money should be considered toxic in a primary. Because this is not genuinely Democratic money coming into a Democratic primary to elect a Democrat,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a leader of the Progressive Caucus’ political arm who’s been vocal in opposition to the group’s influence.

AIPAC pushes back on that characterization. AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann said in a statement that its PACs support “scores of pro-Israel progressives who understand it is entirely consistent with progressive values to support the Jewish state. We oppose extremist anti-Israel detractors who seek to undermine America’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian terrorist proxies.”

The full scope of AIPAC’s and UDP’s spending is yet to be seen, given that most primary campaigns are not in full swing yet. But there’s one particularly notable gap right now: Lee’s race in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. Lee had been a top AIPAC target in 2022, when it spent millions of dollars against her — but now, less than a week out from the Pennsylvania primary, she hasn’t faced any outside spending from the group.

That hasn’t stopped Lee from railing against the group. The campaign has warned of AIPAC’s ability to flood the race with money, and she criticizes her primary opponent, Edgewood Borough Council Member Bhavini Patel, for her links to deep-pocketed GOP donors.

Lee said she spoke out against AIPAC throughout her campaign because “our voters have a right to know that when they see ads funded by the ‘United Democracy Project,’ it’s actually a right-wing lobby.”

Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for UDP, said the group is still monitoring 15 to 20 races on both sides of the aisle, “looking carefully at opportunities to prevent anti-Israel candidates from being elected to Congress.”

Lee has, however, attracted negative spending from Moderate PAC, a group funded primarily by GOP megadonor Jeff Yass that has poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Patel. (At a debate earlier this month, Patel said she “denounces” Yass, who is linked to former President Donald Trump.)

Lee is leaning on that outside spending — both the actual money coming in from Moderate PAC and the anticipated cash from AIPAC — in advertising and fundraising appeals to broadly attack “Republican-funded super PACs.” Other progressives have similarly used the threat of AIPAC’s involvement on the campaign trail and in fundraising pleas. It’s been a particularly popular topic for fellow members of the Squad, which AIPAC spent millions unsuccessfully trying to block from Congress in the midterms.

“Dark money super PACs like AIPAC donated huge sums of money to amplify Ilhan’s opponent last cycle and are preparing to do so again to defeat our movement,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) wrote in a recent digital ad. “We need all of the support we can get to fight back and WIN.”

Omar, in a statement, told POLITICO: “No Democrat should be accepting money from a group that openly supports and funds over one hundred Republican insurrectionists.”

But Omar’s primary — which is months away — hasn’t seen any outside intervention from AIPAC, according to AdImpact. And she has raised hefty sums, raking in over $1.7 million last quarter.

UDP spent six figures against Omar in 2022, when she faced former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, who’s also seeking a rematch this time. So far, the super PAC hasn’t placed any ad reservations in the race, nor has AIPAC endorsed her competitors.

Some of the other most outspoken critics of the Israeli government, like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), aren’t even facing competitive primaries this cycle (despite some unsuccessful attempts to recruit challengers). But they too have leaned into the anti-AIPAC messaging. Tlaib has run multiple digital ads explicitly calling out the group for “spending millions against progressive women of color,” and Pressley had done so too.

“Every Democratic candidate running for any elected office should be condemning AIPAC spending,” said Usamah Andrabi, spokesperson for the progressive Justice Democrats.

In anticipation of the spending barrage, Reject AIPAC — a coalition of progressive groups including Justice Democrats, along with Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups — launched this cycle to counteract AIPAC’s opposition campaign. The coalition, which aims to defend the AIPAC-targeted candidates, last week put out a video echoing these criticisms of the group.

But while AIPAC and UDP have stayed out of some high-profile progressives’ races so far, the groups in recent weeks have waded into House primaries where the Israel-Hamas war hasn’t been anywhere near the center of attention.

United Democracy Project played in Illinois’ 7th District against gun violence prevention advocate Kina Collins, who unsuccessfully challenged longtime Democratic Rep. Danny Davis. The group spent around $500,000 on advertisements and mailers opposing her, according to campaign finance filings.

UDP entered Indiana’s 8th District earlier this month, a deep-red open seat, where the group is targeting former Republican Rep. John Hostettler. The group launched an ad slamming him for his previous votes against Israel.

The group has also reserved over $1 million in airtime in Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District to boost state Sen. Sarah Elfreth. She is running against a crowded field of candidates that includes former Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who rose to prominence after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Dunn objected to the group entering the race, and started airing a TV ad saying: “You’d think after Jan. 6, we’d see change. But greedy corporations and corrupt politicians went back to rigging the system.”

Dunn had vowed to be a supporter of Israel and Jewish people in a position paper he previously provided to AIPAC. In the document, obtained by POLITICO, Dunn name-checked lawmakers who’d been strong Israel allies, like former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), as influencing his views.

Elfreth campaign manager Pat Murray said in a statement she was fighting to change the campaign finance system but would be “playing by the rules as they exist today, and we are not going to turn down help.”