J Street: AIPAC spending risks health of US democracy

Pro-Israel groups see mixed results after pouring millions into Democratic primaries

AIPAC, DMFI-backed candidates score decisive victories in NC, but progressive Lee appears poised to hold off centrist Irwin in PA, where lobbies spent unprecedented sums

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

State Rep. Summer Lee, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania's 12th District US Congressional district, speaks to supporters before being endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 12, 2022. (AP/ Rebecca Droke)
State Rep. Summer Lee, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania's 12th District US Congressional district, speaks to supporters before being endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 12, 2022. (AP/ Rebecca Droke)

Pro-Israel groups enjoyed a number of victories for centrist Democratic candidates they backed in Tuesday night primary battles across the US, though the lobbies appeared poised to lose a key race where they spent unprecedented sums in order to defeat a progressive Democrat.

The House races in North Carolina and Pennsylvania were seen as early tests for AIPAC’s new political action committee, which flooded funds into contested races between progressive candidates, who are increasingly critical of Israel, and moderate opponents, who toe a more traditional line backing the Jewish state.

It is difficult to point to the millions in fundraising — from AIPAC’s United Democracy Project (UDP) super PAC, along with the smaller PAC belonging to the slightly more left-wing Democratic Majority For Israel — as the deciding factor in any of the races. Many are certainly framing it that way, however, reigniting the debate over campaign financing laws.

North Carolina’s 1st District

Centrist Democrat Don Davis comfortably defeated progressive Erica Smith 64.2 percent to 31.1%, with 99% of the vote counted in the Democratic primary. Davis enjoyed $2.4 million in support from UDP and another $437,000 from DMFI PAC.

Davis has largely avoided publicly weighing in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The endorsements he received from pro-Israel groups appeared to have more to do with his opponent, who is endorsed by J Street and made several remarks critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, in addition to voting against a bill targeting Israel boycotters when she was in the North Carolina state senate.

Smith sought to push back against the pro-Israel groups, slamming DMFI PAC for running an ad that claimed she had close ties with Trump-backed Republicans. Her campaign claimed the commercial was taken down due to its fallacies, though DMFI denied that was the case and provided evidence to show that the ads did indeed run.

State Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, takes the oath of office in the Senate chamber as lawmakers gather for the start of the 2017 Legislative session at the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, NC, January 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome/File)

After deleting a number of tweets that she had posted on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Smith was more careful about how she framed her criticism of the PACs working against her, avoiding mentioning them or Israel by name.

“To the dark [money] PACs flooding NC01 with lies,” she tweeted last week. “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, **we’ll** rise.”

But the progressive’s grassroots campaign, which boasted of having not taken any PAC money, fell well short.

In a statement congratulating Davis, DMFI said, “North Carolinians, and the country as a whole, will be well-served with Sen. Davis — a veteran, former educator, and minister — in Congress fighting for our Democratic priorities, including a strong US-Israel relationship.”

North Carolina’s 4th District

AIPAC and DMFI-backed State Senator Valerie Foushee defeated Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, who was the first Muslim elected to North Carolina state office.

With 99% of the vote counted, Foushee earned 46.15%, compared to Allam’s 36.92% and former “American Idol” finalist Clay Aiken’s 7.37%.

An ardent progressive, Allam has been particularly vocal in her support for Palestinian human rights, saying during last May’s Gaza war that US aid to Israel “is being used to oppress the Palestinian people.”

Foushee at one point managed to secure the endorsement of the North Carolina Progressive Caucus but the latter announced last month that it was pulling its support due to donations she accepted from AIPAC.

“AIPAC’s support of insurrectionists and Senator Foushee’s strong embrace of AIPAC runs contrary to our values,” the caucus said in a statement, referring to the pro-Israel lobby’s endorsement of dozens of Republicans who voted in favor of overturning US President Joe Biden’s election.

AIPAC’s UDP poured in $2.1 million on Foushee’s behalf and DMFI PAC complemented that with $290,000 of its own. She was also backed by the feminist PAC Emily’s List and the Congressional Black Caucus. She now heads into the general election aimed at replacing Rep. David Price, who is retiring after 25 years in Congress.

Pennsylvania’s 12th District

While she was only leading by 446 votes, with 94% of the results in, progressive State Rep. Summer Lee has declared victory over centrist Steve Irwin, a Jewish attorney from Pittsburgh.

Irwin has yet to concede, though pundits speculated that it would be very difficult for him to overcome Lee’s lead.

For months, Lee was seen as the frontrunner, before AIPAC began pouring unprecedented amounts of money into the race, largely in attack ads against the progressive who enjoyed the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

AIPAC spent $2.7 million on Irwin’s behalf and DMFI threw in an additional $403,000.

Steve Irwin, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, speaks to supporters at a campaign event, Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

The pro-Israel groups have painted Lee as hostile to the US-Israel relationship. While the Democratic Socialist has backed Israel’s right to exist and refrained from supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, she has sounded off against the Jewish state on a number of occasions.

“When I hear American [politicians] use the refrain, ‘Israel has the right to defend itself,’ in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized pop, I can’t help but think of how the West has always justified indiscriminate and disproportionate force and power on weakened and marginalized people,” she tweeted during last May’s Gaza war.

Last month, Lee called out AIPAC in everything but name, tweeting that “for two straight weeks I’ve been the target of the most expensive hate campaign of any candidate running, by a super PAC that sponsors Republicans who support insurrection.”

“And those [establishment] Democrats who swear they believe Black women ‘deserve a seat at the table’ have been silent,” she added, lamenting the “barely subtle racist attacks” against her.

If elected, the 34-year-old Lee would be Pennsylvania’s first Black congresswoman.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, endorses Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee, center, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania’s 12th District US Congressional district, at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, May 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

Other key races

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman edged out Rep. Conor Lamb in the state’s Democratic Senate primary, subsequently earning the endorsements of President Biden and DMFI, as he aims to take the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

DMFI did not endorse a candidate in the primary, but said afterward that Fetterman “is a proud pro-Israel progressive, and we are confident he has the qualifications, experience, and character necessary to appeal to all Pennsylvanians to defeat whichever extreme, anti-democratic, Trump-supporting candidate the Republicans nominate.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, it was not clear who Fetterman would face, as the Republican remained too close to call. Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz won 31.3% of the vote to hedge fund manager Dave McCormick’s 31.1%, with 95% of the vote counted. Pennsylvania law requires an automatic recount when results fall within 0.5%.

In North Carolina, State Sen. Chuck Edwards defeated scandal-ridden Rep. Madison Cawthorn in the 11th District Republican primary, weeks after the GOP establishment turned on the freshman lawmaker, campaigning hard to rob him of re-election.

AIPAC and DMFI-backed Morgan McGarvey comfortably won his Democratic primary battle to replace retiring Jewish Rep. John Yarmuth.

Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate for Pennsylvania, greets supporters at a campaign stop, May 10, 2022, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/ Keith Srakocic)

While they did not pull off a sweep in Tuesday’s primaries, AIPAC and DMFI issued statements expressing satisfaction with the results.

‘These winning campaigns send a clear message that supports for the US-Israel relationship is both good policy and good politics,” UDP said.

A spokesman for AIPAC highlighted the “significant impact” its PAC and super PAC have had in the short period since they were created last December.

AIPAC’s progressive foil J Street sounded an alarm against the rival lobby’s spending.

“This kind of overwhelming outside spending – driven by a hawkish, right-wing foreign policy agenda that is completely out of touch with most Democratic voters – deeply challenges the underpinnings of America’s political system. AIPAC’s new political strategy is posing a profound test to the health of American democracy,” said J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami.

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