POLITICO: AIPAC uncorks $100 million war chest

March 4, 2024

A California Democrat running for Rep. Katie Porter’s seat suddenly became the target of an unexpected barrage of negative ads from the nation’s premier pro-Israel group this year. So he emailed a former Michigan representative, Andy Levin, for advice.

Levin was ousted from his House seat in 2022, after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee spent $4 million against him. Levin was one of a handful of Democrats targeted by AIPAC last cycle, when the group went after a range of progressive candidates in mostly open House primaries over their criticism of Israel.

He told Dave Min, who has not called for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza but has privately criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to reach out to progressive Jewish groups for help. That’s what Levin had done.

But, he acknowledged, “we were simply swamped” by outside spending in his own primary, and Dave Min might face a similar fate.

“Most” candidates won’t be able to survive that spending barrage, Levin said in an interview with POLITICO, and “I’m afraid that they can be quite successful in wiping them out.”

This cycle, they are going even bigger. AIPAC is expected to spend $100 million across its political entities in 2024, taking aim at candidates they deem insufficiently supportive of Israel, according to three people with direct knowledge of the figure, who were granted anonymity to discuss private meetings.

The strategy has taken on new urgency this election season from donors animated by the Israel-Hamas war. AIPAC’s biggest targets are members of the so-called Squad of progressive House Democrats who have been openly pressuring the administration to call for a cease-fire. But AIPAC’s ambitions are broader. United Democracy Project, the group’s super PAC, is monitoring 15 to 20 House races and polling in many of those districts, according to a person directly familiar with UDP’s strategy and granted anonymity to discuss the approach.

“They’ll have so much money, wherever there’s an opportunity, they will take it,” said one Democratic donor adviser who is involved in the effort and was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the organization’s plans.

The fallout from Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack and Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, killing more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza Health Ministry, has led to deep fissures within the Democratic Party — a divide that will play out in House Democratic primaries across the country.

It’s also supercharged fundraising on all sides of the conflict. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the nation’s only federal Palestinian-American lawmaker, raised a staggering $3.7 million in the final three months of 2023, her largest-ever single quarter fundraising haul, around the same time that she was censured by Congress for comments about Israel. United Democracy Project closed out 2023 with nearly $41 million in the bank, a sum that’s nearly double the group’s entire spending program during the 2022 cycle.

Still others are rethinking their primary strategy altogether. J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that defended candidates against AIPAC in primaries in 2022, won’t reprise that role in 2024, arguing that it’s “generally not a fruitful use of our resources to spend in intra-party feuds,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said. Instead, they’ll focus their $10 million program on only general election campaigns.

J Street’s decision is part of a broader recognition from progressives that they will not be able to “match [AIPAC] dollar-for-dollar,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), a vocal critic of AIPAC.

“Most people are extremely turned off by where that money comes from,” Pocan said. “When you take money from Donald Trump donors, Nikki Haley donors, Ron DeSantis donors and then you put it to use in Democratic primaries, clearly, it’s a disingenuous use of money.”

‘Concerned at a level that is unprecedented’
After the Oct. 7 attack, when about 1,200 Israelis were killed by Hamas, the “pro-Israel donor base became activated, engaged and concerned at a level that is unprecedented,” said Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel, another super PAC that often also backs AIPAC-endorsed candidates.

So far this cycle, AIPAC has bundled at least $19 million for House and Senate campaigns, according to a POLITICO analysis of campaign finance filings. Top recipients include high-ranking members such as House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar of California, as well as stalwart Israel supporters such as Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas).

“October 7 mobilized a lot of thousand-dollar-level donors, which, obviously, are not the Miriam Adelsons,” said another Democratic donor adviser, referencing the wife of the deceased GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

“But these donors are still super powerful, especially when you look down ballot,” said the adviser, who was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “It’s a huge, underappreciated change to the landscape.”

The war has also reignited previously-dormant advocacy groups such as Pro-Israel America. Since re-launching this January, the group has backed 38 candidates so far, roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

“After Oct. 7, there was a need to double-down and find these leaders and support them,” said Samantha Garelick, the group’s executive director.

Democratic operatives pointed to AIPAC’s success in 2022 as evidence of “serious ROI” for giving, said one Democratic bundler who is close to AIPAC. Last cycle, AIPAC won six of the eight primary races where it intervened, prevailing in largely open races. Levin, who lost to fellow Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) after the pair were drawn into the same district, was the only incumbent they took out.

The bundler, granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said AIPAC is expanding on its 2022 playbook, “but it also sounds like they’re going to go more actively after the Squad, people like [Reps.] Cori Bush [D-Mo.] and Jamaal Bowman [D-N.Y.].”

Several donors or donor advisers close to AIPAC cited Bush and Bowman as top targets, primarily because they’ve drawn formidable, AIPAC-endorsed primary opponents and have struggled individually in fundraising. Bush, who has become one of the sharpest critics of the Israeli government, is facing Wesley Bell, a St. Louis County prosecutor who started this year with more than $400,000 in the bank. Bush, in contrast, had $215,000 in cash on hand.

In New York, AIPAC recruited Westchester County Executive George Latimer to run against Bowman, and the group has raised at least $350,000 directly for his campaign.

“AIPAC and their Republican mega donors are targeting Black and brown Democratic incumbents with the same right-wing playbook across the country,” Bush said in a statement.

So far, aside from Min’s race in California, AIPAC has only waded into one other open Democratic primary race, endorsing New York state Sen. Tim Kennedy, who’s running in an April special election to replace former Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.). Kennedy faces nominal challenges from other Democratic candidates for the June primary. They’ve also endorsed in a pair of GOP primaries in North Carolina and Texas.

But Democratic Majority for Israel, a group that’s often aligned with AIPAC’s endorsed candidates, offers some clues for where the AIPAC endorsements go next. DMFI weighed in on Democratic candidates in messy, open primaries in Oregon and Virginia. Like AIPAC, DMFI is also backing Joanna Weiss, Min’s opponent.

Some candidates are even hoping to lure AIPAC — and the rush of cash it brings — into their races. In the newly drawn, deep-blue Alabama House race, Anthony Daniels, the minority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives, touted an AIPAC endorsement on his website, but the group said it hadn’t backed him, according to Jewish Insider.

The expansiveness of AIPAC’s battlefield primarily comes from its roster of mega-donors. They’re backed by Democrats, like media executive Haim Saban, and Republicans, like former Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus and billionaire financier Paul Singer. But those GOP donors give progressives, they believe, an opening to attack AIPAC, aiming to turn their endorsement toxic in primaries. They also often point to AIPAC’s support of congressional Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election.

“A handful of Republican billionaire mega-donors are using AIPAC to spend in Democratic primaries against Black and brown progressives, funding primary campaigns against the most popular and progressive members, so this should be a scandal,” said Usamah Andrabi, communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive group that’s positioned against AIPAC. “The whole of the Democratic Party should be united in opposition to this.”

How AIPAC-funded attacks play out
Min, the California state senator who has been pummeled by AIPAC-funded attack ads in the lead-up to his March 5 primary, has also tried to turn the group’s conservative financiers into a political foil. His campaign blasted Weiss, his Democratic opponent, as having a “cozy relationship with dark Republican money.”

In recent weeks, AIPAC’s super PAC has spent at least $4.6 million on anti-Min television ads and mailers. The ads make no mention of his position on Israel — the same strategy they deployed in 2022 primaries. Instead, they largely focus on Min’s arrest last May for drunk driving — a central plank in Weiss’ argument that Min is too risky a choice for Democrats fighting to keep the toss-up Orange County district that Rep. Katie Porter held by less than four points last cycle.

AIPAC donors have showered Weiss with cash, donating nearly $400,000 via the group in February, making her one of the top beneficiaries of AIPAC bundling so far this cycle.

The reasons for AIPAC’s anti-Min barrage are somewhat inscrutable. While the Israel-Hamas war has exposed deep rifts in the Democratic party as a whole, neither Min nor Weiss had been especially vocal about their positions on the war. In particular, Min never publicly called for a cease-fire — a litmus test for many on the left — and he was endorsed by the majority of California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus.

Min’s campaign attributed the dust-up with AIPAC to criticism he made of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in private conversations with members, as well as him being endorsed by J Street in the past.

“We support candidates from both parties solely based on one criteria – their commitment to strengthening the US-Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann said in an emailed statement. “We support scores of progressive candidates including the Democratic leadership and nearly half of the membership of the congressional Progressive Caucus, Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus. In fact, we are the largest PAC contributor to Democratic candidates.”

Min’s allies launched a frantic behind-the-scenes effort to stave off the attacks. Asian American Democrats, who consider Min, a Korean American, a top priority, were especially concerned.

Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat who chairs the political arm of the Asian American Pacific Islander congressional caucus, met with AIPAC representatives seeking an explanation for their spending. She came away from the discussion thinking it was too late to convince the group to reverse course.

“I think there was some miscommunication and inconsistencies with his position papers. It is still odd why he is their first [independent expenditure],” Meng said.

“There doesn’t seem to be a very compelling reason,” she added.

‘How extreme and toxic AIPAC has become’

AIPAC is becoming an existential threat for progressives, who are bracing to be hit hardest. Progressives acknowledge they won’t be able to keep pace financially, but they plan to lean on their candidates’ organizing strength and connections to their districts.

“If AIPAC opens up their checkbook, we’re going to be there again to play the role we’ve played before, [so] we are prepared, this cycle, to defend our incumbents,” said Maurice Mitchell, political director for the Working Families Party. “We can never go dollar for dollar, but our goal is to be competitive and we’re going to do that.”

One blueprint is Rep. Summer Lee’s 2022 victory, when she narrowly won an expensive battle against AIPAC-endorsed attorney, Steve Irwin. Lee tapped into a deep network of organizing muscle, built when she ousted a Democratic incumbent for her state house seat in 2018. Lee started 2024 with nearly $1.2 million in the bank, largely raised from grassroots donors who have also been activated by the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“These candidates have a really good ground game and strong community ties, so it takes even more special interest money to overcome that,” said Abbas Alawieh, a Democratic strategist who previously served as Bush’s chief-of-staff. “It’s clear that AIPAC money does have an impact, but it does not erase the trust these candidates can build with communities.”

They also see it as a long-term public relations battle they can win with Democratic voters, as long as they “[understand] that AIPAC is the arm of the Republican Party,” said Ben-Ami.

“[AIPAC] is doing the dirty work of the [Republican National Committee] when it drives a wedge in the Democratic Party,” he continued. “The strategy is to ensure that the mainstream of the Democratic Party understands exactly how extreme and toxic AIPAC has become.”

Jeff Coltin and Jessica Piper contributed to this report.