In Michigan, a pro-Israel group works to beat a Jewish Democrat

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PONTIAC, Mich. — Rep. Andy Levin had seen this happen in Ohio, then Pennsylvania, then North Carolina, then Maryland. He knew that the United Democracy Project, a super PAC created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had become the biggest spender in the Democratic Congress. primaries, helping pro-Israel Democrats beat leftist candidates.

But it was amazing, he said, to see the pro-Israel PAC spend at least $4.2 million to help Rep. Haley Stevens in their member-to-member primary just outside of Detroit.

“This is all so absurd,” Levin, 61, said in an interview here after a rally with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D). “I am an out-of-the-ordinary Jewish person. I have mezuzas on my office doors. I’m one of two former synagogue presidents in Congress.

The Aug. 2 primary in the new 11th congressional district, drawn by a nonpartisan commission last year, has become one of the nation’s most expensive and the latest battle between the Democratic Party’s left and donors who want to cut progressive influence in Congress. It is also a test of the influence of the pro-Israel group in the Democratic primaries, where, seven months in its existence, it has won all but one race in which it has entered.

Four years after Levin and Stevens arrived in the House – the scion of a Michigan political dynasty and a first-time candidate who became freshman class president — they fought a bitter, sometimes personal battle for a secure Democratic seat.

As donors fought a proxy dispute over support for Israel, Levin, echoing supporters like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), framed their race like a fight for the soul of the party. Stevens, easily outpacing Levin, sees a different choice — a pragmatic young Democrat who would be the first woman to represent some of the district’s towns, or a “white man in his 60s,” as she put it. called during a debate, which should not have run here.

“I don’t show up for Congress to debate ideology,” Stevens, 39, said after touring a steel manufacturing plant in Madison Heights. “I think there’s a generational component here, but I also believe there’s a ‘who’s going to be the Oakland County champion? making up.”

None of the Democrats wanted to face each other, even though the pro-Israel donors were eager to win Levin — the main sponsor of a Two-State Solution Act which calls East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza “occupied territories”, and would put financial pressure on Israel not to annex them. Michigan lost one of its House seats after the 2020 census, and while the old map put Levin in a safe seat and Stevens in a swing, the redistricting put them both in a district out of reach of the Republicans.

The couple’s disagreements begin with who should have run where. Stevens had represented almost half of the new district and had run two tough races where his story – “I was President Obama’s auto bailout chief of staff,” referring to the 2009 bailout of automakers during the financial crisis – constantly appeared on television.

Levin was about a quarter of the new 11th District, but his house was right in the middle. (Stevens, who got married last yearbought a new house with her husband who relocated her to the redesigned headquarters.)

Some Democrats wanted Levin to run in a nearby seat that narrowly voted for Trump, and where two-time U.S. Senate nominee John James was spearheading the GOP nomination. “I’m an Oakland County kid,” Levin said, explaining his decision. “My children are the fifth generation of my family to live here in the new 11th arrondissement.” If he had shown up in the 10th arrondissement instead, he expected AIPAC and its allies to stand against him.

“It would be the same story there,” Levin said. “There, it would be in the general; here, it is in the primary.

Critics of Levin’s views on Israel immediately saw an opportunity. In mid-January, just weeks after Levin and Stevens declared themselves for the 11th District, former AIPAC President David Victor, an Oakland County resident, typed out an email to potential donors by Stevens.

The “race of the cycle,” Victor wrote, was not in Detroit, where Israeli critic Rashida Tlaib (D) was seeking re-election. Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), two frequent AIPAC targets, had “very little sway over other members given their backgrounds and marginal status.” But as a self-proclaimed Zionist, whose father and uncle served in the US House and Senate, Levin was “arguably the most corrosive congressman for US-Israeli relations.”

Stevens and Levin disagreed on Israel; she got involved “unequivocal support” for the country, while Levin was a critic of Israeli settlement building and the “forced deletion” Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Alana Alpert, who has been Levin’s rabbi since 2015 – the year they co-founded a liberal group called Detroit Jews for Justice – said the attacks were clearly unfair and her own mother was so upset to see them that she had sworn off support from AIPAC.

“There are very progressive people in our community who fundamentally have fears about Israel exploited, to distract them from the issues that affect us most,” Alpert said. “Who benefits from it, in the end? The companies Andy wants to hold accountable.

Some supporters of Levin’s Israeli position rallied against Stevens. In early July, an activist with If not now, who calls Israel an “apartheid” state, confronted Stevens on camera. In the home stretch of the race, a local IfNotNow organizer formed “Jews for Andy” to campaign for the congressman.

But as in other races where the United Democracy Project (UDP) has spent money — around $30 million this cycle — Israel was not a major issue in the district. When PAC ads began airing, they echoed Stevens’ own positive message. In interviews around the district, voters said they were still deciding and cited other priorities as they made what for many was a tough choice between two Democrats they loved. .

“I think we can’t lose on this one,” said Lori Mizzi-Spillane, 62, who said she thought carefully before deciding to support Levin. “Environmental issues are what tipped me off.”

Levin and his allies have tried to highlight more accolades, from his past as a labor organizer — “A steward for Congress,” according to a campaign slogan — to his support for leftist principles like Medicare-for-all. and the Green New Deal.

“I trust Andy!” Warren said at the rally in Pontiac, after Levin reminded the crowd that he had endorsed his presidential campaign. “I don’t trust Andy because he has a shrewd line, because he’s carefully chosen which bill he’s going to put his name on, because he sits back and waits. I trust Andy because he fights with his heart.

Convincing voters that Stevens won’t fight for them — or that she’s compromised by PAC spending — has been as difficult here as in other states where the UDP has intervened. Levin echoed supporters like Sanders, pointing to Republican donations to the PAC — and AIPAC’s support for dozens of Republican incumbents — to argue the GOP is trying to buy the seat. This is the message that J Street, a liberal group that opposes further annexation and supports the creation of a Palestinian state, put on the air.

“No campaign money is worth giving up on our democracy,” a narrator says in the 30-second spot, tying AIPAC’s support for Republican incumbents to their votes to void the 2020 election. more than $700,000 behind that spot, far less than the UDP – and less than the super PAC Women Vote!, which works to elect female Democrats, had spent on its own spots.

“It’s dishonest to complain about black money while using black money ads to unfairly attack Haley Stevens, who is by all accounts a great House Democrat who even Andy Levin has endorsed in the past “said Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for the UDP.

On Friday, Sanders will travel to Pontiac to rally behind Levin and raise the case that super PAC spending is a gimmick to replace a reliable progressive with a business-friendly centrist. But Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for J Street, agreed there was more work to be done to convince Democratic voters that the pro-Stevens ads on their screens had a darker motive.

“We did our best to get this information in front of voters,” Bayroff said. “The ads are from a super PAC called the ‘United Democracy Project’. No one reads the fine print.

Stevens, too, dismissed efforts to portray the spending in his name as a crime against democracy. “I don’t come from a political family,” she said, before telling a story about the problems she had raising funds in 2018 – and the help provided by National Democrats, after that the Republican super PACs attacked her.

“It’s quite ironic to reprimand a colleague for super PAC money when you also have super PAC money coming in,” Stevens added, referring to J Street..

Stevens has also benefited from developments unrelated to PAC spending, from the bulk of the district that previously voted for her to news synced with her campaign messages. Levin stumbled in June, running an ad featuring a 2018 endorsement of the late John Lewis (D), a civil rights icon and Georgian congressman who died in 2020. It fell after members of the Congressional Black Caucus complained — including Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), who endorsed Stevens after she declined to run in one of the new districts.

Stevens was also helped by Liberal anger over the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, which led to a flurry of new fundraising for Democrats last month, boosting Democratic women in particular. On Monday, Stevens knocked on the doors of primary voters at one of the locations Levin had represented since 2019, telling residents how she would work for them and what she would change.

“I want to be the first woman to represent Madison Heights!” she says.

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