PAC-ing a punch

AIPAC steps up efforts to oust anti-Israel lawmakers

After focusing on open primaries in 2022, the pro-Israel PAC is targeting several left-wing Squad members for 2024

In recent months, AIPAC has stepped up its recruitment efforts to challenge Democratic incumbents who have clashed with the pro-Israel establishment, pushing the activist left into a defensive crouch as it prepares for a potentially bruising primary cycle.

The bipartisan pro-Israel group has been actively courting a slate of House candidates to oppose marquee members of the “Squad,” including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), according to multiple sources familiar with AIPAC’s outreach who spoke with Jewish Insider on Tuesday.

The recruitment efforts have come amid a surprise shake-up at a leading progressive group, Justice Democrats, which laid off nearly half of its staff last month. The embattled group has claimed a few major victories over pro-Israel Democrats in previous primaries, but has otherwise struggled to raise money after an expensive election cycle in which several progressive candidates were defeated by establishment Democrats.

While AIPAC quietly opposed Omar last cycle by contributing $350,000 to a separate group created to boost a top Democratic primary challenger, its latest efforts point to a new and potentially more expansive direction for the group, whose affiliated super PAC, launched in late 2021, has largely engaged in open-seat races rather than challenging incumbents. 

Now, however, AIPAC appears to be embracing a more aggressive strategy as it seeks to pick off a handful of incumbents who have been unusually hostile to Israel, particularly in recent weeks. Last month, for instance, Bowman and Omar were among a group of House Democrats who boycotted Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress. The two lawmakers also voted against a GOP-led resolution rejecting claims that Israel is a racist state — as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, recently asserted at a progressive conference in Chicago.

The boycott and the vote have fueled ongoing efforts within the pro-Israel community to find a challenger to Omar, who narrowly won her primary last cycle in a surprisingly weak showing against Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis councilman who lost by just 2,500 votes. Samuels, who after the election expressed frustration that pro-Israel groups hadn’t unified behind his campaign, is now considering a rematch against Omar, according to a Democratic operative in Minnesota familiar with his thinking.

But AIPAC, for its part, is instead eyeing a Minneapolis councilmember, LaTrisha Vetaw, who is actively weighing a bid of her own, according to the operative. “They acknowledged they missed an opportunity last cycle but have said that, based on their internal assessment, Don has reached his capacity,” said the operative, who was granted anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

In recent months, AIPAC has met with Vetaw and engaged in ongoing conversations to convince her to enter the primary, according to the operative. It remains to be seen, however, if Vetaw, a moderate Democrat who represents North Minneapolis, will have the appetite for what is likely to be a bitterly contested primary battle. While she initially indicated that she would run, the operative said that Vetaw has been comparatively “noncommittal” in the last month or so as she campaigns for reelection to the city council this November.

Vetaw and Samuels did not respond to requests for comment from JI on Tuesday. A spokesperson for AIPAC declined to comment.

Tim Peterson, a former National Guard recruiter, is also considering a challenge to Omar, the political operative told JI. “He’s feeling his way around right now,” said the operative, who recently met with Peterson to discuss a potential bid. “He wants to do it but doesn’t want to make a misstep.” (Peterson could not be reached for comment.)

Even as she is more likely to face a credible challenger from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, Omar, whose campaign entered July with $540,000 on hand, is also now fielding opposition from the left. Last month, she drew her first primary opponent, Sarah Gad, a Minneapolis attorney who unsuccessfully ran against Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) in 2020. Omar’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment from JI.

In New York, meanwhile, AIPAC has been courting George Latimer, the Westchester County executive, to challenge Bowman, who will be seeking his third term in 2024. Latimer, a former state legislator, has confirmed that “a number of individuals” are now urging him to run, but he said last month that he has not “made a decision to seek the seat” and remains “fully focused” on his current job. He told JI on Tuesday that he had “no news” to share “as of yet.”

A source familiar with his thinking, who is involved in local efforts to recruit a challenger to Bowman, suggested that Latimer is likely to “decide in early September, after he sees polling.”

“If George Latimer runs he will be a formidable candidate — even more so if he’s well-funded,” Chris Coffey, a Democratic strategist in New York City, said in a text message to JI. “If he doesn’t run, it’s harder. Not impossible but harder. In the last cycle, Bowman was able to convince enough pro-Israel voters that he wasn’t extreme. That’s not the feeling now.”

Coffey said that AIPAC’s involvement “could obviously be decisive, especially if Latimer runs.”

Michael Gerald, a pastor and corrections official in Westchester who briefly entered the race last cycle, filed to run against Bowman last month. And Chance Mullen, the mayor of Pelham, is also weighing a primary bid. “I’m not a fan of primaries because I don’t like attacking Democrats and I try to give our congressman the benefit of the doubt,” Mullen said in an email to JI last month in which he indicated that he had “been approached” about running. “But there’s nothing progressive about his position on Israel.”

While AIPAC has yet to field its preferred challenger to Bowman, whom the group chose not to target in 2022, progressives are already preparing for a proxy war. In a recent fundraising email, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), whose upset victory in 2018 was backed by Justice Democrats, warned supporters that “AIPAC is at it again.”

“They’re trying to recruit an establishment executive to run against my brother in The Bronx, Jamaal Bowman,” she wrote last week. “We know what comes next. AIPAC won’t wait much longer to start funneling dark money against Jamaal and ramping up attacks against our movement.”

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel community in Pittsburgh is also rallying behind a potential challenger to Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA), a freshman incumbent and Justice Democrats endorsee who withstood nearly $4 million in spending from AIPAC’s super PAC in 2022. Bhavini Patel, an Edgewood councilmember who ran a short-lived campaign for the seat before dropping out last cycle, is planning to challenge Lee and has been raising money to mount a bid in the heavily Jewish district, according to two people familiar with her efforts who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

Patel declined to comment on her plans but said in a text message to JI on Tuesday that she was “looking forward” to “hearing” and “uplifting the voices and opinions of our local Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh.”

JI was unable to confirm if AIPAC had met with Patel or if it is more broadly engaged in the race. Lee, whose increasingly hostile positions toward Israel have angered her Jewish constituents in Pittsburgh, would likely be among the group’s top targets in 2024, even as it previously failed to defeat her.

Last election, Lee was among a number of progressives to draw backing from Justice Democrats, whose super PAC spent more than $1 million to boost her candidacy. But the group has yet to issue any endorsements for the coming primary season as it has struggled to rebound from a financially taxing election cycle that saw many of its endorsed candidates fall to defeat.

As AIPAC’s latest recruitment efforts have Justice Democrats and its allies scrambling, it remains to be seen if the now-diminished group will engage in open-seat races as in previous cycles. Justice Democrats didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but Alexandra Rojas, its executive director, recently told HuffPost that the group is “still in active candidate recruitment for this cycle.”

In interviews with JI on Tuesday, several Democratic campaign operatives speculated that even as Justice Democrats is preparing to defend its incumbents, the group could be expected to engage in some races where progressive insurgents are now challenging entrenched incumbents.

Multiple people, for instance, suggested that Justice Democrats would back Kina Collins, a gun violence activist who lost a primary against Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) in 2022 and recently filed to run again. “It definitely seems that they will get involved,” said a Democratic operative in Chicago who has spoken with people connected to Justice Democrats as well as one of its board members. Collins was endorsed by Justice Democrats last cycle.

Another challenger in Chicago, Qasim Rashid, who is running to unseat Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), is also a possible contender for an endorsement, which in the past has helped raise candidates’ profiles while providing access to a national grassroots fundraising network. Rashid, who previously ran for Congress in Virginia, is “definitely on the list,” said a Democratic organizer who has spoken directly with his campaign. “They indicated that they had backing from national groups and he is friends with the Squad members,” the organizer told JI.

Ben Goldberg, a spokesperson for Rashid, told JI on Tuesday, however, that the campaign hasn’t “had any endorsement conversations with Justice Democrats.”

In Houston, Pervez Agwan, a challenger to Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) who has made his opposition to AIPAC a cornerstone of his campaign messaging, is perhaps most directly aligned with Justice Democrats, which has typically endorsed candidates who are opposed to continuing unconditional U.S. aid to Israel. “I would be shocked if they don’t endorse Pervez Agwan,” said a Democratic organizer who has worked for candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats.

Speaking more broadly, the organizer suggested that the recent layoffs at Justice Democrats could simply be a momentary setback if its leadership uses the restructuring to reevaluate its priorities. “They have always basically been a communications shop with a shockingly impressive email list grafted on,” the organizer told JI. “If they have trimmed the fat on comms and made sure to invest in more fundraising capabilities and resources than they have in the past, this might be a blip.”

“However, given their history,” the organizer added, “I doubt that is the path they want to go down.”

Meanwhile, some operatives expressed frustration with Justice Democrats’ approach to primary campaigns as it has continued to wield U.S. policy toward Israel as one of its key litmus tests for backing candidates in House races that have drawn the most spending from pro-Israel groups.

Irene Lin, a Democratic strategist in Ohio — where Justice Democrats has waged some of its fiercest battles — said she believed the group has “played a valuable role in keeping Democrats honest” and that “no incumbent should ever feel entitled to their seat.”

“Certainly it’s a shame to see their clout diminished,” she told JI on Tuesday. But, she clarified, “I definitely have concerns that they are naive and blind to antisemitism and their views on Israel-Palestine are too extreme for a lot of us who want to see peace in the Middle East.”

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