Dec 17, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Centrist Democrats plot revenge in 2024

Illustration of a donkey walking a tightrope.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The raw debate over the Israel-Hamas war roiling the Democratic Party will take center stage in House primaries next year, starting with contests in California and North Carolina in early March.

Why it matters: Challenges to Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), both vocal critics of Israel, will receive most of the attention. But the future of the Democratic caucus will be determined by old-school battles between centrists and progressives in a record number of open seats.

State of play: To date, there have been 23 House Democratic retirements and 11 Republican retirements (plus one expulsion).

Zoom out: Pro-Israel Democrats are plotting a three-pronged strategy to expand their ranks.

  1. Spend heavily to defeat "Squad"-like Democrats.
  2. Bolster vulnerable lawmakers facing tough general elections.
  3. Invest in promising candidates in crowded primaries.

The big picture: It's not a firm and fast rule, but Democrats dedicated to Israel's right to self-defense tend to be more centrist on issues like crime and immigration.

The other side: Progressives are more focused on defending their vulnerable members than going on offense. And they are expecting to be outspent.

  • "This is a battle for the soul of our democracy," said Usamah Andrabi, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a grassroots organization that burst onto the political scene by helping Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) knock off a Democratic incumbent in 2018.
  • "Justice Democrats alongside others ... are all-in on protecting our progressive incumbents in Congress against $100 million in attacks from AIPAC and their Republican billionaire donors."

Driving the news: The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC released its first round of endorsements on Sunday, including 23 "frontliners" — lawmakers expected to have the toughest general election fights. In total, DMFI is backing 81 incumbents.

  • "Each and every DMFI PAC candidate knows that supporting a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is not just good politics, it's wise policy," DMFI PAC Chairman Mark Mellman said in a statement shared first with Axios. "We look forward to helping these esteemed pro-Israel legislators win re-election."
  • "I appreciate all of the work that DMFI PAC is doing to recruit, support and elect more Democratic leaders that are committed to strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance," Rep. Pete Aguilar (D.-Calif.), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement.

Between the lines: Behind the looming primary fights will be a wide money disparity, but that doesn't guarantee victory for the pro-Israel side.

  • Ultimately, Democratic primary voters decide the candidates who will emerge from deep blue districts.
  • 24% of Democrats said they were more sympathetic to the Palestinians in a recent Wall Street Journal poll, while 17% sided with the Israelis. 48% said they sympathize with both equally.
  • "To win, it comes down to the candidate who can assemble the best coalition — and that's money and organized groups," said Dan Sena, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2018 cycle.

What we're watching: The party's divide will be on display in Oregon's 3rd Congressional District, now open after the retirement of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

  • Susheela Jayapal, a former Multnomah County commissioner and sister of House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), has announced her candidacy.
  • She's drawing fire from pro-Israel activists for not signing a resolution condemning Hamas, Jewish Insider reported.
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