The most powerful pro-Israel group in American politics isn't... talking about Israel

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The most prominent pro-Israel group in American politics has promised to pour tens of millions of dollars into this year’s elections. But it’s mostly not talking about Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has entered several congressional races so far, attacking some candidates and boosting their own. But the topic of Israel has come up only minimally, in a handful of Republican races. And the group hasn’t talked about Israel in Democratic primaries at all.

On Thursday, the group’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, released its first ads in one of the most competitive Democratic primaries this year — and one the Israel-Hamas war has been hovering over. And once again, it focused on other topics.

Jamaal Bowman has his own agenda and refuses to compromise — even with President Biden,” says the first television ad from the super PAC, knocking him for voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and debt limit deal.

Bowman, a member of the progressive “Squad” and a staunch supporter of Palestinians, is facing a primary challenge in New York from AIPAC-backed Westchester County Executive George Latimer next month. Another UDP ad released on Thursday touts Latimer as someone who “will take on MAGA extremists” and “work with President Biden to keep delivering progressive results” on infrastructure, gun violence prevention and abortion rights.

The men have publicly sparred over their stances on Israel, and the race has become one of the leading examples of the divide in the Democratic Party over the war in the Middle East. But as in other races, UDP isn’t yet leaning explicitly on Israel as a message in its campaign against Bowman.

In the months since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that sparked the current war, public opinion within the Democratic Party has shifted in support of Palestinians, complicating the issue’s effectiveness in the party.

“We run ads on the issues voters are most focused on,” UDP spokesperson Patrick Dorton told POLITICO in an email when asked why its ads do not always focus on Israel. “Where it makes sense, we will run ads on Israel this cycle, and we expect to do so in certain races going forward.”

When UDP played in races during the midterms, it similarly didn’t feature Israel as a prominent component of its advertising. But that was before last fall’s Hamas attack, which has roiled national politics for months. In the wake of the attack, UDP targeted progressive members of Congress in digital ads explicitly criticizing them for refusing to “stand with Israel” by not voting to condemn Hamas, though the ads aren’t running now.

Upcoming elections will provide a continued test of AIPAC’s plans to be a major player this cycle, as the Israel-Hamas war continues to shape politics. So far this cycle, the group has skipped some matchups, unsuccessfully dabbled in others and scored successes in a handful, too.

The group had a major victory on Tuesday when it helped boost a rising star state legislator in a hotly contested Democratic House primary over 21 other candidates, including a Jan. 6 Capitol Police officer who gained national prominence and raked in millions of dollars for his bid.

Democratic state Sen. Sarah Elfreth’s victory among that large primary field in Maryland’s 3rd District showed the group is willing to be strategic with its spending even when there isn’t much daylight between the candidates on Israel policy. It spent more than $4 million — one of its largest investments of the cycle — boosting Elfreth in a mostly positive campaign, a far cry from the negative ads it spent millions on in House races against candidates in California, Illinois and Indiana.

How AIPAC has been playing in other races

UDP has made its priority clear: Get pro-Israel candidates elected — and block those who are not — on either side of the aisle. But the group’s approach to each race varies.

Prior to its entry in Elfreth’s race, the group had primarily gone negative on the airwaves, usually skipping over the topic of Israel altogether. UDP hit Democratic gun violence prevention advocate Kina Collins, who was running against Rep. Danny Davis in Illinois’ 7th District, for being “wrong on safety.” And in California’s 47th District, the group went after Democratic state Sen. Dave Min for his DUI arrest. Collins lost her bid, and Min ultimately won his primary.

In a few Republican races, the lack of support for Israel did emerge as one attack line. The group’s opening salvo in Indiana’s 8th District, where former Republican Rep. John Hostettler was looking for a comeback, called out the former member of Congress for his votes against Israel. Still, that wasn’t the only message, with UDP’s later ads going after him on other votes he took in line with Democrats. The group is also hitting Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) for opposing Israel aid. Massie faces a primary next week, although the group said it is preparing in case he runs for higher office in the future.

The seemingly off-topic knocks on candidates aren’t without precedent. Environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters’ affiliated PAC have aired ads against candidates that didn’t mention the environment, for example. And in 2022, UDP also did not rely heavily on pro-Israel messaging, instead touting candidates’ support for strengthening health care and jobs, for instance, or accusing candidates it was spending against of not supporting Biden.

UDP took a markedly different approach in Elfreth’s race in Maryland: stay positive.

UDP didn’t specifically get in that contest to block former Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, the other leading contender in the race who has expressed support for Israel. The group’s first ad touted Elfreth’s achievements in the state legislature and support of abortion rights, the environment and democracy.

But after Dunn criticized Elfreth and AIPAC, UDP nudged him right back. Its later ads that said Dunn should be “ashamed of himself” still spent most of their time boosting her.

Just a day after Elfreth’s win, UDP was back on offense. The group is going after Brandon Herrera, a pro-gun social media influencer who is looking to unseat Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) in a primary runoff this month. Herrera has made posts featuring antisemitic imagery.

“Herrera glorifies Nazis and mocks the Holocaust,” the narrator says.

The ad also calls out a joke Herrera made mocking veteran suicides. And in Bowman’s race, the group is dropping $2 million on the positive spot for Latimer and attack ad against Bowman.

AIPAC is being pragmatic about picking winnable races

AIPAC has clearly been strategic in choosing which races to enter, backing candidates who have a real shot at victory and staying out of others.

Some of the most vocal critics of Israel in Congress haven’t attracted viable primary challengers, and the pro-Israel group has generally steered away from races where their involvement seems unlikely to tip the scales.

Take Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), an outspoken critic of Israel and member of the progressive “Squad,” whose primary opponent, Bhavini Patel, centered her support of Israel. AIPAC had spent millions attempting to defeat Lee in 2022, but this time stayed out of the district entirely instead of backing Patel, who struggled to raise money. Lee easily dispatched the challenge.

Maryland was a different story. Elfreth had picked up endorsements from local leaders, built ties to her community and posted solid financial numbers in her own right (despite Dunn’s substantial fundraising advantage).

“He ran a good campaign,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a former majority leader, said of Dunn. “But Senator Elfreth has been around for some time. She worked in my office. And I think she's gonna do an excellent job and we're going to have some women in the delegation.”

Dunn’s campaign declined an interview request. Elfreth campaign spokesperson Pat Murray said the campaign had been won “over the course of her career being involved in her community first and then representing her community in the state Senate.”

Elfreth is the group’s third success of the cycle, after spending around $2 million combined to block Hostettler, the Indiana Republican, and Collins, the Illinois Democrat.

UDP does not forecast its upcoming targets and told POLITICO last month that it is still monitoring 15 to 20 races on both sides of the aisle, “looking carefully at opportunities to prevent anti-Israel candidates from being elected to Congress.” But there are a couple of races where it is already gearing up to spend, in addition to the Gonzales-Herrera runoff and Bowman-Latimer race.

“Squad” member Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) is facing a primary challenge from St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Wesley Bell, who’s been endorsed by AIPAC. Early polling has shown her down in the race, and the legal scrutiny of her campaign could leave her vulnerable.

Bowman and Bush are two of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents facing primary challenges. If they’re successfully ousted, AIPAC will likely claim victories over the outspoken Israel critics, but the results will be complicated by other factors like their at-times strained ties with local leaders and by their personal controversies.

As AIPAC goes after Bowman in the final weeks of his primary, he’s not showing any signs of changing his approach to his campaign.

“We've always been for the people, always been for marginalized people of color, young people, real progressives, seniors,” he said when asked whether he’d change course because of the influx of spending. “We're always for the people, man. Never need to change that.”

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.