What’s behind the historic pro-Israel spending in a New York House primary?

‘Squad’ congressman Jamaal Bowman, a critic of Israel’s war on Gaza, faces AIPAC-backed rival George Latimer in his New York primary.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman
Representative Jamaal Bowman speaks at a campaign stop in White Plains, New York [Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – Representative Jamaal Bowman, one of the newest members of the progressive “squad” in the United States Congress, is facing a fight for his political life.

On Tuesday, he defends his seat in the House of Representatives by competing in the Democratic primary for New York’s 16th congressional district. But while incumbents are rarely challenged, Bowman is facing one of the most expensive contests in the history of House primaries.

Progressive groups and politicos say the battle is a direct result of Bowman’s vocal criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza, as groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) seek to unseat him.

Bowman is part of a small but growing number of voices in Congress questioning the US’s commitment to Israel, its “ironclad” ally. That, experts say, puts a bulls-eye on his back.

“I’m not so sure that there would be a primary if it wasn’t for the war in Gaza and the oversized influence AIPAC and outside forces have had in this race, trying to press this issue and trying to get rid of Congressman Bowman,” Doug Gordon, a Democratic consultant and co-CEO of UpShift Strategies, told Al Jazeera.

To be sure, Gordon said, the challenge from George Latimer, a former county executive with deep political ties in the district, is a reflection of the progressive-versus-centrist infighting that has come to define the modern Democratic Party.

But divisions over US policy towards Israel — an issue that has been super-charged by the October 7 attack on southern Israel and the resulting war in Gaza — have been the true animating factor in the race, Gordon explained.

It is a “fission point within the Democratic Party” that is “coming to a head in this primary”.

‘Spent more in this race than they have ever’

The fault lines in the Democratic Party have become more pronounced as the war in Gaza stretches on. The rising death toll in Gaza, mounting reports of war crimes and evidence of possible genocide have further stoked the divide.

Bowman was among the first US legislators to call for a ceasefire when Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began in October last year. He joined other progressives like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in proposing a resolution to push President Joe Biden to stop the war.

A former principal of a public middle school, the 48-year-old Bronx native gained national attention when he unseated an establishment-backed, staunchly pro-Israel candidate, Eliot Engel, in 2020, buoyed by progressive groups like Justice Democrats.

But the unique makeup of Bowman’s district has made him persistently one of the most vulnerable members of the progressive “squad”.

The district is a patchwork of demographics: It encompasses urban areas of the Bronx and suburban areas of Westchester County, not to mention high- and low-income communities with sizable Black, Hispanic and white populations.

A bizarre incident in which Bowman pulled a fire alarm in the Capitol ahead of a vote over government spending has further contributed to his perceived weaknesses in this year’s elections.

AIPAC has taken note, launching a long-anticipated media onslaught against Bowman in late May.

Bowman’s district has been flooded with a historic $12m in attack advertisements and messaging, funded by AIPAC’s super political action committee (super PAC), the United Democracy Project (UPD).

As the result of a 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, super PACs can spend an unlimited amount on messaging in US elections, as long as they do not coordinate with the candidates or their campaigns.

Jamaal Bowman
Congressman Jamaal Bowman speaks during a November vigil outside the White House to demand that President Joe Biden call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza [Nathan Howard/AP Photo]

In Bowman’s case, the AIPAC spending has accounted for more than half of the $22m spent on the race so far, including $6m from the candidate’s own campaign coffers, according to an analysis by the Westchester-based Journal News.

AIPAC’s messaging has largely sought to portray Bowman as too radical for the district, a common tactic for the group, said Usamah Andrabi, the communications director for Justice Democrats, which has led efforts to elect left-leaning and minority members of Congress.

Andrabi told Al Jazeera that he has noticed AIPAC taking a more direct role in primary races since launching its super PAC in 2022. It spent $5m against progressive Democrat Summer Lee when she ran for the House that same year, for instance.

According to Andrabi, Bowman’s race will serve as a bellwether for other primaries featuring high-profile progressives like Cori Bush of Missouri, who faces her own challenge in August.

“I don’t think there’s any bigger story than the fact that AIPAC has spent more in this race than they have ever spent in an election — and that they have now become the single largest source of Republican donor spending in Democratic primaries,” Andrabi told Al Jazeera.

A recent campaign finance analysis by Politico found that, while AIPAC receives donations from both Republicans and Democrats, it disproportionately spends money on influencing Democratic primaries.

AIPAC is the “biggest source of Republican money flowing into competitive Democratic primaries this year”, according to the analysis.

“What AIPAC has done in just two cycles of having a super PAC is incomparable to some lobbies who have been spending decades upon decades doing that work,” Andrabi said.

“AIPAC launched its super PAC last cycle and spent $26.5m in nine Democratic primaries,” he added. “They’ve already spent half of that in just Jamaal’s primary.”

Bowman has addressed the influx of spending directly. On June 13, he released an advertisement calling out AIPAC’s support for Latimer, which Andrabi noted may be the first television spot of its kind to do so.

George Latimer campaigns at a train station in White Plains, New York [Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo]

Issues of race also loomed large when Bowman and Latimer faced off on the debate stage earlier this month.

In one notable instance during their first debate, Latimer said Bowman’s “constituency is Dearborn, Michigan”, a reference to a Midwestern city with an Arab-American majority. Dearborn has also been an epicentre of the opposition to President Biden’s support of Israel.

Several rights groups condemned the comment, and Bowman called it an anti-Arab and Islamophobic “dog whistle”.

For his part, Latimer has struck a pro-Israel stance, while offering only staid criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has publicly shrugged off AIPAC’s advertisement spending, saying it was beyond his control and did not affect his policy.

Latimer has also argued that his community connections and raft of endorsements from local officials make him more attuned to the district’s voters. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is among his supporters.

He has, in turn, accused Bowman of leaning on the support of national progressive groups that he argues are out of step with the needs of the district. Bowman has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 challenge to Clinton solidified him as a standard bearer of the party’s progressive flank.

In addition, during their final debate on June 18, Latimer accused Bowman of “using race as a weapon” and “cornering the market on lies”.

What does it all mean?

There are indications that the efforts to knock Bowman out in the primary stage are producing results.

An Emerson College poll released on June 11 showed Latimer with a commanding lead: Approximately 48 percent of Democratic voters supported Latimer, compared to 31 percent for Bowman. A further 21 percent remained undecided.

Strategists generally agree that, for any chance at victory, Bowman will need to energise voters who do not typically cast ballots in the party primaries, which have traditionally low turnout.

But regardless of the outcome, Craig Holman — a government affairs lobbyist for the consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen — said the race underscores the increasingly pronounced role of outside money in US elections.

“This gets to the point where it is very troubling, where outside spending can even top what the candidates spend. And so it means the candidates aren’t in charge of the campaigns,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’ve seen that happen occasionally before, but now we’re seeing it happen more regularly, and that is problematic.”

Gordon, the Democratic consultant, added that outside influence is “putting voters in this district directly in the crosshairs of the Democratic division on [the Gaza war] and other issues”.

Still, Jeremy Cohan, the spokesman for the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which endorsed Bowman, saw one bright spot in the AIPAC spending surge.

“I do see it as, to some degree, a sign of desperation,” Cohan said. He pointed to polls that show widespread support in the US for a ceasefire in Gaza, particularly among Democrats.

“They are doing that because they see where the tides are moving. They see where history is moving.”

Source: Al Jazeera