Pro-Israel money pours in to unseat progressives in congressional races

Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush face formidable challenges but Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Summer Lee in stronger positions

Alice HermanJoan E Greve and Will CraftWed 17 Apr 2024 12.00 BST

Quarterly campaign finance reports reveal the Democratic representatives Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri – progressive “Squad” members – will face formidable challenges in their 2024 congressional primaries, partly due to the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups.

Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, and Summer Lee, of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, have far outspent their primary challengers, and the Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American member whose outspoken criticism of Israel has brought the ire of her political opponents, does not yet face a challenger.

The powerful pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) is expected to lavish $100m on efforts to defeat progressive candidates it views as insufficiently supportive of Israel in 2024 – and the latest campaign finance reports in closely watched races pitting high-profile progressives against moderate challengers offer a preview of where the group may prioritize spending.

Bowman, the New York congressman and progressive, faces a particularly fierce campaign by George Latimer, a Westchester county politician who has so far raised $3.6m – nearly $1m more than Bowman. More than $950,000 in contributions to the Latimer campaign came through earmarked donations to Aipac.

Meanwhile the Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush and her primary challenger, the St Louis county prosecutor, Wesley Bell, have raised comparable hauls, with Bell reporting about $100,000 more than Bush, who has raised $1.6m. Although Aipac does not appear on Bell’s most recent campaign filings, he raised more than $650,000 in earmarked contributions through the group Democracy Engine Inc Pac – a donation platform that allows unpopular Pacs to obscure their donations and lists Aipac as a client on its LinkedIn page.

Asked about Aipac’s support for Latimer and its affiliation with Democracy Engine, a spokesperson for the group, Marshall Wittmann, told the Guardian: “We strongly support George Latimer who is a strong advocate for the US-Israel relationship in clear contrast to his opponent who is aligned with the anti-Israel extremist fringe.” (He did not directly address the question about Democracy Engine.)

In addition to the spending unleashed by Aipac so far in support of campaigns to challenge incumbent progressives, it is almost certain that Aipac’s political action committee and Super Pac will weigh in. United Democracy Project, the Super Pac launched by Aipac in 2022, spent nearly $33m in the 2022 election cycle and has so far spent more than $17m with $32m to spare as of 16 April, according to data from the non-partisan transparency group OpenSecrets.

Pro-Israel groups – which include Aipac Pac, United Democracy Project and Democratic Majority for Israel – notched some notable wins during the last election cycle, ousting the progressive congressman Andy Levin of Michigan in his incumbent-versus-incumbent primary and blocking candidates such as Donna Edwards of Maryland and Nina Turner of Ohio from advancing to general elections.

This time around, there have already been some surprises in the primary campaigns. Aipac poured more than $4.5m into the March primary in California’s 45th congressional district to prop up their preferred candidate, Joanna Weiss, but she ultimately lost to a progressive, Dave Min.

And although Summer Lee squeaked by in her 2022 primary against the moderate Democratic challenger Steve Irwin, her current primary opponent Bhavini Patel has struggled to come up with cash, raising a paltry $600,000 compared with Lee’s approximately $2.3m. Meanwhile, Lee has also faced opposition spending by the Moderate Pac, a Super Pac funded primarily by the GOP mega-donor and Pennsylvania resident Jeffrey Yass.

Omar and Tlaib, meanwhile, so far face little opposition spending. Omar’s primary opponent Don Samuels, who she beat narrowly in her 2022 primary, has raised a little more than $750,000, while Omar’s campaign has already generated nearly $5m in cash with four months to go before her August primary.

Only Tlaib – whose criticism of Israel provoked the Republican-controlled legislature to censure her last year – has raised more, with $6.5m on hand according to her latest reporting. Tlaib easily fought back a 2022 primary challenge and faces no opposition in her 2024 race so far, and she has already formed joint fundraising committees with both Bowman and Bush to help boost their financial standing.

Usamah Andrabi, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, said the impressive fundraising haul from lawmakers like Lee and Tlaib underscored how progressives’ criticism of the Israeli government over the war in Gaza is resonating with Democratic voters.

“These are likely going to be some of the most expensive Democratic congressional primaries we have ever seen. And it is only that way because these candidates – be it George Latimer or Wesley Bell or Bhavini Patel – cannot stand on their own,” Andrabi said.

“They have to stand on $5m of money from Republican Maga [‘Make America Great Again’] donors that Aipac is funneling to them. That is the only way that they get a leg up against deeply popular progressives who are speaking of core values.”

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