musical chairs

Jewish groups, voters poised for large role in Levin-Stevens showdown in Michigan

Levin is J Street-aligned, while Stevens is backed by Pro-Israel America

U.S. House of Representatives

Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Haley Stevens (D-MI)

Democrats in Detroit’s northern suburbs are gearing up for what could be a bruising Democratic primary between two incumbent Democrats, Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Haley Stevens (D-MI) — a race where local Jewish voters could help determine the outcome.

The newly drawn 11th Congressional District is a fusion of areas represented in the current 11th District by Stevens and Levin in the 9th District — about 41% of Stevens’ current constituents and 25% of Levin’s. Michigan is losing a congressional seat in the current cycle and boundaries have shifted — in some cases dramatically — across the state.

Levin, a former synagogue president who also started a Jewish social action group, describes himself as a Zionist and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, but his criticism of Israel has at times put him at odds with some in the local Jewish community. 

Last year, Levin introduced the Two-State Solution Act, which would, among other provisions, condemn Israeli settlements and evictions and demolitions of Palestinian residences and bar Israel from using U.S. defense aid to annex Palestinian territory or violate human rights. That bill was supported by Jewish groups on the left including J Street and Americans for Peace Now, but “angered AIPAC leaders,” according to the Cook Political Report.

Levin also visited Israel on a J Street-sponsored trip in 2019 and was endorsed by J Street PAC in 2020.

Levin has also vocally defended Democratic colleagues like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) who have been accused of antisemitism, telling Jewish Insider in a lengthy interview last year that that attempts to equate left- and right-wing antisemitism represent a “breathtaking” false equivalence.

Stevens falls into the more traditional pro-Israel camp and was endorsed by Pro-Israel America in June 2021, well ahead of redistricting. She was one of a coalition of members who pressed House leadership last year for a standalone vote on supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system after it was pulled out of a larger government funding bill. 

“Congresswoman Stevens has consistently been one of the strongest voices for Israel in the Michigan delegation and will continue to be so in this new 11th District,” her campaign manager, Jeremy Levinson, told JI.

She visited Israel as a freshman with the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation.

“They’re both very committed to Israel, but many people will know that AIPAC and J Street… they each have different views of how to best be Zionist,” Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of Detroit’s combined Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, said. “The representatives think for themselves… but they were each influenced by these trips to Israel and they sort of reflect some of the nuances in the [U.S.-]Israel relationship or the understanding of the Middle East that J Street and AIPAC reflect.”

Noah Arbit, chair and founder of the Michigan Jewish Democratic Caucus and a candidate for the Michigan State House, expects the district’s Democratic primary electorate to be “at least a third Jewish,” given that the redrawn district contains a significant portion of Michigan’s Jewish population.

“I think the Jewish community will be one of the deciding factors in this primary,” Arbit said, adding that some of the heavily Jewish communities in West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills “will probably be the battleground that will decide the primary between Levin and Stevens.”

Lopatin echoed Arbit, describing both members as “very good friends of our organization, of the Jewish community.”

Arbit noted, “Congressman Levin is Jewish but… [Stevens] has built very, very strong relationships with… the broad scope of the Jewish community — institutional, communal as well as just average Jewish voters, [and] has really made a point to be an ally to our community.”

“I certainly would say to both candidates that they have both worked very hard to attend to their relationship with the Jewish community and they should continue to do so,” he continued. “Because that will have a big bearing on the outcome of the primary… The Jewish community is likely to be split in this election. It’s just going to depend on who gets more [Jewish votes].”

More broadly, at this stage, the race appears to be a tossup, according to some observers.

“I think it’s a real jump ball, honestly, between the two of them,” Arbit said. “I’ve been asked by so many people, ‘Who’s going to win?’ And I honestly couldn’t tell you because I think that they both have different strengths that they bring to this race.” 

Levin’s father, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), represented the area in the House for more than 30 years before his son won the seat in 2019. The elder Levin’s brother, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), represented Michigan in the Senate for more than 30 years until 2015.

“Levin’s family has been an institution in the city… They’ve been there for more than half a century,” Michigan political strategist Adrian Hemond told Jewish Insider. “You don’t get much better name ID in Southeast Michigan than the last name Levin.”

“Everyone’s going to think instantly of Carl if you’re a new voter” to the district, said Corwin Smidt, who chairs the political science department at Michigan State University.

Levin and his family also have deep ties to critical interest groups — particularly the powerful labor unions — in the district.

Stevens’s previous home of Rochester Hills was drawn into the new, more conservative 10th District but she recently moved to a new home within the new 11th District. The new district is rated D+15 on the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index — significantly more Democratic than the national average — while Stevens’s current district is rated R+2 — meaning it leans slightly to the right of the national average.

“Stevens was put in a tough spot here,” Hemond said, referring to the new district map. “Her winning chances [in the new 10th District] were not great… And so you look just next door at the 11th. And there you have a tough primary against one of your colleagues. But if you win the primary, you’re almost certainly going to be fine.”

Stevens may have to play catch-up, Hemond predicted. While she’s proven a prodigious campaigner in prior cycles, her previous campaigns have been in a more moderate district, where her strategy has relied on attracting independents during the general election. 

Stevens does, however, have some potential advantages coming into the race, Hemond said. In addition to strong name recognition in some parts of the district from heavy advertising in past races, she currently represents portions of the newly redrawn 11th Congressional District.

Michigan strategist Ed Sarpolus — who is skeptical of the enduring power of the Levin name — said that Stevens’s hard-fought victories in previous races could also give her an edge in organizing and campaigning over Levin, who, according to Sarpolus, may not have been expecting a primary challenger. He did not face a primary challenge in his 2020 bid.

“Haley Stevens is perceived to be a much harder campaigner than Levin,” he continued. “I would say it’s sort of a draw right now.”

Stevens also led Levin in fundraising at the end of the third quarter of 2021 — she had raised a total of almost $2 million, with $1.5 million on hand, while Levin had raised nearly $900,000 and had $936,000 on hand.