In Silicon Valley House race, leading Democratic candidates reflect party’s fault lines on Israel-Hamas war

Just three Democrats are favored to advance to the general election, strategists say, citing Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, state Assemblyman Evan Low and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo as the leading contenders

Eleven candidates are on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary election for a safely Democratic Silicon Valley House seat long held by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who is retiring at the end of her current term.

Just three Democrats, however, are favored to advance to the general election, strategists say, citing Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, state Assemblyman Evan Low and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo as the leading contenders. 

Still, a pair of lesser-known Democrats, Palo Alto City Councilor Julie Lythcott-Haims and political newcomer Peter Dixon, a wealthy Marine veteran and entrepreneur, could also eke by, experts note, especially in a divided field where the threshold for victory is likely to be in the low double digits.

The top-two vote-getters will face off in November regardless of party affiliation, thanks to California’s unique open primary system.

Even as the race has drawn millions in outside spending, national pro-Israel groups haven’t yet deployed any resources, in contrast with a fiercely contested open-seat primary in Orange County, where AIPAC’s super PAC has spent at least $4.6 million targeting a Democratic state Sen. Dave Min, who has privately criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Depending on the results of Tuesday’s primary to replace Eshoo, who assumed office just over three decades ago, pro-Israel groups could ultimately decide to engage in the general election, according to a Jewish activist in the Bay Area who is close to AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, which is also opposing Min.

By varying degrees, the five Democrats seen as capable of succeeding Eshoo, 81, have all backed Israel’s right to defend itself in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks and called for releasing the hostages, while condemning pro-Hamas demonstrators who cut short a widely publicized candidate forum held last month in Palo Alto’s City Council chambers.

But while Simitian, Low and Dixon have each cast themselves as unequivocal supporters of Israel in its war with Hamas in Gaza, Liccardo has voiced reservations over the conduct of Israel’s ongoing campaign and Lythcott-Haims has indicated that she would favor proposals to condition U.S. aid to Israel, recent interviews with Jewish Insider show.

Those distinctions were among the factors weighed by a local pro-Israel group, the Jewish Democratic Coalition of the Bay Area, in issuing its primary endorsements. Based largely on a series of lengthy questionnaires reviewed by JI, the group ranked Simitian as the strongest candidate on key Jewish community issues, with Low and Liccardo tied for second.

The group interviewed two other candidates who did not make the cut, including Lythcott-Haims and Rishi Kumar, a former Eshoo challenger who has been outspoken in advocating for the hostages held in Gaza. Dixon, who spoke with JDCBA, did not ultimately submit a questionnaire, said Dorene Kastelman, who leads the group.

“It was hard for our endorsement committee, but we were unanimous,” Kastelman explained in an interview with JI, praising Simitian’s long-standing relationships with Jewish and pro-Israel leaders in the district. “It’s so critical for us at this time, with the level of antisemitism and especially anti-Israel hate, to have someone in Congress who can support us.”

J Street, the progressive Israel advocacy group, has backed five candidates in the primary, including Simitian, Dixon, Lythcott-Haims, Liccardo and Joby Bernstein, a lesser-known Democrat.

SAN JOSE, CA – January 26: San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks during a press conference at City Hall in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

In a recent interview, Simitian, a 71-year-old former state legislator also backed by Eshoo, said he has visited Israel five times over the past 20 years, underscoring what he characterized as a “reassuring history of interest, commitment and engagement other candidates may not necessarily bring to the conversation.”

“Having said that, people want a very clear answer,” he added, referring to conversations with Jewish voters in the wake of Hamas’ attacks. “I think that what happened on Oct. 7 was a terrorist attack by a terrorist organization, and that Israel has not only every right but a necessity to defend itself in the face of such an attack,” he clarified.

Low, a self-described pro-Israel progressive who has notched an endorsement from Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), echoed that sentiment. “Israel deserves a right to exist, there are still hostages at stake, and we need to do all we can to support our friends and allies in promoting democracy abroad,” he said in an interview with JI last week. “For me, this is about preventing terrorism and maintaining our long-standing commitment to our global allies in the long run.”

“My position on Israel is progressive and is based on the lived experiences I’ve observed and share in solidarity,” Low elaborated. The 40-year-old state legislator, who has visited Israel twice, argued that perspective as an openly gay Asian American will make him a unique ally at the federal level. “This is a progressive issue,” he reiterated, “and that’s what I hope to demonstrate.”

Sacramento, CA – March 20: California Assemblymember Evan Low along with fellow lawmakers honor women in California making an impact during Women’s History Month on Monday, March 20, 2023 in Sacramento, CA.

For his part, Dixon, a cybersecurity entrepreneur who worked in the State Department in the Obama administration and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, claimed his diverse background has likewise made him well suited to assess the war between Israel and Hamas. 

“I am the only one in the race with national security and federal experience,” Dixon, 40, said in a recent interview with JI, touting his support from several Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee. “Being able to bring that to bear on this situation is, I think, tremendously important at this time.”

As the war in Gaza has unfolded, Dixon, who cast himself as a strong supporter of Israel, said his “firm focus” is ensuring “we bring the Israeli and American hostages home,” adding, “That has to be the North Star.”

But Dixon also suggested that Israel could do a better job winning international approval of its military campaign by allowing reporters to embed with the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. “Having been in tough, urban fights,” he said, “I know how hard this is.”

“Many people who are protesting this don’t even understand that the young men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces are on the ground, fighting and risking their lives right now,” Dixon told JI. “Their perception somehow is that the IDF is just sitting around the border of the Gaza Strip lobbing in airstrikes, and nothing could be further from the truth.”

By contrast, Liccardo, 53, expressed what he called “very serious concerns about how the war has been conducted” so far, urging the U.S. to use diplomatic and political resources “to encourage a settlement” that releases the hostages, enables increased aid to Palestinians and provides “a pathway to supplant Hamas as the representative government in Gaza.”

Liccardo, who visited Israel in 2019 with an AIPAC-affiliated group, vowed he would work to strengthen the “historic” alliance between Israel and the U.S. The relationship “is founded on shared democratic values, mutual security concerns, and economic and technological symbiosis,” he told JI in an interview on Friday. “It’s important to the Valley I represent.”

Still, he added a caveat. “I’m also going to be honest about my concerns, for example, about the conduct of a war where essentially 2 million people have been left homeless,” he clarified, noting that he would be “both outspoken and a strong partner.”

Similarly, Lythcott-Haims, in a recent interview with JI, affirmed her support for Israel’s “right to exist and to defend itself,” while voicing strong reservations over the war. Israeli Prime Minister “[Benjamin] Netanyahu,” she said, “has rained his anger and anguish upon innocents in Gaza in an attempt to root out Hamas terrorists, and I think we’re all clear that as you tally up what has happened, we now have had a response that feels quite disproportionate.”

Since December, Lythcott-Haims, 56, said she has called for a “bilateral cease-fire” between Israel and Hamas, and is now in favor of weighing proposals to condition U.S. aid to Israel, she confirmed. “It is time to signal that we’re concerned about aid from the U.S. being used to further a war that is leading to the deaths of so many innocent civilians,” she told JI.

In staking out such positions, Lythcott-Haims could be setting herself up to face attacks from pro-Israel groups if she advances to the general election.

Despite local support from the JDCBA, Liccardo’s mixed rhetoric toward Israel could also fuel outside spending from AIPAC and DMFI, particularly in a potential November matchup with a more stalwart supporter of Israel like Simitian or Low, the Jewish activist in the Bay Area who is close to both groups suggested.

“We’re used to Bay Area members saying that they’re good friends and then being frustrated by how they view friendship,” the activist, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly, told JI.

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