Progressives fighting major right-wing money push in Dem primaries
'The Squad': Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON—Progressive groups, including J Street and Our Revolution, are mobilizing to beat back a big—and getting bigger—right-wing money push to oust their legislative allies on Capitol Hill during the current Democratic primaries and replace them with so-called “moderates” or, even worse, right-wing Republicans.

They want to repeat across the country what they did by opposing “Squad” member Jamal Bowman in New York state with a conservative Democrat who will do their bidding next term in Congress.

The animating issue for AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), one of the right-wing groups involved, is Israel’s war on Gaza.

Using U.S.-made bombs, planes, ammo, and drones, the Israeli military has killed an estimated 40,000 Gazans, injured double that number, created two million refugees, killed aid workers and journalists, cut off humanitarian aid, and obliterated most of Gaza’s infrastructure, including 85% of its housing.

Hasn’t stopped them

That hasn’t stopped two key cogs of the right-wing political machine, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the notoriously pro-Netanyahu AIPAC, from recruiting candidates and spending tons of cash in Democratic primaries to promote their down-the-line Netanyahu supporters, defeat progressives and Israel critics, or both.

AIPAC alone, through its dark-money campaign committee, plans to spend $100 million in this election cycle.

The right-wing groups haven’t been entirely successful, but they have had a major impact.

AIPAC alone spent $15 million to promote Westchester (N.Y.) County Executive George Latimer over progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the redrawn congressional district that now includes most of Westchester and a sliver of Bowman’s base in the Bronx. Latimer won in the June Democratic primary in the deep-blue district. AIPAC crowed it’s “a wakeup call” for Dems.

The pro-Netanyahu group also poured money into defeating two other progressive candidates. One target was Oregon’s Shusheela Jayapal, sister of House Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramilla Jayapal, D-Wash. The other, Kina Collins, was one of two women challenging the progressive Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill. AIPAC backed Maxine Dexter, a pro-Israel candidate, who beat Shusheela Jayapal. It backed Davis, who beat two candidates, Collins and Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin.

On the other hand, AIPAC and, again, the GOP tried the same trick in April against Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., in Pittsburgh. They pumped millions of dollars into the campaign of a Democrat-in-name-only corporate executive. Lee, a one-time Democratic Socialist, won handily, after working closely with the building trades and the Steelworkers—unions that had been leery of her.

And AIPAC couldn’t recruit primary foes for two other critics of Israel’s war, and U.S. support for it: Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Congress’s first Palestinian-American, and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. The Michigan primary is August 13 and the Massachusetts contest is September 17. Again, both are lawmakers of color, and both districts—in Detroit and Boston, plus suburbs—are deep blue.

The mixed results haven’t stopped the Republicans from meddling in Democratic primaries or AIPAC from funding right-wing foes. The next two targets are Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo., on August 6 and Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minn., a week later—both are lawmakers of color.

Both Bush and Omar face reruns against more “moderate” candidates whom they beat—in Omar’s case, barely—two years ago: One-time St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell against Bush and veteran Minneapolis politician Don Samuels against Omar.

Bush is the lead House sponsor of a resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. She’s also made labor rights and union organizing an issue in the party primary. Like Omar in Minneapolis, Bush holds a seat where the Democratic winner is virtually assured of a general election victory.

“Both Bowman and Cori Bush are pursuing personal agendas that have hurt their communities,” Patrick Dorton, spokesperson for AIPAC’s “dark money” SuperPAC, the United Democracy Project, charged in an interview earlier this year with Politico. “We saw in New York that people were turned off by Bowman’s national agenda; the same thing is happening (with Bush) in St. Louis.”

Not if Bush can help it. She’s made AIPAC’s big spending–$3.7 million on media and streaming ads alone, says AdImpact—a campaign issue. Reps. Omar in Minnesota and Tlaib in Michigan have aired TV ads slamming AIPAC for “targeting progressive women of color.”

First Palestinian-American

Tlaib is Congress’s first Palestinian-American. She also raised a lot of money to defend her Detroit-based district, which includes the nation’s largest bloc of Muslim-Americans. AIPAC couldn’t recruit a credible primary foe to oppose her on August 6. It took a pass.

Bush took on AIPAC and the GOP, just as she took the lead in calling for a ceasefire in the war.

“AIPAC and their allies—backed by far-right Donald Trump megadonors— poured a tidal wave of cash into this primary race” against Bowman “showing us just how desperate these billionaire extremists are in their attempts to buy our democracy, promote their own gain, and silence the voices of progress and justice,” she stated to The Hill. “There should be no question about the need to get Big Money out of politics.”

Omar’s taken a different tack, Metro State history professor Doug Rossinow reported last year in The Minnesota Reformer. After the Republican House majority kicked her off the Foreign Affairs Committee by deliberately misinterpreting her criticism of Netanyahu, Omar started working more closely with Democratic leadership—and raising more money.

The state AFL-CIO endorsed her before the primary bid.

Omar’s apparently subscribing to the watchwords of House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramilla Jayapal, D-Wash., that progressives want to insure themselves “a seat at the table” where legislative and political decisions are made in coming years.

Omar has also lined up progressive support, including from Our Revolution, the organization which Bernie Sanders supporters established after the independent Vermont senator—and strongest Netanyahu critic—ended his 2016 presidential campaign.

“Ilhan has taken a lot of heat from the far right for standing on the right side of history and she will have our movement on her side through her primary on Aug. 13th and beyond,” Our Revolution said.

“Every policy the Progressive Caucus champions polls at 60% or above,” Omar told the group. “If the people’s House was not beholden to special interests, all of these great policies would be implemented and we would have an incredibly great, progressive country that takes care of everyone.

“We know they’re going to spend a lot of money, but we are moving in strength not weakness. We are going to continue to move policies rooted in radical love and advocate for the politics of love because our communities deserve that.”

But even without winning everything, AIPAC has had an impact, warns fellow Squad member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who easily won her primary while Bowman lost his.

Ocasio-Cortez told her reporters after her win that the total spending against Bowman—$20 million for a primary—was an “historic sum, unlike any seen in American history. Point-blank. Period.

“I think we need to have a real conversation about the AIPAC. I think what we do need to have a real conversation about is how a Republican—primarily Republican and largely Republican-financed—organization is playing and dumping money and playing an extremely divisive role in the Democratic Party.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.