Apr 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Pro-Israel groups wade into Dem primary fights

A broken television screen with the US flag sits on top a pile of money.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new political group affiliated with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is spending significant sums to boost more moderate Democrats in four closely watched House primaries, records show.

Why it matters: New TV ad buys from the group, dubbed the United Democracy Project, are upping the stakes in proxy fights between the Democrats' moderate and progressive factions. Behind the scenes is a fight over U.S.-Israel policy.

State of play: The United Democracy Project has reported spending more than $1.4 million on ads in four House races in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio.

  • It's joining a handful of other pro-Israel groups also training their sights on these intra-party battles.
  • Most notably is J Street, a political organization fighting for pro-Israel policies and candidates — but with a liberal viewpoint. Their PAC raised $7 million for congressional candidates in the 2020 cycle.
  • The political arms of Democratic Majority for Israel and the Jewish Democratic Council of America also have been active in House primaries this year.
  • The progressive-moderate split on Israel mirrors — and almost serves as a proxy for — larger ideological divisions in the Democratic Party being litigated in these primary contests.

The backdrop: So far, J Street is involved in House primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, Maryland and Michigan.

AIPAC has a presence in all of those races too, through either UDP or donations from a traditional political action committee formed late last year.

  • United Democracy Project is spending against former Bernie Sanders campaign leader Nina Turner in her rematch against Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio).
  • In North Carolina, UDP is backing state Sen. Don Davis' House bid, pitting it against J Street-backed state Sen. Erica Smith.
  • Two other House races in North Carolina and Pennsylvania see UDP going up against the Working Families Party, a separate progressive organizing group that is against AIPAC.

Between the lines: Critics hit AIPAC's United Democracy Project for backing over 100 Republican candidates this cycle who voted against certifying the 2020 election.

  • That fuels griping that the group's name is antithetical to the Republicans' purpose with their vote.
  • Of note: None of UDP's new ads mentions Israel. Two focus on progressive candidates' intra-party criticism of more moderate members, including President Biden.
  • Positive spots backing their preferred candidates in North Carolina primaries focus on their Tar Heel State roots and legislative work on issues such as education and health care.

What they're saying: A UDP spokesperson told Axios it's engaged in contests "where there is a clear difference between a candidate who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and a candidate that does not or who may seek to undermine that relationship."

  • "Our goal is to help build the broadest bipartisan coalition of candidates who support the U.S.-Israel relationship, currently a significant majority in Congress."
  • J Street's vice president of communications, Logan Bayroff, called AIPAC's 2022 investments a way "to try to defeat, silence and, in some cases, smear progressives."
  • "At J Street, we were created to help provide a political voice for the large majority of the American Jewish community that holds liberal democratic values and liberal views when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and foreign policy," Bayroff added.

Be smart: Support for Israel, once nearly unanimous among national Democrats, has become a political Rorschach test, and AIPAC's spending has aligned it with centrist groups such as Third Way and a new outfit called Mainstream Democrats PAC.

  • Democrats who back the Jewish state tend to be more moderate on other issues, while the country's most vehement critics hew to the left of the American political spectrum.
  • And 2020 Democratic presidential candidates' views on Israel divided the primary field.
  • Progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a movement to boycott AIPAC's annual conference.
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