How AIPAC and DMFI Outspent the Democratic Insurgency – The Intercept

Posted By on October 17, 2022

As Maram Al-Dada, a 34-year-old aviation engineer in Orlando, Florida, prepared to speak at a rally in May 2021, he couldnt help but think of his family. One particular moment from his childhood in Gaza was seared into his memory. His grandmother would often walk him as a boy to the border fence and point to the property on the other side that had been the familys home until 1967, when the community was evacuated amid the Six-Day War. On the seventh day, the family hadnt been allowed to return, but his grandparents would sneak out at night to tend to their crops, making sure things would be in good shape for the family when they eventually did make it back. Theyd be shot at by Israeli troops and sneak back. But soon the fencing went up, leaving only the pointing to be done.

Then one day in the early 1990s, about 25 years after the family had been forced from their home, a lighter-skinned man speaking broken Arabic came to their southern Gaza village of Bani Suheila looking for Al-Dadas grandmother.His grandparents still held the deed or the paper, at least but the man was now living on their property.Al-Dada still doesnt understand why the man came to see his grandmother, or what he wanted, but vividly remembers an intensely demeaning experience.

Now there was more fighting, and Al-Dada and his fellow Floridians hed moved to the Sunshine State in 2011 were there to protest Israeli evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem, and airstrikes on the Gaza strip during Ramadan, 2021. They were the latest violent attacks in what had become known as the Gaza War.

Al-Dada hadnt been back in years. In 2008, as his grandfather was dying, he tried to visit through the border with Egypt but was denied. A crossing from Israel for a Palestinian is effectively impossible, given travel restrictions that apply only to Palestinians. His grandfather died, a follow-up attempt to gain humanitarian entrance for the funeral was rejected, and he hasnt been to Gaza since.

Al-Dada saw those at the rally as another type of family. After hed gotten to the U.S., he joined the Florida Palestine Network, a thriving grassroots organization that included many Palestinian emigrs and non-Palestinian kindred spirits. One of the most active young men in that group stood next to Al-Dada: Maxwell Alejandro Frost, who, for all appearances, was a true believer in the cause. Free, free Palestine! he andAl-Dada chanted as they both got ready to address the crowd. Yall are gonna hear me say this over and over again, Frost told those gathered when it was his turn to speak. We have to demand not ask we have to demand that our leaders see the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable and use that vision to make every goddamn decision they ever make.

Following the rally, Frost, 24, posted a photo on Instagram, with the caption, Orlando is in solidarity with all facing oppression across the globe. From Palestine to Colombia, we denounce it all. He added a thank you to his friend, Rasha Mubarak, another Palestinian American, for leading the organizing of the rally. Much love! The most committed activists were all part of a group chat, where several dozen of them, including Mubarak, Al-Dada, and Frost, all celebrated the successful event.

It was also the start of something bigger. In the weeks leading up to the rally, rumors had swirled around Orlando political circles that Val Demings, the local congresswoman and former sheriff, was being courted by party leaders in Washington to run for Senate and would soon take the plunge. Frost reached out to Mubarak, who he had met amid the street protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and asked her to be part of his kitchen cabinet, an informal circle of advisers who make up the early infrastructure of a campaign. Rasha connected me with a few different politicos, people here in Florida, and stuff like that. And then she was a member of the kitchen cabinet, Frost said.

Mubarak laid out his path to victory. We need to run a really progressive race thats people-centered and inclusive of Palestinian human rights. Understanding that this is a Black seat and that many of the other establishment Democratic candidates will split the vote, she said. Frost is Afro-Latino so they thought he would have a shot, even if he wasnt a shoo-in. If hes willing to be the progressive, bold candidate, people are gonna believe in that. And hes gonna bring out a different base.

Just being the first Gen Z candidate for Congress wouldnt be enough. Being the first is historic, but changing history via policy is entirely different. Being the first Gen Z is only surface-level and what we need as his residents are deeper: a congressional leader in the state of Florida that aligns with the notion that everyone deserves to move with freedom, experience liberation, and live equitable lives. A congressional leader that did not leave any community behind. We do not have that in Florida, she said.

A week after the rally, Demings made it official. Mubarak began connecting Frost with donors around the country and activist groups in the district. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Central Florida, Mubaraks Palestinian family hailed largely from the West Bank and Jerusalem. A national political consultant and organizer, shed become a prominent figure in Orlando politics. Frost also brought on Rania Batrice, progressive Palestinian American consultant, to do his media strategy. Word spread that Frost, an anti-gun violence advocate connected to the Parkland survivors, was the genuine progressive in what was, as hoped for, becoming a crowded field. In August 2021, he officially launched his campaign.

People listen as former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner gives her concession speech after losing to Cuyahoga County Council member Shontel Brown at The Lanes on Aug. 3, 2021 in Maple Heights, Ohio.

Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

In a special election to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge in the House after Fudge was named Housing and Urban Development secretary, Nina Turner, a former state senator and surrogate for both of Bernie Sanderss presidential campaigns, was polling some 30 points ahead of the field. Amid the Gaza War, she retweeted a Jewish advocacy group, IfNotNow, that is the bane of right-wing pro-Israel groups.

Jewish Insider flagged the post in an article, noting the divergence on the issue between Turner and her leading opponent, Cuyahoga County Chair Shontel Brown. Advocacy groups such as Pro-Israel America and Democratic Majority for Israel, reported Jewish Insider, have also thrown their support behind Brown, who has had to contend with Turners substantial warchest with less than three months remaining until the August 3 primary, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. Brown would not have to contend with that disadvantage for long.

Two groups Democratic Majority For Israel, or DMFI, and Mainstream Democrats PAC began spending millions pummeling Turner on the airwaves. The two were effectively the same organization, operating out of the same office and employing the same consultants, though Mainstream Democrats claims a broader mission. Strategic and targeting decisions for both were made by pollster Mark Mellman, according to Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Democratic operative and Silicon Valley executive who serves as the political adviser to LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, who funds the Mainstream Democrats PAC. DMFI has also funneled at least $500,000 to Mainstream Democrats PAC.

Our money is going to the Mainstream Democrat coalition, which we trust to identify the candidates who are most likely to convey to Americans broadly, an image of Democrats that is then electable, Mehlhorn told me earlier this year, saying he relies on the consultants linked to DMFI to make those choices. I trust them. I think Brian Goldsmith, Mark Mellman, they tend to know that stuff.

DMFI, Mainstream Democrats PAC, and the American Israel Public AffairsCommitteehave spent so much money that the question of Israel-Palestine now dominates Democratic primaries.

While DMFI is ostensibly organized around the politics of Israel, in practice, it has become a weapon wielded by the partys centrist faction against its progressive wing. In fact, DMFI, Mainstream Democrats PAC, and the American Israel Public AffairsCommitteehave spent so much money that the question of Israel-Palestine now dominates Democratic primaries.

Across the country, progressive candidates who a cycle earlier had been loudly vying for national attention with bold ideasto attract small donors were instead keeping their heads down, hoping to stay under the radar of DMFI and AIPAC.

When Justice Democrats, in the wake of Sanderss first presidential campaign, began its effort to pull the party to the left by competing in Democratic primaries, the issue of Israel-Palestine was not central to its strategy. But its candidates tended to be progressive across the board, rather than what had previously been the standard, known as PEP, for progressive except for Palestine.The insurgency inside the Democratic Party has since produced a counter-insurgency, funded heavily by hedge fund executives, private equity barons, professional sports team owners, and other billionaires and multimillionaires, many of them organized under a pro-Israel banner.

Its been a radical transformation in the politics of Israel-Palestine and the politics of Democratic primaries, said Logan Bayroff, director of communications for J Street, which describes itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization. This cycle, Bayroff helped run J Street Action Fund, an outside spending group designed specifically to counter the influence of DMFI and AIPAC. It spent less than 10 percent the amount its rivals were able to put in the field.

Mehlhorn was explicit about his purpose. Nina Turners district is a classic case study where the vast majority of voters in that district are Marcia Fudge voters, theyre pretty happy with the Democratic Party. And Nina Turners record on the Democratic Party is [that] shes a strong critic, he said. And so this group put in money to make sure that voters knew what she felt about the Democratic Party. And from my perspective, that just makes it easier for me to try to do things like give Tim Ryan a chance of winning [a Senate seat] in a state like Ohio not a big chance, but at least a chance. And hes not having to deal with the latest bomb thrown by Nina. So anyway, thats the theory behind our support for Mainstream Democrats.


Mellman, in an interview with HuffPost, acknowledged that his goals extended beyond the politics of Israel and Palestine. The anti-Biden folks and the anti-Israel folks look to her as a leader, Mellman said. So she really is a threat to both of our goals.

Turner said she was told she had to distance herself from members of the Squad, particularly Muslim Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, or face an onslaught. I was told by a prominent Jewish businessman that Were coming at you with everything we got, you need to disavow the Squad, Turner said, and if I didnt do it, they were coming for me. And that also the Palestinian community didnt have rights that were more important than the state of Israel.

I even have emails right now, to this day, of local primarily business leaders in the Jewish community where they were encouraging Republicans to vote in this primary and were saying things like: We must support Shontel Brown, in no way can we let Nina Turner win this race, Turner said.

This is a very important election for our community! wrote one Turner opponent in an email to neighbors. Shontels main opponent, Nina Turner, was the honorary co-chair of the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, as well as the leader of Our Revolution, the post-2016 organization of Sanders enthusiasts. She has raised money proclaiming her desire to join the Squad and has been endorsed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (see Turner fundraising emails attached below).

Another neighbor forwardedthe email on to still more folks, adding, Many of us wouldnt bother with this primary election but this one is really important and electing Shontel Brown is a must. Whether a R or a D you can elect to vote in the D primary.

Shontel Brown takes pictures with her supporters after learning she won Ohios 11th Congressional District on Aug. 3, 2021.

Photo: Stephen Zenner/Getty Images

I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this never happens to a progressive candidate again, she said on election night. We didnt lose this race the evil money manipulated and maligned this election. The characterization of the funding as evil, mixed with the notion of manipulation, brought out fresh charges of antisemitism.

The race in Orlando largely stayed off the national radar through the rest of 2021, since the primary wouldnt be held until August 2022. As the year closed out, Mubarak set about posting her end-of-year Instagram shoutouts and wanted to highlight the work theyd all done the past May in opposing the Gaza War. She went to dig out Frosts old post, which had singled Mubarak out for her organizing that day and discovered it had been taken off his feed. Mubarak calledFrost out on it; she saidhe explained that a social media staffer had scoured his accounts and archived some posts and that it mustve been caught up in the sweep. Hed put it back up, he said.

But the reference to Mubarak was removed and a subtle but meaningful edit was made to the caption: Gone were references to all facing oppression across the globe and the pledge that we denounce it all.

The post now reads simply: Orlando stands in solidarity from Palestine to Colombia! When Mubarak flagged the change and her omission, she said, he explained that local endorsers have a problem with your advocacy.

Maxwell Frosts edited Instagram post.Credit: Screenshots obtained by The Intercept.

Frost told another ally that his goal was to avoid getting crushed by DMFI. Were just trying to see if we can keep them out, and maybe if they come in, they wont spend anything, they recalled him speculating.

Frost told The Intercept that he wasnt really aware of the influence of outside spending at that point in his campaign. I honestly didnt know much about outside spending at that point, or IEs independent expenditures made by Super PACs or kind of the role that they play, Frost said. I didnt really learn about the outside money that played into [Turners] race until months after, to be honest. I saw the results come in, I looked at my phone, I remember I was like, sitting in my kitchen and I was just like, Damn, we lost. I remember being surprised and being upset and then kind of saying, you know, I need to win, we need more progressives in Congress. So I hadnt really connected those dots, to be honest, and wasnt really fully aware of, kind of, the role of outside money in general in these Democratic primaries.

Campaign sources, however, say the issue was front and center, with questions about what type of positioning might keep the outside money out. When allies in the free Palestine movement warned him that capitulating to DMFI and AIPAC wouldnt let up even after he was elected, whether he capitulated or not, they recall Frost saying, Ill figure that out when I get there.

On January 31, kickstarting the primary season, Jewish Insider published a list of 15 DMFI House endorsements. Among them was Randolph Bracy, a local state senator who was considered one of the most competitive moderates in Frosts race. Mubarak texted Frost the news. Didnt think they would hop in so early, Frost replied. They hate progressives lol.

The names on DMFIs endorsement list, and the names left off, tell a story ofthe groups commitment to fighting back against the partys left flank in Democratic primaries and an increasingly extremist view of what being pro-Israel meant.

In Michigan and Illinois, Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Sean Casten (D-IL) are, with support from DMFI, waging respective battles against progressive Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Marie Newman (D-IL), who have frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over their criticism of the Jewish state, the Jewish Insider piece read.

Levin was an incumbent member of Congress and a scion of a powerhouse Michigan family that included Carl Levin, his uncle and a former lion of the Senate, and former House Ways and Means Chair Sander Levin, his father. Levin had been redistricted into a primary against another incumbent Democrat, Stevens, who became conspicuously outspoken about her unwavering support for Israel, becoming one of just 18 Democrats casting public doubt on the wisdom of President Joe Biden reentering the Iran nuclear deal. To include Levin among an anti-Israel cohort stretched the definition to a breaking point. Wrote Jewish Insider:

While Levin, a former synagogue president, describes himself as a Zionist and opposes BDS, the Michigan political scion has frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over his criticism of the Israeli government, including the recent introduction of legislation that would, among other things, condemn Israeli settlements while placing restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel.

Michigan Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib hold a campaign rally on July 29, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.

Getty Images

The list also included Summer Lee. In 2018, as an unapologetic democratic socialist, she unseated a member of a powerhouse Pittsburgh political family in a state House race. Her win made national news. Now she was running for an open congressional seat with the backing of Justice Democrats, and, Jewish Insider noted, was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, which formally endorsed the BDS movement in 2017. BDS which is modeled after the effort to boycott South Africas apartheid government and stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society groups in response to Israels construction of a wall that cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory.

DMFI came out early for her opponent, attorney Steve Irwin. Theres a context here that I think we ought to take cognizance of, which is to say that we have had some organized groups out there that have said they are attempting to execute, in their words, a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, Mellman told Jewish Insider, referring to the organization Justice Democrats, which cultivates progressive congressional candidates to primary moderate Democrats, but expanded his discussion to include DSA. Freshman Rep. Marie Newman had also been backed by Justice Democrats in her campaign to unseat a conservative Democrat the previous cycle. A number of those groups have moved anti-Israelism from a peripheral part of their issue agenda to a central part of their issue agenda, Mellman said. Their strategy is to go into deep-blue districts that the party doesnt care about because its going to be a Democrat no matter who wins.

Lee heard early on that her campaign was going to have an Israel problem, she told The Intercept. We heard people in the establishment talk about it, you know, Summers gonna have an Israel problem, Lee said. Its an issue that we knew was going to come up. And I think its really funny because, for me, as a Black woman who is a progressive, Israel is not, at the state level, its not an issue that we ever had to talk about, that we broached.

Lees point echoes a similar one made by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in 2018 when getting knocked around in the press for flubbing an answer on the Israel-Palestine question. I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background. And Middle Eastern politics is not exactly at my kitchen table every night, she said.

But, during the Gaza War in 2021, Lee had once posted support for the Palestinian plight. It was really one tweet that kind of caught the attention of folks, Lee said. Here, this is it, we got you. And it was really a tweet talking about Black Lives Matter and talking about how, as an oppressed person, I view and perceive the topic. Because the reality is and thats with a lot of Black and brown progressives we view even topics that dont seem connected, we still view them through the injustice that we face as Black folks here, and the politics that we see and experience here, and are able to make connections to that.

The comment was shocking to some in Pittsburgh. Charles Saul, a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicles board of trustees, was later quoted by the paper saying he was concerned about Lee because shes endorsed by some people I believe are antisemites, like Rashida Tlaib.

Another thing that worried me was her equating the suffering of the Gazans and Palestinians to the suffering of African Americans. Thats one of these intersectional things. If thats her take on the Middle East, thats very dangerous, Saul said.

Lee had no doubt she would be hit, she just didnt know when or how hard. Im being very honest, there was no world in which I did not think this was gonna happen, she said. From the moment I saw the ways in which the four Black and brown women who came in in 2018, which is the same year that I came into the state House, watching the way that they had to navigate the issue, knowing the way that they had to navigate money and politics, then seeing Nina Turner, it was a very clear trend to me.

We honestly knew on day one and before. So on day zero, it was something that we were thinking about, she said. The question was always, when does it come in, but I didnt think that I would have the privilege of avoiding it.

Tweet or no tweet, Lee is convinced that she would have been targeted regardless, because the issue of Israel-Palestine is a cover for a broader assault on the progressive wing of the party. Theres a difference between having controversial views. Theres a difference between having problematic views. But what this does is it says you cant have any views, she said. To say that you should fall in line and I am still not convinced to this date that that is where they exclusively expect us to fall in line. Because the reality is is that if this were about that topic, if this were about Israel-Palestine, then they would have come into this district 10 toes talking about Israel-Palestine. But they didnt. This is a way to chill and to keep the progressive movement from growing as a whole. This is a way to temper a movement that centers, particularly Black and brown women who are progressive, and stops them from building power right here.

But not exclusively Black and brown. I mean, the reality is that they went after Andy Levin, she noted. Hes a self-described Zionist. So theyre coming after progressives and the way that were able to build power for working-class folks.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, denied the group targeted progressives specifically. The sole factor for supporting Democratic and Republican candidates is their support for strengthening the US-Israel relationship, he said. Indeed, our PACs have supported scores of pro-Israel progressive candidates, including over half of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus and almost half of the Progressive Caucus. Our political involvement has shown that it is entirely consistent with progressive values to support Americas alliance with our democratic ally, Israel.

Theyre coming after progressives and the way that were able to build power for working-class folks.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, another Braddock resident was looking for a way to dodge DMFIs fire. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman was locked in what threatened to be a tight race with Rep. Conor Lamb for a Senate nomination, and Lambs campaign was openly pleading for Super PAC support to put him over the top. Early in the year, Jewish Insider reported, Mellman had reached out to Fetterman with questions about his position on Israel. Hes never come out and said that hes not a supporter of Israel, but the perception is that he aligns with the Squad more than anything else, Democratic activist Brett Goldman told Jewish Insider.

Mellman said the campaign responded to his inquiry and came with an interest in learning about the issues. Following the meeting, the Fetterman campaign reached back out. Then they sent us a position paper, which we thought was very strong, Mellman said. But it wasnt quite strong enough. Jewish Insider reported that DMFI emailed back some comments on the paper, which Fetterman was receptive to addressing in a second draft.

In April, Fetterman agreed to do an interview with Jewish Insider. I want to go out of my way to make sure that its absolutely clear that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party, he said. I would also respectfully say that Im not really a progressive in that sense.

Fetterman, unprompted, stressed there should be zero conditions on military aid to Israel, that BDS is wrong, and so on. Let me just say this, even if Im asked or not, I was dismayed by the Iron Dome vote, Fetterman added. DMFI and AIPAC stayed out of the race.

As the campaign wore on, progressive forces consolidated around Frost. It was a meaningful achievement, since the left is often hobbled by multiple progressive candidates splitting the vote and allowing a centrist candidate to slip through. (Levi Strauss heir Dan Goldman winning a Manhattan primary with less than 30 percent of the vote is just the latest example.)

The field initially included not just Frost, but also populist firebrand former Rep. Alan Grayson and Aramis Ayala, a popular former progressive prosecutor in Orange County, Florida, who had repeatedly clashed with state Republicans. Grayson had a dedicated but diminished base in the district, but Frost, in significant part thanks to the alliance with movement organizers in the district that Mubarak helped him build, began emerging as the leading progressive. A truce was brokered,with Ayala dropping out of the race in early March andwinning the nomination for state attorney general instead.

Consolidating support was key but so was fending off DMFI. The critical question was whetherDMFIor AIPAC would put money against him. It was a conversation from the jump, honestly, because DMFI endorsed Bracy so early, recalled Mubarak. Every progressive under the sun who has even a little sympathy for Palestine, [the question of DMFI] comes up, because they just dump so much money. Frost, according to people on his campaign, made it his mission to keep the groups at bay or find a way to neutralize them. But he had a balance to strike: Until March, Ayala was still in the race, so he needed to keep the full support of the progressive wing of the party without inviting a multimillion-dollar onslaught.

The answer came in the form of Ritchie Torres. A Bronx congressman in his first term and also Afro-Latino, Torres had made a name for himself in three overlapping areas. He was at war with the progressive wing, an outspoken ally of right-wing pro-Israel groups, and a cryptocurrency evangelist.

Rep.Ritchie Torres speaks at the IAC National Summit at the Diplomat beach resort on Dec. 11, 2021 in Hollywood, Fla.

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Torres went on to say that his own identity as a gay man influenced how he approached the question of Israel: If the message to those who are both progressive and pro-Israel, especially to those of Jewish descent, is that in order for you to be part of the progressive community you have to renounce your identity and your history and your ties to your own homeland and you have to be in the closet that to me is profoundly evil. Thats a perversion of progressivism.

A DMFIboard member told him, It was so beautiful and almost not otherworldly, but amazing the way you speak with such honesty and conviction about Israel. I just wish we could clone you so there were a million Ritchies running around talking about Israel.

Another DMFI member on the call asked how a progressive, pro-Israel Squad could be built, and Torres told them it was all about building infrastructure and support for progressive candidates willing to side with Israel.

When the January list of races DMFI was building infrastructure around came out, the progressive campaign ecosystem breathed a sigh of relief that Austin, Texas, was not on it. Progressives were backing a would-be Squad member in the form of 33-year-old City Council Member Gregorio Casar. Frost said he watched Casars race. We watched all the races, he said, keeping up to date on everything that was going on across the country as far as voting trends, especially looking at the youth vote, different stuff like that that we thought might give us some trend information to help us in our race.

Casars absence on the list, it turned out, came after a letter he had sent that month to a local rabbi laying out his position on Israel: He was opposed to BDS, he promised; supportive of a two-state solution; and in support of military aid to Israel. He also wrote, The humanitarian crisis in Gaza and indefinite occupation in the West Bank are untenable for Israelis, Palestinians, and our collective conscience, and added that he was against unchecked settlement expansion. Casars letter to the rabbi was published by Jewish Insider the day after DMFIs endorsement list was unveiled.

The letter was in response to a lot of people continuing to insinuate that progressives, Casar said, are antisemitic. That is just not true. And in particular, I also mean really progressive members of Congress, who fight for Palestinian rights, I do not believe are antisemitic. But I have a certain policy position, which is, I do not believe we should be writing a blank check on military aid, I think that we should provide some amount of aid, but we should also make sure were not funding human rights violations anywhere in the world. So thats what I told folks when I was asked privately. People pushed for me to think about things differently and learn more, and Im always open to learning more.

He decided to put that position down on paper. I said, You know what, lets just write this down, so that Rabbi Freedman can share this with people. And that means that theres a very decent chance itll become public. I did not share it with JI, but Im not, you know, I dont hold it against journalists to get hold of things however you guys do it.

His colleagues in DSA were shocked and began the process of rescinding their endorsements. To avoid a nasty fight, Casar voluntarily rescinded his request for DSA backing. We have a long history of working with Greg Casar on health care, paid sick time, police budgets, homelessness, housing justice, union rights, and more. We will continue to discuss this issue within our chapter and many individual members will continue to support the campaign, but we will no longer be working on this campaign as an organization, the Austin chapter said in a statement.Justice Democrats, which does not have an Israel-Palestine litmus test, despite the protestations of DMFI, continued to back him, spending just over $100,000 in support.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, joins a rally for Democratic congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros, left, and Greg Casar, right, on Feb. 12, 2022, in San Antonio.

Photo: Eric Gay/AP

Mellman had been the leading pollster for John Kerrys presidential campaign in 2004 and was also a longtime AIPAC strategist. DMFI was an effort to do something of a rebrand for AIPAC within Democratic circles. AIPAC itself had become a toxic brand inside the Democratic Party after the organization worked to torpedo Barack Obamas signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. Mellmans firm, the Mellman Group, had consulted for AIPACs dark-money group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. The Mellman Group was also the second-largest contractor for AIPACs educational arm the American Israel Education Fund, which organized congressional trips to Israel in the year it fought the Iran deal. The biggest contractor that year was a travel business then-owned by Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul and Republican mega-donor.

DMFI would also be able to deploy tactics AIPAC wasnt yet ready for. Before Citizens United, AIPAC had grown its power not simply with the wealth of a handful of mega-donors, but through genuine and sustained grassroots organizing. Synagogue to synagogue, from the 1980s onward, AIPAC organized powerful local support for politicians who voiced unqualified support for Israel and ran high-profile campaigns against those who deviated. AIPACs informal slogan was that it didnt have enemies in Congress, but had friends and potential friends.

David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to AIPACs annual conference, described in 2016 how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization so that the money doesnt show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC.


In New York, with [hedge fund titan] Jeff Talpins, we dont ask a goddamn thing about the fucking Palestinians. You know why? Cause its a tiny issue. Its a small, insignificant issue. The big issue is Iran. We want everything focused on Iran, Ochs said. What happens is Jeff meets with the congressman in the back room, tells them exactly what his goals are and by the way, Jeff Talpins is worth $250 million basically they hand him an envelope with 20 credit cards, and say, You can swipe each of these credit cards for$1,000 each.

Much like the National Rifle Association, its strength was in numbers and a narrow focus on a particular issue. After Citizens United, DMFI could skip the grassroots organizing component and go straight to big-money efforts directed through Super PACs. At least 11 of DMFIs 14 board members had links to AIPAC; DMFIs founding chair, Wall Street banker Todd Richman, also sat on AIPACs national council.

Mellman told me that his work against the partys left was meant to undermine the Israeli right. I have substantial direct experience in Israeli politics, having helped bring down Netanyahu, he said, referring to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mellman had worked as a key election consultant for Yair Lapids political campaign, serving as a paid adviser, consulting with him in Washington, andmeeting with his deputy minister of foreign affairs. Lapids center-right political party, Yesh Atid, would surge under Mellmans guidance, making Lapid prime minister of Israel.

The simple fact of Israeli politics is that the right uses attacks from the U.S. and Europe to its great and consistent benefit, Mellman said. Thats correct, anti-Israel forces in the U.S. do vastly more to help the right than to hurt it. They enable Bibi to run as the guy who will stand up to the U.S. and the world to protect his country. That has been a key element of most of his campaigns. The anti-Israel far left has propped up the Israeli right and done tremendous damage to the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Dmitri Mehlhorn made a similar argument about Mainstream Democrats PACs interventions against progressives: that they were actually targeting the left to beat the right.

If you look at America as a whole, and you want the fascists not to take power, what you need to do is trade a little bit of your enthusiasm in urban districts enthusiasm that does not generally translate into meaningful votes, because a lot of those people [are] often in a safe district, [and] they often dont vote. Just trade it for people who are actual swing voters who vote but make up their mind kind of at the last minute. If you go with a populist strategy, on the other hand, he said, youre also handing a message that is going to motivate the shit out of the other side, because remember, theyre already amped to be motivated out of fear. If Nina Turner would have won that [Ohio House] race, she would have been 20 percent of Sean Hannitys chyrons out of the gate. You know, it just makes their job easier if some of what theyre saying is actually based in some fact of some sort.

Mark Mellman speaking at the 2016 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2016.

Photo: Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

But in DMFIs first cycle, it hit obstacles. The groups first play for power, an effort to persuade Bernie Sanders to dismiss two Muslim advisers from his presidential campaign, was unsuccessful, as was DMFIs later effort to hit him with TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. Next, would-be Squad member Jamaal Bowman of New York overcame more than $2 million in DMFI spending in 2020 to oust Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the most outspoken Israel hawks in Congress. That Bowman won in a landslide, and even carried heavily Jewish precincts, was a stinging defeat for DMFI and AIPAC, as Bowman had refused to back off his support of Palestinian human rights.

On May 13, 2021, around the same time Frost was rallying in Orlando, history was made on the floor of the House of Representatives, as Democrat after Democrat paraded for an hour to denounce Israels assault on Gaza.

Throughout the 2020 cycle, AIPAC had been content to let DMFI run the big-money operation in Democratic primaries. To encourage support for it, AIPAC donors were even allowed to count money given to DMFI as a credit toward their AIPAC contributions, which then won them higher-tier perks at conferences and other events. But the unprecedented display of progressive Democratic support for Palestinians amid the Gaza War on the House floor was triggering.

Were seeing much more vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship, who are having an impact on the discussion, AIPACsHoward Kohr told the Post. And we need to respond. The problem, he said, was the rise of a very vocal minority on the far left of the Democratic Party that is anti-Israel and seeks to weaken and diminish the relationship. Our view is that support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is both good policy and good politics. We wanted to defend our friends, and to send a message to detractors that theres a group of individuals that will oppose them.

That group of individuals began coming together in January 2022. AIPAC transferred $8.5 million to the Super PAC it set up called United Democracy Project. Private equity mogul and Republican donor Paul Singer kicked in a million dollars, as did Republican Bernard Marcus, the former CEO of Home Depot. Dozens of other big donors, many of them also Republicans, kicked in big checks to give United Democracy Project a $30 million war chest. By the end of March, it had spent $80,000 on polling, as it targeted races and honed its messaging, according to disclosures.

In April, it dropped its first ads of the cycle, tag-teaming with DMFI to make sure Turners second run against Brown never got off the ground. That same month it launched its assault on Nida Allam, a Durham County commissioner and the first Muslim woman elected in North Carolina. She ran for office after three of her Muslim friends were murdered in the gruesome Chapel Hill hate crime that drew national attention. AIPAC spent millions to stop her rise, backing state Sen. Valerie Foushee in the May primary. Elsewhere in the state, AIPAC spent $2 million against progressive Erica Smith in another open primary.

Were always gonna expect the right to have more money, given that theyre operating off of the basis of big donors. But thats a little bit more of a fair fight. But now you add to what DMFI is doing 30 million from AIPAC, thats just in a whole other realm.

United Democracy Project also began hammering away at Lee,who was running in an open primary to be held the same day as North Carolinas. J Streets new outside money group had been planning to raise and spend about $2 million to compete with AIPAC, which they guessed would spend somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. That, said J Streets Logan Bayroff, would at least be something of a fair fight, given that AIPAC and DMFI had to overcome the fact that what they were advocating for unchecked, limitless support for the Israeli government, regardless of abuses was unpopular in Democratic primaries. Were always gonna expect the right to have more money, given that theyre operating off of the basis of big donors. But thats a little bit more of a fair fight, he said of the disparity between J Street and DMFI. But now you add to what DMFI is doing 30 million from AIPAC, thats just in a whole other realm.

Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, Indivisible, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, and the Sunrise Movement worked in coalition with J Street on a number of races that DMFI and AIPAC played in, and where they could muster enough money, the candidates had a shot.

If you look at the races we lost, we were outspent by the bad guys 6, 8, 10 to 1. If you look at Summers race, it was more like 2-1, said Joe Dinkn, national campaigns director for the WFP.

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How AIPAC and DMFI Outspent the Democratic Insurgency - The Intercept

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