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How Andy Levin’s defeat in Michigan was — and wasn’t — all about AIPAC

AIPAC’s super PAC spent $4.2 million to boost Rep. Haley Stevens, who was considered the frontrunner from the start

An hour after polls closed in Michigan Tuesday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent out a press release celebrating the defeat of Jewish Rep. Andy Levin, who lost to fellow Democrat Rep. Haley Stevens by 20 points in a rare incumbent-vs.-incumbent primary.

“Democratic voters have sent the unambiguous message that being pro-Israel is both sound policy and smart politics,” read the statement. It was followed by an email to supporters that touted a “monumental victory” for the pro-Israel community. 

AIPAC was a major player in the contest, donating $4.2 million to boost Stevens in recent weeks. Her win capped a successful multi-million dollar national campaign by AIPAC this election season to defeat progressives in Democratic primaries. 

Levin, who is Jewish, had displeased AIPAC by introducing a bill last year that, while supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would also have restricted Israel from using U.S. taxpayer dollars to expand or annex settlements in the occupied West Bank. He also defended Reps. Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, who have been accused of antisemitism and openly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

But chalking up Levin’s defeat to the pro-Israel lobby’s investment in Stevens ignores several other key factors in his loss. The money certainly helped, but it wasn’t all that propelled her to victory.

Consider the newly-drawn 11th District. It includes Detroit’s northwest suburbs within Oakland County, which Levin lived in for most of his life, but includes only 25% of the district Levin has represented in Congress since 2019. The new lines worked in Stevens’ favor. Though she moved to the district last November, it includes 40% of the district that she was elected to represent in 2018. Levin had been criticized by some Democrats for refusing to run in what they deemed a winnable race in the adjacent 10th District — which includes most of the neighborhoods he currently represents — instead of taking on a fellow Democrat. 

Also relevant when weighing AIPAC’s influence over the outcome of the race is the fact that Stevens was perceived as the frontrunner as soon as she entered it. Then, endorsement followed endorsement from pro-Israel groups. She garnered the backing of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America. She was also endorsed by AIPAC’s PAC, which sent more than $600,000 in earmarked contributions to her campaign.

Despite these advantages, internal polls conducted by both campaigns in April projected a close contest, with Stevens holding a slight edge. AIPAC waited before making its move in the race. Its super PAC, United Democracy Project, didn’t start spending on it until the end of June. 

By the time a July 21 poll showed Stevens leading Levin by 27 points, AIPAC had already spent $3.3 million, mostly on television ads and mailers in support of Stevens. Only a sliver of that — $174,436 — paid for ads opposing Levin. In total, 92% of the $4.2 million was aimed at boosting Stevens. J Street, AIPAC’s liberal rival on the Hill, spent $700,000 on television ads for Levin through its super PAC, Action Fund, and its donors contributed some $300,000 directly to the campaign.

The final results Wednesday morning showed Stevens with 60% of the vote and Levin with 40%, nine points higher than the 31% he received in the poll taken last month.

Few would doubt that AIPAC’s $4.2 million helped her.

But the wide margin victory also raises a question about whether AIPAC needed to spend as much as it did. Did AIPAC help assure her victory, or rather, just give her a more decisive one? 

AIPAC loses next door in Michigan, but racks up wins elsewhere

The results of a neighboring Michigan House race disappointed AIPAC.

The group spent nearly as much — $4.1 million — as it did in the Levin-Stevens race in a district that includes the heavily Arab city of Dearborn Heights. There AIPAC-backed State Sen. Adam Hollier trailed State Rep. Shri Thanedar by five percentage points Wednesday morning, with 95% of the votes counted. In this race, 34% of AIPAC’s spending — $1.4 million — paid for attack ads against Thanedar, who sponsored legislation last year calling Israel an apartheid state and urging Congress to halt military aid. 

In both Michigan House primaries, the candidates seized on AIPAC’s investment to grab the attention of national media and rally their bases — whether AIPAC worked for or against them. On eve of the primary, Levin’s campaign acknowledged that in spite of the negative ads, donors had contributed a healthy $300,000 to his campaign in July.

Nationally in the primaries, AIPAC mostly backed the winners.

Since it was launched last December, its United Democracy Project has spent $26 million on television ads and mailers in nine highly competitive races. AIPAC aligned with the victor of seven of those races — 78% of the battles they picked. The group suffered a loss, though, in the most high-profile of those contests, in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, which includes Pittsburgh. There AIPAC boasted that the candidate they backed — Steve Irwin, who lost to Summer Lee — closed a 25-point deficit in the polls.

Pleased with its record in the primaries, AIPAC seemed to take pride in progressives’ criticism of their effectiveness, including Sen. Bernie Sanders’ declaration of “war” on the group for defeating candidates he had endorsed. In a July 5 email to supporters, AIPAC highlighted a Forward article about their political battle headlined “Bernie Sanders went to ‘war’ with AIPAC. Now the pro-Israel lobby is pushing back” — and encouraged them “to read and share it widely.”

AIPAC’s significant expenditures have not always paid off for the group.

In 2015, AIPAC spent nearly $30 million to defeat the Iran nuclear deal former President Barack Obama negotiated only to see the Senate approve the deal.

This year, a different approach worked: support moderate Democrats in tight primaries against progressives who have voiced criticism of Israel. AIPAC didn’t back candidates running against Israel critics Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in the primaries — Tlaib won her primary by a comfortable margin and Omar is favored to win a third term.

AIPAC aims to send a clear message that they still control the pro-Israel agenda on Capitol Hill. Its United Democracy Project said in a statement Tuesday night that it “will continue to engage in elections where there is an unambiguous choice between a pro-Israel candidate and a detractor of the U.S.-Israel relationship.” 

An AIPAC spokesperson said the group has 1.8 million members “and growing.”

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