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AIPAC Unleashes a Record $14.5 Million Bid to Defeat a Critic of Israel
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By The New York Times
Published 4 weeks ago on
June 24, 2024

In a Democratic primary near NYC, pro-Israel groups are pouring in record-breaking funds to unseat Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a vocal critic of Israel. (The New York Times/Gregg Vigliotti)

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Pro-Israel political groups have transformed a Democratic primary on the outskirts of New York City, overwhelming the race with record-shattering outside spending to take down one of Israel’s most outspoken detractors, Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

The onslaught by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and allied groups has made good on a warning delivered to lawmakers like Bowman after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack: Moderate your views or face a deluge of political attacks.

Now, in barely a month, an AIPAC-affiliated super political action committee has spent $14.5 million — up to $17,000 an hour — on the race, filling television screens, stuffing mailboxes and clogging phone lines with caustic attacks. With days to go, the expenditures have eclipsed what any interest group has ever spent on a single House race.

Pro-Israel groups are using the same approach elsewhere, most notably in an August primary in St. Louis. AIPAC’s super PAC, the United Democracy Project, has spent $1.5 million there to take out Rep. Cori Bush, who is a Black member of the House’s left-wing “squad” like Bowman.

The paid messages almost never mention Israel. In Bowman’s race, they have favored attacks aimed at the party’s base portraying the congressman as a pariah who “keeps attacking President (Joe) Biden” and courts “controversy, chaos and conspiracy.”

“Jamaal Bowman has his own agenda, and he’s hurting New York,” warns one TV spot. Tracking firm AdImpact estimates it has been seen 180 million times.

The approach has infuriated Bowman, an ally of the president, who argues that he is being punished for standing by a moral conviction against the Israel-Hamas war, while his more moderate opponent, George Latimer, wavers on key Biden priorities like raising taxes.

The extraordinary intervention has also galvanized a coalition of left-leaning organizations to run their own influence campaign designed to discredit AIPAC, by stressing that the group receives substantial funding from Republican megadonors and favors stances well to the right of their base.

“I’m an outspoken person of color. I’m an outspoken Black man. I fight against genocide in Gaza, and I fight for justice right here,” Bowman said during a debate this week with Latimer. “And his supporters don’t want that because it challenges their power.”

But with just days to go, AIPAC’s influence seems clear. Polls indicate that Latimer, who is white, has taken a commanding lead, and his pro-Israel backers are urging other Democrats to take notice.

“Assuming the outcome is as we expect it, the message is going to be that being pro-Israel is not just wise policy, it’s smart politics,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster whose Democratic Majority for Israel spent $1 million against Bowman.

The congressman’s allies — and even some Democrats rooting against him — worry that a defeat will set a more worrisome precedent.

They fear that if it is successful, the spending could not only have a chilling effect on Democrats willing to speak out against the war, but also offer a replicable strategy for other wealthy interests in both parties.

“This is the message of this campaign: You stand up to powerful interests, they will try to bring you down,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who was scheduled to campaign with Bowman on Friday.

He added: “Today, they’re in the Democratic primary. Tomorrow, they’ll be in the Republican primary. They don’t care.”

Super PACs are nothing new in American politics. And they have become ever-larger players since the Supreme Court began allowing outside groups to spend unlimited money, as long as they do not directly coordinate with candidates.

But the scale and tactics of AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel have few parallels. With the exception of those tied to the cryptocurrency industry, most other large super PACs capable of spending millions of dollars generally exist to advance either a particular candidate or a particular political party.

AIPAC had been lobbying American politicians of both parties for decades, enjoying close ties to presidents and legislative leaders. It only formed its own super PAC around the 2022 midterms. It spent $26 million that cycle, mostly targeting progressive Democrats who in recent years had begun to pull their party toward a more critical view of Israel.

Two years later, the war and Israel’s tenuous position on the global stage has accelerated both trends. Republicans like Paul Singer and Bernard Marcus have stepped up with multimillion-dollar donations to AIPAC’s PAC, as have some Democrats.

Despite earlier threats, the group opted against a broad-based attack on Israel’s Democratic critics. After struggling to identify viable challengers, it has chosen so far not to meaningfully challenge other Israel critics, including Reps. Summer Lee, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Bowman, who represents a large Jewish population, presented himself as the ideal target.

Although he condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Bowman was among the first lawmakers to call for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, to accuse Israel of committing genocide there and to push to curtail American military aid to Israel — positions that AIPAC directly opposes.

He was politically vulnerable, with relatively scant funds in his reelection account and a fresh misdemeanor charge for pulling a House fire alarm when there was no fire.

And rather than back down in the face of AIPAC’s threats, he has only become more outspoken. In a recent speech, Bowman said that he was being “attacked by the Zionist regime we call AIPAC.”

“This race offers an unambiguous choice,” said Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesperson. “George Latimer is a progressive, pro-Israel candidate while Jamaal Bowman has refused to support the Jewish state as it fights a moral and just war against Iranian terrorist proxies.”

After helping recruit Latimer, the Westchester County executive, AIPAC has served as his biggest bundler, steering more than $2.4 million directly into his campaign accounts, some of it from Republican donors. Then, in mid-May, its super PAC began to spend, saturating local television despite New York’s notoriously high advertising prices.

By comparison, Bowman and his allies from Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party have managed to scrape together about $4 million altogether for advertising, less than a third of what United Democracy Project is spending.

“This is an astronomical amount of spending in really any House race, let alone a Democratic primary in New York,” said Meredith Kelly, who ran communications for the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

United Democracy Project put $3.2 million behind a positive TV ad buffing Latimer’s image as a Biden ally “delivering progressive results,” according to AdImpact.

The group has spent at least twice that on attack ads. Produced by a veteran Democratic advertising firm, they almost always mention Bowman’s vote against Biden’s infrastructure bill. Bowman has said he opposed the legislation to pressure Congress to pass companion climate change legislation, but on the airwaves, it is played as a betrayal.

It appears that the only places that United Democracy Project paid for advertising related to Israel were in web ads and glossy mailers that can be more easily targeted to voters.

Many cite information published by news media that Democratic Majority for Israel now says it uncovered. The group said it paid researchers who found blog posts and videos showing Bowman dabbling in conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 and praising a writer many Jews consider an antisemite, then shared them with reporters. (Bowman has apologized, and says he is not prejudiced against any group.)

“At the end of the day, super PACs like ours are in the business of winning the races we are engaged in, and we use the issues that work most effectively,” Mellman said.

As for Latimer, he appears to have few qualms with the crush of money being used in his name. In a recent interview, he said he was in favor of changing laws to limit the influence of money in politics. But for now, he said he was just “following the rules of the game.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

By Nicholas Fandos/Gregg Vigliotti
c.2024 The New York Times Company
Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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