primary pivot

In change from past, pro-Israel groups rally to oust left-wing lawmakers 

In the aftermath of Oct. 7, donors more bullish on toppling Squad members

ALI KHALIGH/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

Rep. Rashida Tlaib

As far-left House members face primary competition over their polarizing stances on Israel’s war with Hamas, newly emboldened pro-Israel groups are indicating that they are now preparing to invest significantly in the upcoming election cycle.

In one notable development, a major Democratic fundraiser with ties to a moderate political action committee that backs pro-Israel candidates is signaling that top donors are eager to fund credible primary challenges to Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Cori Bush (D-MO) — who have drawn backlash for equivocating over Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack.

Their reactions to the brutal massacre have created “a lot of energy among donors and activists in the center,” Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political advisor to the billionaire entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, who largely funds the Mainstream Democrats PAC, confirmed in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday.

“One of the very, very small silver linings of this horrible moment is that it does modestly increase the likelihood that we can remove some of these members of Congress,” Mehlhorn said. “We believe that there is a winning electoral coalition, a large governing majority of Americans who want their leaders to be able to condemn violent atrocities and mass rape.”

In another salvo aimed at Tlaib on Thursday, Democratic Majority for Israel’s political arm released a six-figure TV ad in Detroit hitting the Squad member over her calls for a cease-fire and vote last week against a resolution standing with Israel in the wake of Hamas’ assault, among other things. 

The target of the ad — as well as its messaging — was noteworthy for DMFI, which has traditionally avoided going after anti-Israel incumbents. The group’s advertising has also not typically mentioned Israel or foreign policy, despite its focus on electing pro-Israel candidates. But Mark Mellman, the president of DMFI, suggested that the escalating conflict has contributed to a new sense of urgency on issues relating to Israel.

“Normally foreign policy is not an important electoral issue unless American troops are fighting a war,” Mellman told JI on Thursday. “But Israel is the number one news story in the world right now and polls demonstrate it is a salient issue for a large majority of Americans.”

On Monday, Bush drew her first challenger: Wesley Bell, the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County, who cited Bush’s positions on the conflict between Israel and Hamas as a reason for entering the race. “Hamas is a terrorist organization,” he told JI, “and I will not waver in my support for Israel.”

Meanwhile, Tlaib, who represents a large population of Arab American voters in Dearborn, has yet to face opposition in her primary — despite ongoing efforts to recruit a credible challenger.

Political activists in Detroit have been working behind the scenes to convince Adam Hollier, a former state senator who launched a rematch against freshman Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-MI) last month, to switch races and challenge Tlaib instead, according to a Democratic source familiar with the effort.

Hollier, however, said in a text message to JI on Thursday that he is “not considering any other district,” adding, “I’m running in MI-13, my home district, because our communities deserve real, serious representation in Congress and they just aren’t getting it with Rep. Thanedar.”

Speaking with JI, Mehlhorn said he had already heard from several unnamed donors in the tech and finance worlds who reached out to him after he went public with his plans in an interview with CNBC on Thursday — which he characterized as an opening signal to spur “credible candidates to run.”

Mehlhorn had indicated in an interview with The Intercept last May that he believed Mainstream Democrats PAC had succeeded in neutralizing the far left in 2022 — and would not need to spend as aggressively this cycle. But he suggested that his thinking had since changed as the Israel-Hamas conflict has underscored the growing extremism of the far left ahead of a presidential election year.

“We believe the winning strategy is for Democrats to present themselves as capable and able to police their own extremists,” Mehlhorn told JI.

Mehlhorn explained that he and his allies would for now be focusing exclusively on unseating Tlaib and Bush — even as other Squad members who have staked out polarizing positions on the ongoing war in Gaza are also poised to face primary opponents next cycle. “If you try to police your own side too aggressively,” he said, “it actually breaks things.”

The Bush and Tlaib campaigns did not respond to messages seeking comment on Thursday evening.

In addition to Bush, Reps. Summer Lee (D-PA) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) are preparing to defend their seats from new challengers who are drawing sharp contrasts on Middle East policy. 

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who has faced mounting criticism from Jewish and pro-Israel constituents over his approach to the war, also appears poised for a competitive primary as George Latimer, the Westchester County executive, weighs a challenge — which could come as soon as next week, according to sources informed of his thinking. 

AIPAC, the bipartisan pro-Israel group, has privately indicated that it is ready to back Latimer’s campaign.

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