sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive former presidential candidate who gained notoriety for exposing the influence of wealthy interests in politics, has a new target: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its affiliated superpolitical action committee, which spend a lot of money in Democratic primaries this year for the first time.
After Sanders traveled to Pittsburgh last week to campaign for Summer Lee, a liberal state legislator whose House campaign was thwarted by millions of dollars in such spending, he is now on his way to Texas. There he is pursuing another progressive congressional candidate, Jessica Cisneros, whose left-wing challenge from a moderate incumbent party has been met with significant spending from 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 participation in direct political spending this year has also included donations to both Democrats and Republicans. That has angered 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 strong enough as a Democrat when they themselves have supported far-right Republicans?” said Sanders. “In my view, their goal is to create a two-party system, Democrats and Republicans, in which both parties cater to the needs of corporate America and the billionaire class.”
Sanders specifically called on the committee to donate to congressional Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 election, while the super PAC, the United Democracy Project, has portrayed itself as a pro-democracy group.
“That just exposes the hypocrisy,” Sanders said.
Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, 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’s very revealing that some who don’t object to super PAC support for anti-Israel candidates become outraged when pro-Israel activists use the same tools,” Wittmann said.
The three candidates Sanders has most personally invested in thus far have also all had super PAC support, although two were heavily spent.
Despite more than $3 million in opposition spending from pro-Israel groups, Lee narrowly leads in her primary against lawyer Steve Irwin; The Associated Press has not yet announced the race.
In North Carolina, Nida Allam, the Sanders-backed candidate, lost to Valerie Foushee, a state legislator, in an open congressional race. 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. Super PAC expenses for Allam were $370,000.
Maya Handa, Allam’s campaign manager, said Sanders’ megaphone — he did robocalls, an email to raise money to his giant list and held a virtual event — brought invaluable attention to the money pouring into the race from outside. .
The message broke through among some voters. In Hillsborough, Elese Stutts, 44, a bookseller, planned to vote for Foushee. However, on Election Day, Stutts said, she was turned off after learning about the origin of the super PAC money that helped Foushee’s campaign.
Foushee eventually won the Democratic primary for a district that includes several major universities, including Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Sanders was 83% favored among the Democratic primary in the Allam campaign polls.
Sanders has talked to pro-Israel groups over the years, including during his 2020 presidential run, when a group called the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent money to attack him as he emerged as the frontrunner early in the primary season. came.
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 both spent a lot of money trying to defeat her.
“I understand Senator Sanders’ grudge against us,” said Mark Mellman, chairman of the Democratic Majority PAC for Israel. “We helped prevent him from winning Iowa and the presidential nomination. Then we helped prevent his campaign chairman from winning a House race in Cleveland. Frankly, I wouldn’t be happy with us either if I were him.”
Sanders said his fight with AIPAC was not personal and that he didn’t even see it as about 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 second round in Texas between Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar. The contest included more than $6 million in super PAC spending, of which less than a third, or $1.8 million, comes from the United Democracy Project.
More clashes are likely to come; the United Democracy Project is evaluating another 10 to 15 races. “Our goal is to build the broadest possible pro-Israel two-party coalition in Congress,” said Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for the super PAC.
Sanders knows he won’t win every showdown. The purpose of speaking out, he said, was twofold: to create some political cost for the super PACs that engage and “for people to understand when they see these ads on television and why they are playing.”
Sanders also railed against the “crypto billionaires” who pumped money into the Democratic primaries, including more than $11 million in a single Oregon House seat. “Outrageous,” he said.
In a letter this week to Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison, Sanders urged the party to broadly reject super PAC spending, at least in primaries. “What we have to do is not just talk, we have to walk,” he said.
The two men spoke to each other this week after the letter, although little is expected to come of the matter.