on the trail

On the eve of primary, Stevens reflects on PAC spending in Michigan’s 11th

Stevens goes into Tuesday’s primary leading Rep. Andy Levin in polls

Marc Rod

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI)

TROY, Mich. — Speaking to Jewish Insider on Monday in her makeshift “campaign headquarters” — an SUV cluttered with campaign materials, flags, backpacks and various other odds and ends — Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) said she’s feeling “fired up” heading into Tuesday’s heated Democratic primary.

Stevens is running against Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI), which some national observers have framed as a referendum on the ideological divide in the Democratic Party and — with the infusion of more than $4 million from the United Democracy Project backing Stevens and more than $700,000 from J Street backing Levin — a test of where the Democratic Party stands on Israel.

Despite the significant national focus on the Israel angle — and the sizable population of Jewish voters in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, some of whom have been divided by the candidates’ Israel policies —  Stevens said voters rarely raise the issue with her while she’s out in the district.

She emphasized that she’s supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and particularly focused on the trade relationship, given the Detroit area’s large manufacturing sector, but “when I’m able to catch somebody on their doorstep, or at a community event, nine times out of 10, it’s about infrastructure, health care, women’s health in particular right now, the environment,” which she expects to be the issues that will decide the race.

Stevens’ science and technology portfolio — which has also been prominent in her campaign — was on display at one of her final events before Tuesday. She spent nearly two hours on Monday in conversation with the husband-and-wife proprietors of a small manufacturing plant that makes gears for jet and rocket engines, contracting extensively with the Defense Department. Even small companies like that one, Stevens said, “contribute at a mass scale to the economic and innovation success of this nation.”

Asked about the significant AIPAC funding — in the form of more than $600,000 in direct donations AIPAC has bundled for her campaign and the outside spending from UDP — that’s poured into the district, Stevens first offered an oft-repeated line, noting that she’s been endorsed by a range of groups, and that AIPAC is also supporting members of House leadership and the House Progressive Caucus.

“AIPAC… for some reason has been a fixation of my opponent,” Stevens added, noting that AIPAC/UDP spending has frequently featured in Levin’s messaging, in a way that other outside spending has not. Stevens has received $3 million in support from a super PAC affiliated with EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women candidates.

Levin and his supporters have focused their criticisms of UDP, alleging that the super PAC has received significant donations from prominent Republican donors and has not spent in Republican primaries, though UDP has also received large donations from prominent Democratic donors. Levin’s backers also note that AIPAC has endorsed more than 100 Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 election results. They accuse the groups, UDP in particular, of being a conduit for Republicans and corporate interests to meddle in Democratic primaries. 

“We always knew we would be outspent and that the grassroots enthusiasm for Congressman Levin was our path to victory,” Levin’s campaign manager, Nicole Bedi, said. “We are sending a strong message that Republican billionaires do not decide a Democratic primary – the voters do. This is democracy at work.” 

Asked why she thinks AIPAC has attracted so much criticism, Stevens paused for a long moment, saying that she has “thought about this for a long time.”

“I think it’s because it’s good at what it does, which is bring people together,” Stevens said. “It’s easy to target things people don’t understand and twist things around for self-fulfilling narratives. And I refuse to let the things that bring us together end up becoming something that divides us.”

“I find the obsession around conditioning aid or targeting organizations that promote a U.S.-Israel relationship confusing and bizarre, and not something that is productive to our nation’s goals,” Stevens continued.

Stevens rejected the notion, advanced by the group’s critics, that AIPAC spending may be motivated by factors other than Israel policy.

“I will have concerns the minute anyone positions this as something that it isn’t, which is solely based on the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Stevens said, going on to note that AIPAC’s PAC has endorsed members with a range of progressive policy views, some to her left.

Pressed further, Stevens emphasized that she has no control over the outside spending in her race.

“Certainly I respect and understand some of the questions about what’s gone on,” she added later. “Look, there’s that closing clip at the end of any expenditure — not affiliated with any [candidate or campaign].”

Stevens is also not troubled by spending by Democratic campaign groups in Republican primaries, such as ads by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promoting a far-right challenger to Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.

“It promotes Democrats, it mobilizes the base. That’s how I see that,” Stevens said. “We’ve got unique opportunities in a redistricting year for Democrats to pick up other seats. People should know who’s on the ballot and what we’re up against and what opportunity we have.”

Stevens campaign volunteers spent Monday afternoon knocking on doors in a grassy, cul de sac-filled neighborhood in West Bloomfield, Mich. — where many homes were adorned with mezuzahs. Voters in the neighborhood indicated to JI that the significant outside involvement in the race has had an impact, although not always in the intended ways.

One woman said that the volume of anti-Stevens campaign material she’d seen had turned her off from Levin. Asked about Israel policy, she said that she’d heard from friends about Levin’s relationship with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), which made her concerned about his position on Israel.

A German immigrant, who said this primary was his first time voting in the U.S., complained that he’d been receiving too much literature from both camps. The man seemed struck by the volume of political spending in the race: “It’s all about money,” he said. He said he had voted for Stevens — but could not initially remember who he had picked.

One woman, who said she was still undecided, referenced one of the Levin camp’s attacks as a reason she was concerned about Stevens, expressing concern about a video of Stevens’ interaction with a woman who asked her about the support she had received from AIPAC and UDP. That video has been promoted by far-left group IfNotNow, which has been supporting Levin’s campaign.

Only one voter brought up Israel policy unprompted. He said he was voting for Levin because he agreed with Levin’s approach to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. The man also said that he appreciated Levin’s family ties — the legislator’s father and uncle were both prominent figures in Michigan politics.

Stevens supporters who spoke to JI during the canvassing and at a campaign meet-and-greet on Monday night offered a range of other explanations for their votes, but Israel was largely not a top concern. Among the issues cited: manufacturing, disability issues, public transportation and education. Others pointed to factors related to the electoral situation, including Stevens’ defeat of a Republican incumbent in 2018, and Levin’s decision to run in the district against her. One woman, Sharon Kaplan, said she was most excited about Stevens because she’s a woman.

Kent Douglas, who chairs the 11th District Democratic Party and is supporting Stevens, described himself to JI as “hard left” and said his support for Stevens has pitted him against most of his usual friends and associates. He said that, despite general progressive opposition to her, he feels Stevens is the “best pick for the job,” praising her record in office. He also lamented that “so many white male Democrats have come through the 11th District thinking something is owed to them.”

But mostly, Douglas said, he’s grateful that an exhausting primary cycle is finally ending.