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Updated May 14, 2024, 5:58pm EDT
North America

Democrats fend off AIPAC attacks

Supporter Heather Salazar puts up a welcome sign for Democratic U.S. House candidate Harry Dunn prior a house campaign party on May 7, 2024, in Savage, Md.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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The Scene

Maryland Democrats don’t typically expect checks from Larry Mizel. The wealthy, Denver-based octogenarian who co-founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center raised money for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and served on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Last year he gave $100,000 to Kevin McCarthy’s campaign PAC; after House Republicans yanked the speaker’s gavel from McCarthy, Mizel gave $100,000 to Mike Johnson.

But last month, Mizel gave the maximum donation of $3,300 to Sarah Elfreth, a Maryland state senator running for the state’s 3rd Congressional District. He was joined by 72 other donors, only one from Maryland, who gave to Elfreth after giving to other candidates supported by the United Democracy Project, the super PAC created by the pro-Israel group AIPAC — which also plowed more than $4.2 million into TV ads and field organizing in the same race.

That massively boosted Elfreth, one of 21 Democrats running for a safely blue seat between D.C. and Baltimore. And it put UDP on a collision course with Harry Dunn, a Nancy Pelosi-endorsed former Capitol Police officer known for his heroism on January 6.

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But Dunn wasn’t defenseless: In addition to raising $4.5 million for his own campaign, he had a now-familiar playbook that Democrats have used in other campaigns where pro-Israel groups have played a role. Soon he was up with TV ads asking why “Trump donors” want Elfreth to win.

“Any candidate who receives this support refuses to condemn their meddling in this race and essentially accepts the endorsement of an organization that has backed over 100 candidates and members of Congress who incited the rioters I fought on January 6th and tried to overthrow our democracy,” Dunn told Semafor.

Dunn’s opponent — who cannot coordinate anything with the PAC — has downplayed the issue while welcoming the support.

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“If someone who’s inclined to give to the other side wants to give to Sarah, they know what they’re getting — someone who’s endorsed by teachers and will fight for campaign finance reform,” said Patrick Murray, a spokesman for Elfreth.

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David’s view

Pro-Israel donors and campaign groups have gone after a fairly wide range of Democrats this cycle. Some, like Reps. Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, have well-funded opponents and are left-wing stalwarts. Others, like Dave Min in California, didn’t have an obviously confrontational take on Israel or affinity towards its critics. And Dunn isn’t facing direct attacks from pro-Israel groups, he’s merely in the way of a preferred candidate who enjoys their support.

But the nature of the groups involved have allowed them to mount a common defense: In race after race, candidates have attacked AIPAC and its allies as partisan, pro-Trump actors who don’t have Democrats’ best interests at heart.

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Since 2022, when UDP first started spending to beat left-wing Democrats in primaries, progressives have gone straight after AIPAC’s bipartisan brand to neutralize its attacks. By continuing to give to Republicans and bundling cash from GOP donors, they argued, the pro-Israel juggernaut was backing “insurrectionists.” The goal: Discredit UDP before voters started seeing its name on mailers or hearing it in ads.

That’s how Bowman, generally seen as the House Democrat most at risk in his primary, has approached his race. On Monday night, facing Westchester County Executive George Latimer in their first televised debate, Bowman described AIPAC as a right-wing pressure group that wanted its puppet in a safe Democratic seat.

“My opponent is in the pocket and bought and paid for by AIPAC — the largest recipient of PAC money in the country,” Bowman said. “AIPAC is funded by the same Republicans who supported insurrectionists, the same Republicans who are against voting rights, who are against reproductive rights.”

Latimer called AIPAC a group working in “one particular policy area” and noted that most House Democrats were fine with it. But UDP’s long reach has become a paradox, a boon wrapped in a problem, for Democrats who weren’t talking about Israel at all.

In Oregon, where Susheela Jayapal — sister of progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal — entered the race for a safe blue seat as the heavy favorite, progressives have blamed UDP for a sudden burst of TV advertising from two PACs, the science-focused 314 Action and the brand new Voters for Responsive Government. The ads have benefited state Rep. Maxine Dexter, who was encouraged to run by pro-Israel activists — and who’s received support from Mizel and other regular AIPAC donors in the race’s final stretch. (UDP would not comment on any involvement in the race.)

“Based on her own FEC reports, we know without a doubt that anti-choice Republican donors are funding Maxine,” said Andrea Cervone, Jayapal’s campaign manager. “It’s a choice to say you’ll fight for LGBTQ+ freedoms and progressive freedoms, then take that money.”

Dexter has bemoaned the groups’ involvement on her behalf. “I’m not condoning this,” she said in a May 3 candidate forum, after Jayapal and another candidate said that she could urge the PACs to disclose their donors. “My integrity is frankly being questioned here.”

But like Elfreth, Dexter described the help from unexpected donors as a wash; giving her money isn’t enough to change her mind. “I have stood firm with people who’ve supported me, and against people who’ve supported me,” she said as the forum wrapped up.

​​Progressives would like to win these races; since the ad buys began, Jayapal has called for conditions on further aid to Israel, and Dexter hasn’t. But the queasiness that their opponents feel about benefiting from this money isn’t bad, either. Dozens of progressive groups teamed up last month to form Reject AIPAC, which coordinated their messaging (but not their money) behind an effort to make the group’s political work unpopular with Democratic voters. Usamah Andrabi, the coalition’s spokesman, said that the intervention in Maryland, especially, was helping.

“When the super PAC that endorsed 109 insurrectionists starts spending money against a Capitol Police officer, people realize this is a front for billionaires to spend in Democratic primaries,” he said.

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The View From AIPAC

“We have a strong and successful track record of supporting pro-Israel candidates from both parties,” said AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann. “In fact, we are the largest PAC contributor to Democratic candidates.”

Patrick Dorton, the spokesman for UDP, had the same response: AIPAC endorsed “the entire Democratic leadership team” in 2022, and was “proud to support pro-Israel progressives.” He added that in Maryland’s 3rd District, while some candidates were calling for a ceasefire — including John Morse, a labor lawyer endorsed by Bernie Sanders — the endorsement was all about Elfreth. “She’s one of the most effective legislators in Maryland’s history,” Dorton said. “We obviously were concerned about some anti-Israel candidates in that race, but not Dunn.”

Plus, UDP was spending against Republicans, too. Last week, it helped defeat ex-Indiana Rep. John Hostettler, stopping his comeback bid and highlighting his criticism of Israel; ahead of Kentucky’s March 20 primary, it was running ads across the commonwealth attacking conservative foreign aid critic Rep. Thomas Massie. The goal was not to beat him, said Dorton, but to make sure that “every voter in Kentucky knows how atrocious” Massie was on Israel.

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Notable

  • In the Intercept, Ryan Grim sifted through the last-minute spending in Oregon, noting that the PAC created to run negative ads on Jayapal was founded a day after a key deadline; its donors “won’t be documented in campaign finance reports until it’s too late,” the day of the all-mail primary, after most votes are cast.
  • In Jewish Insider, Mark Rod looked at how Dunn was handling the UDP intervention, and how Elfreth took a “largely pro-Israel stance, but is not fully hewing to AIPAC’s positions on the war in the Middle East.”
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