Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive former presidential candidate who rose to fame in part by exposing the influence of wealthy interests in politics, has a new target: the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee and its affiliated super political action committee. , which is spending big on Democratic primaries for the first time this year.
After Sanders traveled to Pittsburgh last week to campaign for Summer Lee, a liberal state lawmaker whose House campaign was rejected for millions of dollars in such spending, he is now headed to Texas. There, he aims to lift another progressive congressional candidate, Jessica Cisneros, whose leftist challenge from a moderate incumbent has been met with significant spending by the pro-Israel super PAC.
“This is a war,” Sanders said in an interview, “for the future of the Democratic Party.”
AIPAC has long been a bipartisan organization, and its entry this year in direct political spending has included donations to both Democrats and Republicans. That has earned the ire of Sanders and other progressives because the group’s super PAC also ran ads attacking Lee as an insufficiently loyal Democrat.
“Why would an organization criticize someone like Summer Lee for not being a strong enough Democrat when they themselves have endorsed far-right Republicans?” Sanders said. “In my opinion, his goal is to create a two-party system, Democrats and Republicans, in which both parties are responsive to the needs of corporate America and the billionaire class.”
Sanders specifically called out the committee for donating to congressional Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 election, while his super PAC, the United Democracy Project, has portrayed itself as a pro-democracy group.
“That just exposes the hypocrisy,” Sanders said.
Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesman, said in response to Sanders, who is Jewish, that the group “will not be intimidated in our efforts to elect pro-Israel candidates, including dozens of pro-Israel progressives.”
“It is very revealing that some who do not disagree with the Super PAC’s support for anti-Israel candidates are outraged when pro-Israel activists use the same tools,” Wittmann said.
The three candidates Sanders has been most personally involved with so far have also had the full support of the super PAC, though two spent much more.
Despite more than $3 million in opposition spending by pro-Israel groups, Lee is far ahead in his primary against Steve Irwin, a lawyer; The Associated Press has not yet called the race.
In North Carolina, Nida Allam, the candidate endorsed by Sanders, lost to Valerie Foushee, a state legislator, in an open race for Congress. Foushee’s campaign was supported by nearly $3.5 million in spending from two pro-Israel groups and a super PAC linked to a cryptocurrency billionaire. The Super PAC expense for Allam was $370,000.
Maya Handa, Allam’s campaign manager, said Sanders’ megaphone — he made robocalls, sent a fundraising email to his giant list and held a virtual event — brought invaluable attention to the flood of outside money into the campaign. race.
The message reached some voters. In Hillsborough, Elese Stutts, 44, a bookseller, planned to vote for Foushee. However, on Election Day, Stutts said, she pulled the plug after learning the source of the super PAC money she had helped Foushee’s campaign.
Foushee ultimately won the Democratic primary for a district that includes several major universities, including Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and where Sanders posted 83% favorability among Democratic primary voters in campaign polls. of Allam.
Sanders has clashed with pro-Israel groups over the years, including during his 2020 presidential bid, when a group called the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent money to attack him when he emerged as the favorite early in the primary season.
And when one of Sanders’ national co-chairs, Nina Turner, ran for Congress in a special election in 2021 and again in 2022, that group and the AIPAC-aligned super PAC spent heavily to defeat her.
“I understand Senator Sanders’ grudge against us,” said Mark Mellman, chairman of the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. “We helped keep him from winning Iowa and the presidential nomination. Then we helped keep his campaign chairman from winning a House race in Cleveland. Honestly, I wouldn’t be happy with us either, if I were him.”
Sanders said that his battle with AIPAC was not personal and that he did not even consider it over Israel.
“They are doing everything they can to destroy the progressive movement in this country,” he said.
Sanders’ next clash with AIPAC is the May 24 runoff in Texas between Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar. The contest has included more than $6 million in Super PAC spending, of which less than a third, or $1.8 million, has come from the United Democracy Project.
More matchups are likely to come; the United Democracy Project is evaluating 10 to 15 more races. “Our goal is to build the broadest bipartisan pro-Israel coalition in Congress possible,” said Patrick Dorton, spokesman for the super PAC.
Sanders knows he won’t win every matchup. The goal of speaking out, he said, was two-fold: to create some political cost for the super PACs that participate, and “so that people understand when they see these ads on TV and why they’re played.”
Sanders also criticized “crypto millionaires” who are pouring money into the Democratic primary, including more than $11 million in a single House seat in Oregon. “Scandalous,” he said.
In a letter this week to Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Sanders urged the party to reject super PAC spending more broadly, at least in the primary. “What we have to do is not just talk the talk, we have to walk the path,” he said.
The two men spoke after this week’s letter, although little is expected on the subject.