AIPAC never spelled the threat out. But last summer, Congress got the message. Politicians had to decide whether they would vote yay or nay on President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which lifted economic sanctions in exchange for reductions to the country’s nuclear program.
A vote in favor, pro-Israel activists indicated, would be viewed negatively by the lobbying powerhouse.
One year on, the evidence for pro-Israel individuals and groups’ power to wreak revenge is scant.
“Those who argued that support for the Iran deal would harm members of Congress politically miscalculated the mindset of the Democratic base,” said Joel Rubin, who when serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for House affairs worked to win support for the nuclear deal. The Democratic base, he argued, which is the group that actually turns out on primary election day, “is very supportive of diplomacy.”
The pro-Israel lobby enjoys a reputation for considerable power in American politics. Although it does not endorse politicians or fundraise for them, the group’s leadership is made up of major donors who enjoy access to congressional offices and who maintain long-lasting ties with elected officials.
The lobby let politicians know it was watching them by running advertisements in states of key members who could swing the vote, mobilizing donors in “fly ins” to Washington to meet with their representatives, and showering praise on those who opposed the bill, such as New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Indeed, as the general election approaches, the deal’s supporters seem to have faced very little political pushback in primary races or in fundraising.
Even Jerry Nadler, who represents the most heavily Jewish district in the country, sailed through a recent primary unscathed.
Nadler’s decision to back the deal came after weeks of pressure from pro-Israel activists to join other Jewish New York politicians, including Schumer and Reps. Steve Israel and Nita Lowey, in opposing the agreement. His primary challenger, Oliver Rosenberg, did his best to cast the race as a showdown over Nadler’s decision.
But Nadler won easily, with nearly nine of 10 voters choosing to keep him as the Democratic candidate. True, Nadler fared poorly among ultra-Orthodox voters in his district, in part because of his Iran vote, but the backlash was not even close to putting a dent in the congressman’s re-election bid.
“For all the talk about this brand of diplomacy being a political third rail, we have not seen any signs of that nationally,” said Ben Shnider, political director of J Street, the left-leaning, pro-Israel lobby that supported the deal. The unsuccessful attempt to play the Iran card in Nadler’s race is “pretty indicative to what we will see in other places,” he added.
Unlike J Street, which has a political action committee, or fundraising arm, that endorses candidates, AIPAC does not endorse or rate candidates for office. A spokesman for AIPAC declined to comment on issues relating to the political future of members who had supported the Iran deal.
As Nadler did, longtime incumbent Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair who decided to back the Iran deal after months of deliberations, is facing the issue in her primary campaign.
Her challenger, Tim Canova, has raised it to try to flip supporters in her heavily Jewish southern Florida district: “She voted for the Iran deal and I’m against the agreement,” Canova told the Forward.
Their primary is August 30; Wasserman Schultz is considered the favorite to win by local commentators.
In Wisconsin, opponents of Democratic challenger Russ Feingold, a Jewish former senator who’s trying to get his seat back, are trying to use his support for the deal against him, even though he wasn’t in office at the time.
Incumbent Ron Johnson is a fierce opponent of the nuclear agreement; Feingold supports it.
“Russ Feingold: wrong on national security,” a Republican TV ad intones after mentioning several of President Obama’s foreign policy failings, including the Iran deal.
Yet polls suggest that Feingold’s support for the deal has not dented support for him; he enjoys a small lead over his Republican rival in a battle that could determine the future control of the Senate. He has also received some big money. thanks, in part, to his position on Iran. JStreetPAC has endorsed Feingold and raised $250,000 for his campaign.
J Street is also raising money for Catherine Cortez Masto, who’s running for Senate from Nevada. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is running ads criticizing her for supporting the agreement. Yet she received a campaign contribution from AIPAC board member Norman Brownstein, despite her position.
In a congressional race in Illinois 10th district, however, it was a critic of the Iran deal who emerged successful despite his rival’s effort to play up her support for the agreement.
Brad Schneider, a former congressman who lost his seat and now is seeking to regain it, paid a heavy political price for speaking out against the nuclear deal. He lost the endorsement of powerful Illinois senator Dick Durbin who chose to support Schneider’s rival Nancy Rotering, a backer of the deal. Another Illinois political heavyweight, Abner Mikva, who passed away this week, wrote an open letter to Schneider expressing his disappointment with the candidate’s opposition to the Iran deal.
But these endorsements did little to help Rotering, who lost the primary to Schneider by a 7 point margin.
The Iran deal, however, could become more important once primary season turns into the general election.
”The nuclear Iran deal remains a pox on incumbent Democrats’ house with the electorate as a whole, but especially in the pro-Israel Jewish community,” said Mark McNulty, spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition. The group, he said, “will continue to do what it takes to highlight the extreme mistake of supporting this deal in any way that we believe will make a difference.”
New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, who is running as a Democrat for Senate, has already been criticized by supporters of Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte who opposed the deal. It is also shaping up as a campaign issue in Illinois’s tight Senate race, where incumbent Republican Mark Kirk, one of the strongest opponents of the deal, is facing Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who backed the agreement.
And even if AIPAC couldn’t make examples of any politicians who supported the Iran deal, the lobby still has real power. It has a network of powerful board members, and major donors who maintain close ties with elected officials. Most politicians still turn to them first with questions about Israel, and many pro-Israel donors still try to gauge who’s in favor at AIPAC before they write a check. AIPAC has extensive ties on Capitol Hill and inside every administration.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman