“Very abnormal”: Expert worries pro-Israel megadonors trying to make Dems a “pro-Netanyahu party”

A fundraising arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has shoveled nearly $5 million into opposing incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., in his upcoming congressional primary as the group targets progressive critics of Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

After contributing just over $2 million to the race last week, the United Democracy Project (UDP) super PAC has spent another almost $1.3 million on ads supporting Bowman’s opponent, moderate Democrat George Latimer, and another nearly $1.4 million in negative advertisements about Bowman, campaign finance disclosures released Wednesday showed. 

Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for progressive consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, said that that sum is a “very abnormal” and “extraordinary amount” for an outside group to spend in a congressional race. He told Salon that congressional races typically only see outside spending totals in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for all candidates combined.

“When they spend this kind of money in a single congressional district in New York, that’s very, very hard to overcome,” Holman said. “I mean, there’s no way Bowman can match that kind of spending. And that’s just a small congressional district, so that kind of money is gonna have a very, very powerful effect on the election outcome.” 

AIPAC’s turn to campaign spending marks a new era of political participation for the pro-Israel lobbying group, which first started spending on campaigns during the 2022 election cycle. The group has been able to grow its influence by forming UDP, which can legally contribute unlimited amounts of money on ads and communications in races but can’t coordinate with campaigns. 

UDP has contributed $4,813,617 to the New York District 16 since last Monday, including $2,342,021 supporting Latimer, according to Federal Election Commission data — and a Business Insider report indicated the spending may be higher than the publicly disclosed figures. Progressive and liberal PACs, including Justice Democrats and Working Families Party, on the other hand, have spent just under $300,000 to support Bowman or oppose Latimer since April.

An AIPAC spokesperson told The Guardian it regards Latimer as a “strong advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship in clear contrast to his opponent who is aligned with the anti-Israel extremist fringe.” Bowman, however, has been a vocal critic of Israel’s invasion of Gaza and was one of the first members of congress to call for a ceasefire. 

The super PAC’s ads challenging Bowman, however, do not mention Israel at all, The Guardian reports. One ad from the super PAC instead accuses the New York progressive of pursuing “his own agenda,” pointing to the differences between his policies and President Joe Biden.

These “sizable” contributions from UDP and the ads they run can impact the race by boosting constituents’ awareness of a primary race and potentially turnout in the June 25 primary, which could lend itself to either candidate, Conor Dowling, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, told Salon. If the ads are successful, he explained, they could also “move the needle a little bit” in Latimer’s favor.

UDP’s spending and unmitigated contributions, including from wealthy megadonors, allow for larger amounts of money to “be spent in a way that it’s perhaps somewhat more difficult for voters to make the link between what that group is about and why they are, in this case, attacking Bowman,” Dowling added. “Whereas if it was the Latimer campaign or some other PAC associated with a moderate wing of the Democratic Party that might be a more informative signal to voters, and it might allow them to make a more informed decision about how to take the information that comes from the super PAC ad.”

While a disparity in funding doesn’t always matter, sizable ones “sometimes can,” especially in races that historically have low turnout and voter interest, Dowling said.

Latimer has also seen greater success in fundraising, with the moderate Democrat raising more than $3.6 million to Bowman’s just under $2.7 million, according to Open Secrets.

Republican donors have offered Latimer major support by way of campaign contributions, according to The Intercept, and AIPAC compiled almost a quarter of their funds. Almost half of Latimer’s donations in the final quarter of 2023 also came through AIPAC, the outlet reports.

“AIPAC has exposed itself as nothing more than a vehicle for Republican billionaires to spend millions of dollars in Democratic primaries to attack Democrats of color,” Usamah Andrabi, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, told Salon in a statement. “Every voter in NY-16 should know that the ads and mailers they see attacking Jamaal Bowman are funded by the same MAGA megadonors who want to ban abortion, defend insurrectionists, and elect Donald Trump.”

Bowman told Salon in a statement: “AIPAC and its Republican megadonors are targeting me because I stand up for our community’s democratic values — from a ceasefire to abortion rights and gun violence prevention — against Donald Trump’s MAGA extremism. Unlike my opponent, I will never compromise on our most important freedoms and values for a PAC check from Donald Trump’s donors.”

Though Latimer has held fundraisers hosted by Republicans, including a major bankroller of former President Donald Trump, his campaign has distanced itself from GOP-hosted fundraisers and told The Intercept he does not have control over who hosted the events. 

UDP did not respond to an email request for comment.

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The pro-Israel group setting its sights on Bowman via UDP represents the latest step in its efforts to influence the election outcomes in districts led by progressive representatives that have voiced opposition to Israel’s handling of the war in Gaza. AIPAC is expected to spend at least $100 million this election cycle.

“AIPAC is trying and succeeding in having a big impact on this election,” Holman said, adding: “You’ve got a single ideological group trying to influence what the Democratic Party stands for — that’s cause for concern. This is not a broad-based effort. This is a single-minded ideological focus group supporting [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] trying to make the Democratic Party be a pro-Netanyahu party.”

The results of UDP’s efforts thus far have been mixed. In an Indiana congressional primary, UDP spent $1.6 million in a successful bid to stop former GOP Rep. John Hostettler, who has made antisemitic remarks in the past from regaining a seat in the House. It also took home a victory in Maryland after supporting Democratic candidate Sarah Elfreth, who defeated former U.S. Capitol police officer Harry Dunn. Neither Elfreth or Dunn made comments about Israel or Gaza during the race, The Guardian notes. 

UDP has also taken some losses, dropping $4.6 million in a failed bid to prevent Democratic congressional candidate Dave Min from beating out Democratic candidate Joanna Weiss in a California primary race earlier this year. According to The Intercept, AIPAC also failed to recruit at least two candidates to challenge progressive Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa. 

New York District 16, a heavy blue region with large numbers of Black, Jewish and Latino constituents, elected Bowman, a member of the progressive “Squad” in Congress, in 2020.

“Bowman may be able to overcome that kind of spending if voters in the district find it quite offensive that AIPAC would be throwing $2 million into the election — and that is a possibility,” Holman said, pointing to the National Rifle Association’s failures in efforts to influence other congressional races. “But that, quite frankly, is Bowman’s only lifeline here.”

Dowling said, however, that the question is whether Bowman can mobilize supporters despite his funding disparity. 

“It’s difficult to predict how the expenditures of these monies will affect turnout in the primary election, and that might be what ends up mattering the most,” Dowling said.  

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