AIPAC Targets Black Democrats — While the Congressional Black Caucus Stays Silent

AIPAC has given at least $3.6 million to the CBC’s old guard since last year, while members of the Squad draw the Israel lobby’s ire.

Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speak outside the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, September 14, 2023. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speak outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2023. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country’s most influential pro-Israel lobbying group, is recruiting candidates to challenge progressive members of the Congressional Black Caucus in primaries next year.

The CBC has been silent on the AIPAC bid to challenge at least three of its members who are part of the so-called Squad, a loose group of progressive representatives. According to media reports and The Intercept’s investigation, the only incumbents AIPAC has targeted so far in this election cycle are CBC members.

The CBC’s silence on the electoral challenges reflects the divide among Democrats on Israel — with progressives increasingly willing to buck Capitol Hill orthodoxies and speak up for Palestinian rights — and fundraising dynamics among caucus members. AIPAC has endorsed more than half of CBC members. The AIPAC-backed members of the caucus, some 31 lawmakers, have received a previously unreported total of at least $3.6 million from AIPAC since February 2022, according to Federal Election Commission records.

“AIPAC and its Republican donors are intentionally targeting progressive members of the Congressional Black Caucus with right-wing primary challenges.”

The silence has given rise to calls for the CBC to speak up for members under attack — especially given AIPAC’s propensity for directing Republican money to challenge incumbent progressive Democrats in primaries.

“AIPAC and its Republican donors are intentionally targeting progressive members of the Congressional Black Caucus with right-wing primary challenges,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, which backed all five CBC members from the Squad. “The CBC — and every caucus in Congress — has the opportunity now to demonstrate their power and stand up for all incumbents against AIPAC’s role in funneling GOP dollars into Democratic primaries.”

AIPAC is seeking to challenge CBC members Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., because of their support for putting restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel, Jewish Insider reported last month.

According to three sources with knowledge of the recruiting process, who asked for anonymity to protect professional relationships, AIPAC asked Pittsburgh-area Democrat Lindsay Powell to challenge Rep. Summer Lee, D-Penn.; Powell declined. Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor also declined an AIPAC invitation to challenge Lee, according to two of the sources. (Powell declined to comment, and O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment.)

Bhavini Patel, a council member in the city of Edgewood, Pennsylvania, is reportedly planning to run against Lee. Jewish Insider reported that it was unable to confirm if AIPAC had met with Patel. (Patel did not respond to a request for comment.)

While AIPAC declined to respond to specific questions about its involvement in the challenges against CBC members, the pro-Israel lobby defended its record supporting Black candidates for Congress.

“AIPAC proudly endorsed more than half the Black Caucus last cycle and United Democracy Project” — an AIPAC-backed super PAC — “helped ensure pro-Israel African American Democrats in Ohio, North Carolina, and Maryland won their elections,” an AIPAC spokesperson said in a statement to The Intercept. “While we have not made any decisions on specific races this cycle, we are constantly evaluating every seat held by a detractor of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and we base our assessments exclusively on their anti-Israel votes and statements.”

The CBC did not respond to a request for comment.

Old Guard Versus the Squad

Five Black progressive officials have joined the CBC’s ranks since 2019. Their additions strained already shifting dynamics in the caucus, which has long been governed by traditional structures of seniority and patronage.

The caucus has sometimes stood against the new crop of rising Black progressives. The CBC bet against Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., in 2018 and backed her white incumbent opponent, former Rep. Mike Capuano; Pressley won and joined the CBC. Bowman angered the old guard of the caucus when he endorsed progressive candidate Cori Bush in her 2020 primary in Missouri against Rep. William Lacy Clay, a centrist who had been a CBC member for two decades. Bush also won and joined the CBC.

Divisions on Israel in the CBC, however, go beyond election alliances to policy stances and votes. Since taking office, progressive CBC members — including Omar, Bowman, Lee, Bush, and Pressley — have criticized human rights abuses against Palestinians or voted against military aid to Israel. They were among the 10 House Democrats who voted against a July resolution to absolve Israel of being an apartheid state. The critical stance on U.S. support for Israel drew AIPAC’s ire, with the group ramping up its efforts to challenge the CBC incumbents.

AIPAC’s shifting campaign strategy presents contradictions for the CBC. The caucus’s leaders have close relationships with AIPAC, but the group has also historically put an emphasis on the importance of protecting incumbents.

Since 2022, the CBC’s top AIPAC recipients include Rep. Glenn Ivey, D-Md., who has taken $756,000 from the group; House Democratic Caucus Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who has taken $485,300; Rep. Valerie Foushee, D-N.C., who has taken $456,800; Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who has taken $459,900; and Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, who has taken $349,600.

Jeffries, who has led congressional efforts to protect incumbents against primary challengers, is a close ally of AIPAC, as are CBC leader Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and CBC PAC leader Rep. Gregory Meeks. CBC members have regularly led and attended AIPAC’s annual trips to Israel, conferences, and other events. (Horsford, Meeks, and CBC PAC did not provide comment for this story.)


AIPAC’s First Attack Ad in Midterms Hits Would-Be Squad Member Summer Lee

The alliance has put CBC members at odds. Omar and Bush joined other progressives in protesting an official congressional address by Israel President Isaac Herzog in July amid efforts to radically politicize the country’s judiciary system. Jeffries said he welcomed Herzog “with open arms.” The next month, he led AIPAC’s annual congressional delegation to Israel.

More centrist CBC members and their political allies have been involved in combatting progressive gains in the Democratic Party. In June 2021, Jeffries, along with Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., another recipient of AIPAC cash, launched Team Blue PAC to protect Democratic members facing primary challenges from their left. And last June, Democratic operatives closely aligned with CBC leaders launched a new dark-money group to fend off primary challengers.

In their individual capacities, however, some of the centrist CBC members are supporting their progressive colleagues. After news broke that AIPAC was recruiting Omar’s challenger, Jeffries endorsed her last month.

For some observers, Jeffries’s ascendency in Democratic leadership, and many CBC members’ support of it, complicates the political calculus. To invite a fight with an influential group like AIPAC could prove folly for Jeffries, souring relationships in the wider Democratic caucus where the group still holds sway. “Some of the older members have trouble letting go,” said one senior Democratic strategist who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “And I think more than anything, they want a Black speaker of the House, not protecting progressive members.”

Jeffries’s spokesperson Christie Stephenson declined to say whether Jeffries planned to endorse Lee and Bowman but said Jeffries would keep backing Democratic incumbents across the political spectrum.

“Leader Hakeem Jeffries intends to continue his practice of supporting the reelection of every single House Democratic incumbent,” she said, “from the most progressive to the most centrist, and all points in between.”

AIPAC’s Republican Money

The rift between AIPAC and progressive CBC members reflects a broader disconnect between more senior and moderate CBC members and the caucus’s small but growing progressive wing. Those frictions have bled into other recent primary elections. CBC members reportedly pushed former Rep. Mondaire Jones to run against Bowman last year. Bowman is one of the five progressive Squad members who are also part of the CBC.

“The CBC should be sounding the alarm and should be concerned,” said Democratic strategist Camille Rivera, a partner at New Deal Strategies. “We need to be very careful about letting power and influence change the overall goal of the caucus, which is to protect Black incumbents and expand representation, especially those that have been doing the work and representing their constituents. We shouldn’t let any entity try to divide and conquer.”

AIPAC’s attacks on Black progressives are not new. The group funneled money from GOP donors to back the more centrist Brown’s successful House campaigns against Ohio progressive Nina Turner. And the group spent $4 million to try to thwart Lee’s insurgent 2022 campaign.

Even powerful progressives have fallen amid the Israel lobby’s attacks. Endorsements from former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., weren’t enough to help former Rep. Donna Edwards, D- Md., overcome the $6 million AIPAC spent against her in her bid to reclaim her House seat. Pelosi, a pro-Israel stalwart and at the time the speaker of the House, rebuked AIPAC for its attacks against Edwards. Her opponent, Ivey, the top CBC recipient of AIPAC cash, won the primary by 16 points and went on to win the general election by a landslide.

AIPAC’s strategy fits into a larger trend of Republicans and Democrats teaming up to defeat progressive candidates critical of U.S. support to Israel. Republican donors poured last-minute cash into former New York Rep. Eliot Engel’s reelection campaign in the face of Bowman’s insurgent 2018 challenge. Pennsylvania billionaire Jeffrey Yass, a major GOP donor and funder of the Israeli think tank leading the rightward lurch in the country’s judiciary, also funded a PAC run by Democrats and dedicated to challenging progressives in Democratic primaries.

Lee told The Intercept that AIPAC used Republican money to fund ads meant to discourage Black voters from coming out on Election Day.

“AIPAC funneled money from Republican billionaires to spend $5 million attacking me with baseless lies and racist tactics.”

“AIPAC funneled money from Republican billionaires to spend $5 million attacking me with baseless lies and racist tactics,” Lee said. She said political ads accused her of having ties to far-right figures like former President Donald Trump “in order to keep Black voters from showing up to vote.”

Lee drew a contrast to AIPAC’s support for scores of “insurrectionist” Republicans who supported election denial and “shared the same goals as a mob of armed white supremacists and antisemites.”

“Now they’re targeting Black incumbent champions for poor, working-class, Black folks in districts where they’ve never been represented,” she said. “These attacks add fuel to the fire of fascism tearing away the history, civil rights, and lives of Black Americans, who are the base of the Democratic party.”

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