primary plans

Pro-Israel advocates face early challenges in effort to unseat Squad members

After Democratic leadership endorsed all incumbents, several top prospective primary challengers are having second thoughts

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Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participate in a town hall hosted by the NAACP moderated by CNN Commentator Angela Rye, center, on September 11, 2019 in Washington, DC.

While AIPAC has indicated that it is weighing a more aggressive approach to challenging anti-Israel incumbents this election cycle, the pro-Israel group is facing some early complications as several of its favored House recruits remain undecided about running. 

Meanwhile, in a couple of pivotal races involving Squad members, the field of challengers is growing, potentially reducing the chances for an upset.

In Minneapolis, AIPAC has been courting a moderate city councilwoman, LaTrisha Vetaw, to challenge Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who is seeking her fourth congressional term in 2024. But while Vetaw had initially suggested that she would run, according to a Democratic operative in Minnesota familiar with her thinking, the first-term lawmaker has recently backed away from making a firm commitment as she campaigns for reelection to the City Council in November.

“The conventional wisdom is she’s probably not going to run, but it’s not a certainty yet,” the operative, who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations, told Jewish Insider on Friday. “She’s going to wait until after the municipal elections to make a decision.”

One major consideration for Vetaw, who has also expressed interest in eventually running for mayor, is the composition of the Minneapolis council after the upcoming election, according to the operative. “My guess is the coalition she’s with will retain the majority,” the operative told JI, making her “less likely” to enter a competitive House primary.

In a statement to JI on Sunday, Vetaw expressed appreciation for “the friends, neighbors and supporters who have asked me to consider running for a higher office,” but dismissed speculation that she is mulling a House bid. “With that said, I am focused on doing my job — representing the Northside on the City Council, and improving safety outcomes in Minneapolis as chair of the Public Health and Safety Committee. I have no other plans at this moment.”

Omar has in recent weeks consolidated support from the Democratic establishment in Washington. In late August, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the Democratic House leader and a long-standing AIPAC ally, “vigorously” endorsed Omar’s reelection campaign, emphasizing that he would “stand with her as we battle Extreme MAGA Republicans for the future of our nation.” His announcement was echoed by several senior House Democrats.

Two Democrats from opposing ideological wings of the party have already entered the race to unseat Omar, most recently including Tim Peterson, a former Minnesota National Guard recruiter who announced his candidacy just over a week ago. 

In a recent interview with JI, Peterson expressed confidence about his campaign, noting that he is actively fundraising and has drawn support from local party members who are increasingly dissatisfied with Omar’s tenure in office.

“I have no interest in joining political outliers that seem to cause more chaos than progress,” Peterson said, referring to Omar and her far-left allies in the House. “Instead of having a small squad of folks, when I get to Washington, I’m going to get a platoon of folks together to work on the hard problems of our country.”

According to sources familiar with his campaign, Peterson has privately won backing from some party loyalists who previously supported another potential challenger, Don Samuels, who came unexpectedly close to unseating Omar in the 2022 primary.

Still, some Democratic sources familiar with Minnesota politics are skeptical that Peterson, a political neophyte who is largely unknown to voters in Minneapolis, represents a credible threat to Omar’s reelection prospects, and is unlikely to clear the field of other primary challengers. 

For his part, Samuels, a former Minneapolis city councilman, is strongly leaning toward running again, according to the Democratic operative, who is familiar with his thinking. But he is unlikely to announce a decision until after the fall municipal elections, when Vetaw is expected to give a final answer on her own bid, the operative said.

“He recognizes that if there’s more than one person who occupies the same lane, then he’ll have to assess his decision,” said the operative, noting that AIPAC officials have continued to voice disinterest in a Samuels rerun, even as its affiliated super PAC quietly backed his primary campaign last cycle.

In a text message to JI on Friday, Samuels confirmed that he is assessing the race but shied away from making a firm commitment. “I’m weighing my options and will make an announcement later this year,” he said. Samuels won 48 percent of the vote against Omar in the 2022 primary, nearly eking out an upset despite being outspent.

A spokesperson for AIPAC declined to comment.

It remains to be seen if other moderate challengers will enter the primary. Bobby Joe Champion, the president of the Minnesota Senate, has been encouraged to run by people close to him, according to a source familiar with the matter. But Champion himself has given no indication that he is interested in following that counsel, the source told JI. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The unsettled field underscores the ongoing challenges for AIPAC and likeminded pro-Israel groups that have long been eager to unseat Omar and other left-wing incumbents who represent safe Democratic districts. 

Still, some party activists who oppose Omar expressed a bullish view on the primary, particularly as the progressive lawmaker has faced online backlash from the left over the recent disclosure, first reported by JI, that she accepted funding from the Qatari government to attend the World Cup in Doha last November.

The operative, who is planning to help defeat Omar, said the junket to a Gulf nation long criticized for its human rights record could be a vulnerability for the congresswoman, who identifies as a human rights advocate and has frequently raised alarms over the influence of foreign interests on American politics.

“It reflects a pattern of behavior,” the operative explained to JI, noting a contrast between her outspoken criticism of Israel and her approach to Qatar, among other matters. “We will be very circumspect in the way that we criticize her, but this stuff is harder to dismiss.”

Some Democratic sources in Minneapolis also speculated that distaste for the Qatar trip could push a subset of voters to side with a left-leaning primary challenger, Sarah Gad, who filed to run in July. The result, according to such thinking, would be to at least slightly fracture Omar’s coalition, while boosting a more moderate candidate. 

In an email to JI on Sunday, Gad, a Minneapolis attorney who previously ran for Congress in Chicago, said she disagreed with Omar’s decision to accept the junket. “I personally don’t support traveling abroad on the dime of foreign governments with problematic human rights records,” she explained. “I do, however, believe that our leaders in the State Department must continue to engage with all allies, and with those we wish to move toward more progressive and democratic practices.”

“Clearly, the World Cup can serve as a backdrop for diplomacy,” Gad continued. “However, I suspect that the citizens of Qatar, particularly those who suffer under the criminalization of homosexuality, would prefer that congresspersons focus their considerable energies on the narrowly tailored message that sexual rights are human rights. My guess is it’s hard for this message to be heard over the deafening roar of a soccer stadium.”

A spokesperson for Omar’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment regarding the primary.

In the meantime, Omar has used the prospect of an AIPAC-backed challenger to raise money for her campaign, which entered July with $540,000 on hand. 

“A right-wing Super PAC funded by millions of dollars in Dark Money spending is working around the clock to unseat Ilhan from Congress in 2024,” said a recent campaign ad on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “AIPAC is recruiting moderate candidates to run against Ilhan and other progressive incumbents who are speaking out against the establishment and will spend MILLIONS on attack ads to silence our movement.”

The ad’s language was reminiscent of a fundraising email circulated in early August by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), warning supporters that AIPAC was seeking to recruit a challenger to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) in New York, as JI reported earlier this summer.

But as with the Minneapolis race, that effort has hit a snag in recent weeks, as AIPAC’s preferred candidate, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, has continued to sit on the sidelines.

While some observers had speculated that Latimer would make a decision in early September after he saw polling, he indicated in a recent text message to JI that he is in no rush to confirm his plans, even as another moderate challenger has entered the race. 

“Nothing new,” Latimer said last week, noting that he is “so tied up with current issues,” including migrants and budgetary matters, “to focus forward.”

A local Jewish community activist involved in efforts to unseat Bowman — and who is close to AIPAC — said that Latimer has been urged to make a final decision by Wednesday. But in a sentiment expressed by others who are also now hunting for a challenger, the activist was doubtful that Latimer would ultimately decide to run.

“I am worried that he will decline,” the activist told JI recently. “I don’t think there is much of a plan B if he doesn’t run.”

In another key House primary on AIPAC’s radar, Jewish and pro-Israel activists in Pittsburgh are privately supporting a potential Democratic challenger to Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA), a former state legislator who won a hotly contested race to fill the seat vacated by retired Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) last cycle.

Bhavini Patel, an Edgewood councilmember who has previously run for state and federal office, is expected to announce a primary campaign in early October after the Jewish holidays have concluded, according to a Jewish community source informed of her plans. The source, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the race, said that Patel has drawn backing from Democrats as well as Republicans who feel that Lee’s record has been out of sync with the mainstream Jewish community.

In a statement to JI on Monday, Patel, who most recently lost a bid to succeed Lee in the state legislature, said she is actively weighing a challenge but stopped short of confirming her plans.

“At this point in time, I am deepening my engagements with the local community, as I seriously consider the path ahead,” Patel said. “The grassroots energy and desire for a fresh perspective are truly inspiring. In recent conversations, I find more and more people yearning for alternatives, for voices that resonate with the local ground realities and diverse experiences that make up our region.”

On Sunday, Patel met with Jewish community members in Pittsburgh to discuss the race at the home of Lou Weiss, a pro-Israel activist affiliated with AIPAC, according to sources familiar with the matter. Weiss declined to comment but said in a text message to JI last month that he believes Lee has “certainly earned a challenge,” citing what he described as her “off-the-charts hostility” toward Israel.

In recent weeks, AIPAC has publicly sparred with Lee on social media over her support for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel and her decision to boycott Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress in July.

Last week, Lee announced her reelection campaign boasting support from a range of high-profile Democratic leaders in Pennsylvania, including Sens. John Fetterman (D-PA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) as well as Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

While Lee has already drawn a Republican challenger, the race is unlikely to be competitive unless a credible Democratic rival enters the primary. In the most recent fundraising quarter between April and June, her campaign raised just under $90,000 and entered July with only $105,000 on hand — suggesting some early vulnerability as she gears up to defend her seat.

Late last month, members of J Street Pittsburgh, a local chapter of the progressive Israel advocacy group, hosted a fundraiser for Lee, just weeks after JI had first reported the possibility of a primary challenge from Patel. In a message to supporters, J Street cautioned that Lee “has become a top target for AIPAC’s vicious attacks claiming that she is anti-Israel and anti-America.”

But as in other races that AIPAC is eyeing, Patel might not have the opposing lane to herself if she chooses to run.

Jon Tucker, a Republican pro-Israel activist in Pittsburgh who supported Lee’s top Democratic primary rival in 2022, said he is aware of a handful of other Democrats who are also mulling challenges this cycle but did not have permission to disclose their names.

“I do think it is critically important, if a primary challenge to Rep. Lee is to succeed, that people get behind a single challenger,” Tucker told JI on Monday. “As soon as there is more than one challenger to an incumbent, it’s a loser of a challenge. And that, my friend, is AIPAC’s dilemma, at least from my perch.”

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