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Self-funded US House candidate beats AIPAC-backed opponent in Detroit

Pro-Israel lobby, wading into partisan politics, has notched 10 victories and 2 defeats in this year’s primaries

Shri Thanedar at a news conference in Detroit, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Shri Thanedar at a news conference in Detroit, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

JTA — AIPAC marked its second major defeat of the Democratic primary cycle this week, as one of the two Democratic House candidates in the Detroit area that it backed failed to win his Tuesday primary.

Michigan state Senator Adam Hollier had more than $4 million spent on his behalf by AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, before narrowly losing his primary battle for Michigan’s 13th district to state Representative Shri Thanedar.

With about 68% of precincts reporting early Wednesday, Thanedar was leading Hollier by five percentage points in the solid-blue district. Hollier conceded the race Wednesday morning.

Though overshadowed by the much more high-profile victory of AIPAC-backed incumbent Representative Haley Stevens over Jewish primary rival Representative Andy Levin, Thanedar’s win nevertheless was notable for the pro-Israel lobby’s involvement. It marked the group’s most expensive loss of the first primary season in which AIPAC directly spent on behalf of candidates.

The race was unusual because Thanedar, a scientist and multi-millionaire, poured more than $8 million of his fortune into his own race, giving him the rare campaign war chest to surpass United Democracy Project’s vigorous spending, which in other races has far outpaced candidates’ own. The candidate field was also crowded, with seven other Democrats on the ballot.

AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups made a late effort to mobilize around Hollier, perceiving Thanedar as a threat to the US-Israel relationship because of legislation he once co-sponsored in the state House that described Israel as an “apartheid state” and urged Congress to end US aid to the Jewish state.

Thanedar later walked back his legislation, telling Jewish Insider that it had been an “emotional reaction” to last year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and that he would support Israel in Congress.

Overall, AIPAC’s super PAC has notched 10 wins and only two defeats in this year’s primaries, a record that it has cited as evidence to support its decision to wade into partisan politics after decades of studiously avoiding them.

AIPAC representatives say the spending is meant to strengthen bipartisan support for Israel as criticism mounts among some within the Democratic party. But many of the group’s campaign ads for candidates do not mention Israel at all, particularly in races like Michigan’s 13th, where the issue ranks low on local voters’ agendas.

Elsewhere in Michigan, incumbent Representative Rashida Tlaib, who backs a “one-state solution” that would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, handily won her own Democratic primary in Detroit.

Tlaib’s fellow member of the progressive “Squad,” Representative Cori Bush in Missouri, also easily won her own primary Tuesday.

Neither candidate faced substantial opposition funding from AIPAC or other pro-Israel funders, despite being two of Israel’s most vocal critics in Congress.

Meanwhile, in Michigan’s 10th district, Palestinian-American Democratic candidate Huwaida Arraf came in third in her long-shot primary bid. Arraf once lived on a kibbutz and used to work at Seeds of Peace, an organization bringing together Israeli and Palestinian youth, before becoming disillusioned by coexistence efforts and founding an organization that, as part of its platform, recognizes the right to “legitimate armed struggle” against Israel.

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