As Dems Vote in Michigan Primary, AIPAC's Spending Power Is Put to the Test

The pro-Israel lobby's involvement in the Democratic race in Michigan is turning into a proxy war over the candidates' positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Auburn Hills, Michigan
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People wait for at polling location in Lansing, in the Michigan primary election, on Tuesday.
People wait for at polling location in Lansing, in the Michigan primary election, on Tuesday.Credit: BILL PUGLIANO - AFP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Auburn Hills, Michigan

Tuesday's closely watched Democratic primary in Michigan will mark the crescendo of AIPAC's involvement in political campaigns.

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Several key races have become a referendum on the internal American-Jewish conversation on Israel, how the Democratic Party handles debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the spending power of pro-Israel SuperPACs aimed at swaying elections.

In Michigan's 11th district, Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens face off in a battle where AIPAC's United Democracy Project SuperPAC has spent $4.2 million in hopes of defeating the progressive Jewish candidate, while J Street has spent $700,000 against Stevens over AIPAC's support.

People attend a campaign rally for Michigan Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Andy Levin on Friday, in Pontiac, Michigan.Credit: BILL PUGLIANO - AFP

The contentious race has become a de facto proxy war over the candidates' positions on Israel — to the lament of Levin's Jewish supporters and key local political power players such as Rep. Debbie Dingell.

Despite AIPAC's overwhelming spending, key Stevens supporters also stress that she is the right person for the job due to her record and positions on issues local voters care about.

'Retail politician'

Hannan Lis, a leading fixture in the local Jewish community as well as an AIPAC National Council member, is a lifelong Democrat who has been friends with both candidates for years, hosting them for Shabbat dinners.

He calls Stevens a "popular young, Democratic female leader who has deep success as a legislator," pointing to her strong connections to Michigan's automobile-based economy and her work with small manufacturing and small business.

"Haley is much more aligned with the issues and concerns of local voters and has defeated Republicans in an area that until recently was leaning Republican. People vote for her because she's a better choice," Lis notes.

Lis adds that Stevens has spent her time in office holding daily contact with officials on the ground, describing her as a "retail politician with a real feel for the needs of local voters — and that's the style of politics we've been accustomed to in southeast Michigan."

Marcie Orley, another local Jewish leader and Stevens supporter, calls Stevens "a super hard worker, she's very well liked and well respected. It's not anti-Andy — she deserves the support for a seat she's flipped. She's responsive to her constituents and always listens."

While the local issues are front of mind, Stevens supporters remain highly aware of their differences on Israel and what they say better captures the positions of the local community. "On Israel, Haley represents the voters way more than Andy. If you know the makeup of suburban Detroit, you know where the community stands," Orley notes. "That's not to say Israel is not open to criticism, but voters in this electorate just don't view the issue in such a critical way."

Billionaire donors

Lis echoes that the local Jewish community is "extremely united" as highly supportive and engaged with Israel, viewing it not just a political issue but what defines them as Jews. "There is a general understanding that it's our job to support Israel but not to dictate policy. The view is more 'how can we be helpful and continue to strengthen the relationship,'" taking aim at Levin's rhetoric and positions on Israel.

Levin's Two-State Solution Act, perhaps the most thorough piece of legislation to date aimed at detailing how the U.S. can help preserve and push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, has been central to AIPAC's criticism of him.

Stevens and her campaign have declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Levin's campaign, meanwhile, heads into Election Day optimistic. “Our campaign has knocked over 68,000 doors and made over 200,000 calls, with volunteers and staff still out in the field and on the phones. Following the national and local media attention on the outside spending by Republican-funded, dark money groups against us, donors have stepped up to help us raise $300,000 in the month of July," campaign manager Nicole Bedi says.

City employees set up voting booths the day before Michigan Democrats and Republicans choose their nominees to contest November's congressional elections, in Birmingham, on Monday.Credit: EMILY ELCONIN/Reuters

“We always knew we would be outspent and that the grassroots enthusiasm for Congressman Levin was our path to victory. We want to thank all of the volunteers who stepped up in these final days. We are sending a strong message that Republican billionaires do not decide a Democratic primary – the voters do. This is democracy at work,” she adds.

AIPAC has additionally spent over $4.1 million on Michigan's 13th district, where it is hoping to elevate state senator Adam Hollier over state Rep. Shri Thanedar. The 36-year-old army veteran told Haaretz he was as surprised as anyone that AIPAC was bolstering his campaign, largely in hopes of keeping the entrepreneur out of office due to past positions critical of Israel. AIPAC, meanwhile, hasn't spent on Rep. Rashida Tlaib's primary, yet her campaign has similarly been targeted by SuperPACs bankrolled by pro-Israel Republican donors.

AIPAC has now spent nearly $24.3 million on Democratic primaries, with $10.5 million of this total funding attack ads. “We cannot allow billionaires to buy elections. Not only here in Michigan — they’re doing it in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, all across this country,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said, referring to a number of Democratic primaries where AIPAC’s United Democracy Project SuperPAC invested millions of dollars to defeat progressive candidates.

“If you think these super PACs give a damn about the people in Michigan or Detroit, you would be absolutely mistaken. They couldn't care less about you. They run the same damn ads in Pittsburgh, in Ohio, in Texas — same thing."

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