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Peter Beinart: The Israel Lobby Is Spending Millions to Defeat Progressive Democrats in Primary Races

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Image Credit: donnaedwards4congress.com

Pro-Israel lobby groups have spent “shocking” amounts of money to change the course of multiple Democratic congressional primaries over the past year alone, reports our guest Peter Beinart. The latest is in Maryland, where former Congressmember Donna Edwards is being outspent sevenfold by corporate attorney Glenn Ivey in her bid to win back her old seat in the state’s 4th Congressional District. Beinart, the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, says the AIPAC-led PACs disguise their attack ads with local issues but in reality are designed to oust candidates who take stances in support of Palestinian rights and working people.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Today is Primary Day in Maryland. In one closely watched race, former Congressmember Donna Edwards is seeking to win back her old seat in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, outside Washington, D.C. She is facing the corporate attorney Glenn Ivey, who has raised seven times as much money. The New York Times reports a new super PAC run by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has spent nearly $6 million on the primary race in an attempt to defeat Edwards, who served in Congress for four terms ending in 2017. In 2008, Donna Edwards made history becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress from Maryland. Another group with ties to AIPAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, has spent over $425,000 to help defeat Edwards. The two groups also poured money into efforts to defeat other progressive Democrats, including Nina Turner in Ohio and Jessica Cisneros in Texas.

We’re joined now by Peter Beinart, editor-at-large with Jewish Currents. He recently wrote an article headlined “The Israel Lobby’s New Campaign Playbook.” Peter Beinart is a professor at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York.

Thanks so much for joining us, Peter. Can you talk about what Donna Edwards is confronting right now in Maryland, the level of money that’s being poured in to defeat her?

PETER BEINART: It’s really extraordinary for a House race to see one organization, one super PAC, spending almost $6 million. What we’re seeing across the country is that AIPAC’s super PAC is often spending as much as the campaigns themselves are spending. Partly this is the result of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision in 2010 that created super PACs, which are these entities that can accept unlimited amounts of money and spend unlimited money as long as they are theoretically not coordinated with the campaign. And it’s also the result of the fact that AIPAC and allied establishment pro-Israel organizations saw a threat starting in 2019, when people like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were elected to Congress, and have decided to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to ensure that their brand of politics, which is more pro-Palestinian rights, but which is also more progressive on economic issues, does not become the future of the Democratic Party.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, could you talk about what you discovered in terms of connections or ties between groups like Mainstream Democrats and other pro-Israel lobbyists, like the Democratic Majority for Israel?

PETER BEINART: Yes. One of the things that I found is that very often when these establishment pro-Israel organizations target a progressive candidate, those candidates are also targeted by groups that are not focused on Israel-Palestine but simply want to defeat that person because that person may be to progressive on questions of healthcare, or they may support the Green New Deal.

So, there’s a group called Mainstream Democrats. If you look at their website, it says nothing about Israel-Palestine whatsoever. It just says it doesn’t want the Democratic Party to be taken over by far-left groups. But Mainstream Democrats is actually run by Democratic Majority for Israel. So what you see is this very, very close alliance. They work out of the same offices with the same staff, so, essentially, this extremely close relationship between groups that want to defeat progressives because they support Palestinian rights, and groups that just want to defeat progressives because they essentially want the Democratic Party to be dominated by people like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who will do the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, the healthcare industry, the financial services industry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how successful have these efforts been in the past? Amy mentioned the races of Nina Turner in Ohio and Jessica Cisneros in Texas, both of whom were targeted by AIPAC and both of whom lost their races. What’s been the track record of these efforts?

PETER BEINART: These efforts, sadly, have been very successful. There have been a couple of races — one in Pennsylvania, one in Illinois — where the progressive candidates were able to win. But in most cases, the candidates targeted have lost. And even when the targeted candidates don’t lose, it has a chilling effect. Politicians out there see this and think, “I do not want millions and millions of dollars dumped into a House race against me,” and so what it tends to do is lead candidates who might be more inclined to take progressive positions on Palestinian rights or on other issues to instead keep their heads down and not take those positions in order to try to avoid the kind of attacks that other progressives have faced.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you, back on Donna Edwards’ race, Peter — you have the speaker of the House, right, Nancy Pelosi, who actually comes from Maryland, though she represents San Francisco, coming out in full support of Donna Edwards. Now, while most of the big money spent in the race has come from AIPAC-aligned super PAC, the ads funded by the so-called United Democracy Project don’t mention the Middle East. And I wanted then to talk about Nancy Pelosi, who really came out and attacked the kind of money, the attack ads by the AIPAC-aligned groups, like United Democracy Project, prompting this response in June from House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. This is what she said.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: When Donna Edwards first represented Maryland’s 4th Congressional District — and that was for nearly a decade — she was one of the most effective members in Congress. Donna fought hard for Prince George’s County, for jobs and investments in her community, to help constituents in need and to deliver results. As speaker and then as leader, I knew I could always count on Donna Edwards as a valued member of our leadership team.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Nancy Pelosi endorsing Donna Edwards. Now, the ads often, and the candidates who are supported by these massive — I mean, the massive amount of money, millions, in the case of this campaign, going to her opponent — they’re not raising the issue of Israel and Palestine, right? And also, let’s be clear: There are other pro-Israel groups, like J Street, more progressive, that supports Donna Edwards.

PETER BEINART: Yes, but J Street doesn’t have — only has a small fraction of the amount of money that AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel have on the other side. But you’re exactly right. In almost none of these races do the attack ads actually have anything to do with the actual agenda of the organizations that are paying for them. And that’s because AIPAC and DMFI know that not very many voters in these districts actually really care that much about Israel-Palestine. They care about local issues.

So, what AIPAC does is it — and DMFI do, they do poll testing. And they attack people on these kind of — whatever they think may gain traction. So, in Ohio, in the Nina Turner race, because Nina Turner was a Bernie Sanders supporter who had been critical of Joe Biden, they painted her as not a loyal Democrat. In the case of Donna Edwards, they’re claiming that she didn’t provide good constituent service when she was the congresswoman early on — as if AIPAC or DMFI could care less about the level of constituent service that Donna Edwards provided to her constituents when she was a congresswoman. I mean, it’s transparent nonsense, right? It’s just that this is their vehicle for trying to defeat her, because Donna Edwards in the past has shown some minimal — right? She’s hardly radical on this subject — but just some modest concern for Palestinian human rights. For that reason, they want to defeat her.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role of Bakari Sellers in these campaigns?

PETER BEINART: Yes. So, Bakari Sellers is a former South Carolina politician with close ties to AIPAC who has been — now heads another super PAC that is devoted primarily at this point to defeating Rashida Tlaib in Michigan. And its claim is that it’s an organization that wants to elect Black Democrats. And Rashida Tlaib has a Black opponent, but, again, this is also transparent nonsense — as if AIPAC and its donors are really concerned about increasing Black representation.

They’re going after Rashida Tlaib for one reason only: because she’s a Palestinian member of Congress who is a passionate and eloquent defender of the humanity of Palestinians, and she brings that issue to the fore in Congress like no one else does. But again, because that agenda itself, if laid out nakedly, would not be very popular, you have these transparent claims that it’s really about something else — in this way, about the claim that somehow because she’s not Black, she can’t represent a district in Michigan, even though, in fact, she has strong Black support and has been a very, very tireless defender of the people in her district of all races.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, interestingly, there is also a governor’s race in Maryland, and both competitive primaries in both the Democratic and the Republican parties to elect a successor to the Republican Governor Hogan. But has AIPAC been involved in those races at all, or is it only concentrating on these congressional races?

PETER BEINART: AIPAC’s focus has overwhelmingly been not just in congressional races, but in Democratic primaries in congressional races. AIPAC’s assessment has been that because of partisan polarization, there are fewer swing districts, which means that more often than in the past the member of Congress is chosen in the primary. They also have noticed that there are an unusually large number of open House seats this year because of redistrict and retirement. And they like to do open House races, because once an incumbent has been elected in our system, they can be difficult to dislodge. So what this play is really about is trying to create a whole new generation of younger Democrats in Congress who will toe the AIPAC line on Israel-Palestine, also in many, many cases, also take a kind of more pro-corporate position, and therefore blunt the trend that we were seeing towards the Democratic Party moving in a more progressive direction.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but this is new, right, AIPAC having this kind of super PAC?

PETER BEINART: Yes. AIPAC, despite its name, never had a political action committee, but it saw, essentially, that it needed to roll out the big guns in response to the trends that we saw with the election of the Squad members. And it has extraordinary financial resources at its disposal. Several people, for instance, have given a million — written million-dollar checks already, and the money is still being tabulated.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents. We’ll link to your new piece, “Israel Lobby’s New Campaign Playbook: Israel advocacy groups have developed strategies to raise huge sums for their candidates by appealing to corporate interests.”

Coming up, we turn to the pioneering legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has launched a counteroffensive against right-wing attacks targeting critical race theory. It is Freedom Summer this week around the country. That’s right, a summer school for CRT. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “La-La-Means I Love You” by the Delfonics. The Philadelphia soul group’s lead singer and songwriter, William Hart, has died at the age of 77.

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