The Jerusalem Post

AIPAC broke spending records in this campaign cycle – so why did it opt to stay out of Ilhan Omar’s tight race?

- • By ROn KampEaS

WashIngton (jta) – the theory has preoccupie­d antisemite­s and pro-Israel strategist­s alike: If an anti-Israel political candidate loses, it’s because of pro-Israel money.

that theory came close to being disproven last week when rep. Ilhan omar, perhaps the most prominent Israel-critical member of Congress, nearly lost her reelection bid two years after cruising to victory. however, pro-Israel donors had no role in it.

the theory faces another test next week, in a new york primary where jamaal Bowman, a member of the Israel-critical “squad” of progressiv­es who was narrowly elected two years ago, is defending his incumbency – and where pro-Israel donors again have so far steered clear.

the lack of spending is especially noticeable in a year when the american Israel public affairs Committee has made national headlines for lavishing for the first time in its history tens of millions of dollars on congressio­nal races.

aIpaC officials haven’t said whether they considered entering the omar race or what they plan to do in Bowman’s. and it’s possible that outsized spending by pro-Israel groups would have benefited omar, not hurt her. after all, her margin of victory was far wider in 2020, when Israel donors spent big to oppose her – and possibly increased turnout by omar’s supporters as a result.

still, the dynamics this year are notable for challengin­g a number of assumption­s about the role of money in politics.

one is the incumbent rule, a longstandi­ng orthodoxy of pro-Israel giving, which posits that sitting lawmakers are too firmly entrenched to merit the expense. even as aIpaC’s super paC, united democracy project, doled out $25 million on behalf of candidates in other races, making it the biggest spender of any nonpartisa­n paC, aIpaC’s other paC and their allies all bypassed omar’s race, in part because they have forsworn taking on incumbents.

don samuels, whom omar barely defeated, told jewish Insider that aIpaC’s adherence to the rule was too inflexible. aIpaC should have understood “that there are different kinds of candidates, and that my potential for beating Ilhan was very high,” he said.

the other assumption being tested is the power of pro-Israel political giving. omar’s struggle to pull out a win undercuts arguments that the main thing keeping Israel-critical politician­s from winning elections is pro-Israel money.

minnesotan­s had known for weeks that omar was vulnerable, say insiders in the state; she brought in heavy hitters to campaign for her, including other members of the squad, the headline-grabbing grouping of progressiv­es she belongs to, belying her claims that she would easily skate in. sources close to samuels said his campaign was puzzled that pro-Israel groups were not taking a greater interest.

jacob Frey, minneapoli­s’ jewish mayor, said in a postmortem that omar’s siding with those who would reallocate funds from the police in a city suffering rising crime rates made her ripe for the picking. “this is the person that literally called out for and said to defund the police,” Frey told Fox 9, a local tV news outlet. (Frey backed samuels, and they shared campaign staff.)

Frey also faulted omar for being overly combative. “It’s not just about sending out vitriolic tweets and being mean spirited, it’s about working with people,” he said.

the minnesota squeaker also comes hard on the heels of michigan’s primaries, when aIpaC spent millions to defeat democratic rep. andy levin, a jewish self-described Zionist who is nonetheles­s critical of Israel. the race was a rare instance of aIpaC opposing an incumbent, but this was because of redistrict­ing: aIpaC backed another incumbent, haley stevens.

In one week, aIpaC’s opponents were handed a tidy critique of the group’s approach: aIpaC spent millions of dollars to defeat jewish royalty, but not a dime to unseat omar.

In a rare interview, aIpaC Ceo howard Kohr told The Washington Post that levin’s jewishness was not germane. “as we commonly say around here, not everyone who is pro-Israel is jewish,” Kohr said. “It’s also the case that not everyone who is jewish is pro-Israel. that has nothing to do with religion, race, ethnicity, party affiliatio­n, etc. It has to do with an orientatio­n. If you wake up every morning finding ways to consistent­ly criticize only Israel, that sends a message.”

But what may be most noteworthy about the omar primary election and its fallout is how new it is not. dig a little into the poor performanc­e of most any Israel-critical candidate, and one finds a lot more going on than middle east policy.

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, aIpaC ran on the reputation that it had ousted Israel’s two most outspoken critics in Congress, Illinois republican­s rep. paul Findley in 1982 and sen. Charles percy in 1984. Findley wrote a book about it, They Dare to Speak Out, depicting the pro-Israel lobby as a gorgon that none but the brave would take on.

aIpaC insiders at the time were happy with the reputation but privately admitted that both lawmakers did more to defeat themselves than any opponent, including the pro-Israel lobby.

Findley, defeated by dick durbin, was a republican moderate who was no longer able to stir the increasing­ly conservati­ve passions of the gop base, which affected voter turnout. reviewing They Dare to Speak Out when it came out in 1985, The New York Times called the book “the typical reaction of a Congressma­n who is offended at being challenged seriously for ‘his’ seat, especially if the upstart should go so far as to beat him.” percy, preoccupie­d with foreign policy, was seen as neglecting Illiinois’ breadand-butter issues, which contribute­d to paul simon’s win.

perhaps the most apt analog to omar’s tight race is the 2006 election, which removed from Congress one of Israel’s most trenchant critics in that decade, georgia democratic rep. Cynthia mcKinney.

mcKinney, first elected in 1992, had been ousted in 2002. pro-Israel donors had played a role in that race, and her father, a state lawmaker, blamed her loss on “j-eW-s,” which stirred concerns in the pro-Israel community that they had played too prominent a role and were providing antisemite­s with a target.

mcKinney retook her seat in 2004, and pro-Israel donors initially stayed out of the race in 2006 for a number of reasons. mcKinney, having bounced back, now seemed unbeatable. the perception advanced by mcKinney, her father and others that jews were targeting a Black congresswo­man also inhibited involvemen­t.

that changed when one of several opponents in the primary, hank johnson, performed exceptiona­lly well, and he and mcKinney went to a runoff. pro-Israel donors leaped in at that point and helped johnson win. mcKinney has not returned to Congress since.

there are difference­s between 2006 and last week. For one, omar won, even if it was close. plus, georgia’s runoff system, which allowed the pro-Israel community to step in on johnson’s behalf at the last minute, does not exist in minnesota.

like omar, mcKinney was a lightning rod who made as many enemies as friends, although mcKinney stands out for the depth of her commitment to marginal ideas and confrontat­ional actions. she once punched a Capitol police officer and entertaine­d inside-job conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. By 2006, her constituen­ts had many reasons to want her gone from Congress.

like the pro-Israel donors who were spooked by mcKinney’s 2004 win, pro-Israel donors were wary of another confrontat­ion with omar, who won by a large margin in the 2020 primaries despite big pro-Israel money. pro-Israel insiders have said donors did not want to be once again exposed to the humiliatio­n of a defeat, and at the hands of one of Israel’s most prominent critics.

that creates a paradox: shout out loud that you’re critical of Israel, and aIpaC might be more reluctant to come for you. the aIpaC paCs, including the united democracy project super paC, have not targeted prominent Israel critics. Instead, they have focused on politician­s who have barely registered on the Israel issue, such as summer lee in the pittsburgh area (who won, narrowly) and jessica Cisneros in south texas (who barely lost).

Bowman may face a tough race in the august 23 primary. redistrict­ing has cut the number of Black and low-income residents in his 16th district and added a substantia­l jewish population center in White plains, potentiall­y making it more of a challenge for Bowman. he faces two moderate democrats, one of whom, Vedat gashi, has earned the endorsemen­ts of two of Congress’ more prominent former pro-Israel jewish democrats: eliot engel, who Bowman ousted two years ago, and nita lowey, who retired in 2020.

so are the aIpaC paCs reconsider­ing the incumbent rule? If so, it would present a dilemma. Ilhan omar, version 2020, or version 2022: jump in and risk the humiliatio­n of Bowman soundly defeating the aIpaC endorsee, and of drawing national attention to one of Israel’s sharpest critics; or stay out, and risk being seen as overly cautious if Bowman barely squeaks in.

aIpaC’s spokesman marshall Wittmann adopted a wait-and-see posture. “We will continue to review races and opportunit­ies throughout the remainder of the cycle,” he said.

 ?? (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via Getty Images) ?? REP. ILHAN OMAR gives a press conference during an event near the University of Minnesota, last week.
(Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via Getty Images) REP. ILHAN OMAR gives a press conference during an event near the University of Minnesota, last week.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel