Why are AIPAC and J Street endorsing the same candidates?
When Summer Lee appeared to edge out Steve Irwin in the Democratic primary of a blue Pittsburgh district last month, J Street came out swinging at their rival pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which spent $2.8 million to defeat the more left-leaning Lee.
“We took on AIPAC’s millions and won,” Laura Birnbaum, the liberal group’s political director wrote in an email to supporters. She urged them to keep fighting “to overcome intensive right-wing attacks and keep electing pro-Israel, pro-peace champions across the country.”
The 2022 election cycle has seen the two most prominent groups in the pro-Israel lobbying arena go head-to-head for the first time in an aggressive campaign to control the pro-Israel agenda on Capitol Hill. Thirteen years after J Street launched an Israel-related federal political action committee, AIPAC in December announced the creation of a similar PAC and an independent super PAC to support incumbents facing primary challenges for their pro-Israel stances. J Street and AIPAC, along with Democratic Majority for Israel, are on opposite sides in a handful of competitive races that pit progressives against more conventional, pro-Israel candidates.
The victory over AIPAC in the Pennsylvania race energized J Street’s national campaign to weaken AIPAC’s influence over members of Congress, despite some setbacks in a number of high-stakes primary races last month.
But missing from the invective is the fact that J Street and AIPAC have endorsed at least 48 of the same Democratic candidates in races across the country, a Forward analysis of recent endorsements shows. That number represents just a fraction of the 473 candidates that the two groups had endorsed as of last month, but it is remarkable considering that they are often presented as if they work on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
“J Street vs. AIPAC may appear like a zero sum equation in political advocacy but they do have some shared space,” said Scott Lasensky, who served as an advisor on Israel and Jewish affairs in the Obama administration. He pointed to issues like backing a two-state solution, something J Street strongly advocates for and AIPAC does not oppose, and general concern for Israel’s security.
Among those doubly endorsed is Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who recently led a J Street-sponsored congressional delegation to Israel. And perhaps most notable is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime AIPAC ally, who received her first endorsement from J Street earlier this week and touted it on social media while remaining silent about AIPAC’s stamp of approval.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, said he doesn’t have a problem with candidates getting endorsed by both groups, and added that J Street had already given out most of theirs before AIPAC released its first slate. “We are not going to withdraw our endorsement because AIPAC slapped an endorsement on somebody’s back that they weren’t expecting,” he said.
There are some politicians who have managed to express support for Israel in a way that AIPAC is comfortable with, Ben-Ami continued, while at the same time using language that is appealing to the more liberal communities.
AIPAC may also be reluctant to drop lawmakers with whom they have long standing relationships, even if they have recently moved to the left on Israel and won support from J Street.
“There’s this predisposition to ‘dance with the ones who brung ya,’” said Steve Rabinowitz, a longtime Democratic consultant. “Unless they go astray or until a candidate comes along who is so substantially better on the issues.”
Behind the endorsement curtain
Politicians crave endorsements, which they can tout in direct mailings and pin to their social media posts.
For the groups that give them out, endorsements can be a powerful tool to sway voters.
“They help decide and define who is going to be in Congress, on the playing field, for the issues they care about,” said Hadar Susskind, chief executive of Americans for Peace Now, who previously worked for J Street.
And for the voters themselves, many disinclined or too busy to research candidates thoroughly, endorsements can serve as a shortcut. “They’re looking for cues from someone they trust,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and president of Democratic Majority for Israel, which has endorsed 55 candidates this year.
In general, organizations try to balance endorsing champions of their cause and backing those who might be open to their positions in the hopes of influencing them in the future, Susskind said.
And in some competitive races, endorsements serve as a call to action for a campaign that needs an extra boost.
AIPAC’s super PAC, the United Democracy Project, for example, has spent over $10 million in recent weeks on television ads and mailers in highly competitive races. “We are closely looking at 10 to 15 races where there is a clear contrast on the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for the project.
But how do groups figure out who they want to endorse in the first place? Methods differ.
In years past, before AIPAC was publicly endorsing candidates, it would request position papers on Israel from first-time candidates and comb the voting records of incumbents. Those sufficiently supportive of Israel in AIPAC’s view would benefit from its recommendation to the group’s financial backers, according to people familiar with the process.
This year AIPAC took a step further and released a list of 330 Democratic and Republican members it is supporting for reelection, and came under heavy criticism for including Republicans who voted to overturn the election of Joe Biden as president.
In an email exchange, AIPAC spokesperson Marshal Wittmann said that the group had offered the endorsements to incumbents based “exclusively on their positions and actions on issues affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The PAC, Wittman added, “supports candidates from both parties who will strengthen and advance” the alliance.
On the super PAC side, Dorton said the group will back a pro-Israel candidate who is viable — based on internal polling — and when there is a clear contrast between that candidate and a rival.
Though a number of House members were surprised by AIPAC’s endorsement, according to Democratic insiders who requested anonymity to share information divulged in private conversations, none of these members disavowed it publicly.
Those who want a J Street endorsement, in contrast, have to seek it out.
Ben-Ami said candidates whose position papers on Israel reflect J Street’s views go through an interview with the group’s finance committee. That committee then issues a recommendation to the group’s political committee, which makes the final decision. “It’s a very cumbersome project and you actually have to seriously want our endorsement,” he said.
Endorsements overlap — and sometimes duel
Among the 48 candidates with both J Street and AIPAC endorsements, the largest group is made up of incumbent Democrats running against Republican challengers in competitive general election contests, the Forward’s analysis reveals. These candidates’ voting records meet AIPAC’s standards, and they align with J Street’s demonstrated preference for Democrats.
A few candidates have managed to receive pro-Israel endorsements in addition to AIPAC’s and J Street’s. In New Hampshire, for example, DMFI and Pro-Israel America have endorsed Sen. Maggie Hassan, and they are also backing Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who like Hassan is a Democrat.
J Street cheered both Hassan and Cortez Masto as longtime supporters of the two-state solution, and noted that both favor a nuclear deal with Iran. Meanwhile, Pro-Israel America touts that both co-sponsored a congressional resolution targeting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel — a measure J Street opposed, arguing that it would extend U.S. legal protection to illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In still more combinations, Israel PACs are backing the same candidates. J Street and DMFI, for example, have endorsed five of the same Democrats.
But as with the Lee-Irwin contest in Pittsburgh, pro-Israel groups sometimes root for rivals.
In California, DMFI has thrown its weight behind Christy Smith, a former state assemblyperson who is challenging Rep. Mike Garcia in a district that includes parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, while AIPAC is backing Garcia.
And in an incumbent-vs.-incumbent Democratic primary in an Illinois district west of Chicago, both DMFI and J Street are supporting Rep. Sean Casten against Rep. Marie Newman, while AIPAC hasn’t issued an endorsement. That’s despite the fact that Newman was one of eight Democrats to vote against a House bill to provide an additional $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense.
In recent years, other political action committees have formed that align with AIPAC’s unconditional support for a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. In addition to Pro-Israel America and DMFI, both of which were founded by longtime AIPAC supporters, NORPAC, To Protect Our Heritage PAC, SunPAC and other committees all back candidates based on their positions on Israel.
In contrast, relatively few PACs reward politicians for embracing critical views of Israel’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow endorse candidates, and like J Street, denounce the occupation of the West Bank — but sit well to J Street’s left. There are about 3.7 million Arab Americans, only a fraction of whom are Palestinian, and while Arab and Muslim political advocacy — which typically includes support for Palestinians — is growing, it remains less established than the Jewish equivalent.
Jewish Voice for Peace has endorsed six candidates this election cycle, including “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, and they only overlap with J Street on one pick: Rep. Betty McCollum, the Minnesota Democrat who is one of the members of Congress most critical of Israel, despite holding relatively mainstream positions on other issues.
(IfNotNow has not announced which candidates they are supporting in 2022.)
Meanwhile, Israel PACs continue to drum up support by painting what appears to be an entirely adversarial relationship with their opponents.
“Our adversaries are shifting their strategies in hopes of defeating us next time,” Brian Shankman, an AIPAC official, said in an email to supporters on Thursday. “This is a long-term fight, the outcome of which will determine our ability to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship.”