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After Bowman Defeat, AIPAC Targets Cori Bush

AIPAC said it expects to spend more than $100 million as part of its pledge to unseat lawmakers critical of Israel.

Rep. Cori Bush makes a speech as Pro-Palestinian demonstrators hold a rally outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2024.

The fundraising arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the nation’s leading pro-Israel lobbying group, successfully helped defeat Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., in a brutal primary race last month — and now it’s targeting progressive Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.

The super PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP), over the weekend dropped more than $63,000 into the incumbent’s Aug. 6 primary race, splitting a Friday sum evenly between ads and messaging opposing Bush and supporting her challenger, St. Louis prosecutor Wesley Bell. The group put another $13,000 behind Bell Sunday, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

The latest independent expenditure report capped off just over a week of ramped-up UDP spending in the race, which saw 13 separate contributions totaling over $1.1 million from June 21 to June 30 (in contrast with the nine the PAC submitted from late May through June 18), per FEC data, and brought the total amount of funds the PAC has funneled into the Missouri primary thus far to nearly $3 million, according to Open Secrets.

“What anyone running against an incumbent, certainly somebody running against Cori Bush in St. Louis, needs is money just simply to introduce themselves, to get their name out for the voters,” Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri professor of political science, told Salon.

While the money contributed to Bush’s opponent “won’t guarantee that the other candidate will win,” it does “make the race more competitive” and offer him “a much better chance to break through all the clutter” in the media environment and “at least remind people there’s a primary coming up,” he said.

AIPAC, along with other pro-Israel groups, has backed moderate pro-Israel candidates as part of its pledge to unseat lawmakers who have been critical of Israel, focusing particularly on the so-called “Squad” — progressives like Bowman and Bush who’ve been vocal in their opposition to Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza. Though the committee counts its supporters on both sides of the political aisle, its relatively recent foray into fundraising offers its slate of wealthy Republican donors — who accounted for nearly half of all donors to Democratic candidates this year, according to an early June Politico analysis — the opportunity to pour money into and exert influence over Democratic primary races.

The group previously said it expects to spend more than $100 million in pursuit of that effort this election cycle and appears to be following through. It contributed nearly $4.8 million to ads supporting Bowman challenger George Latimer and has spent just over $2.1 million on media backing Bell so far.

“Super PACs now can just come in and throw millions of dollars into a race,” Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor of political science and co-director of the UMass poll, told Salon. “Typically, the political parties support an incumbent, and they don’t get involved, usually. But these other groups who are sometimes affiliated with the party, not necessarily, can throw in money.”

“It kind of eliminates that accountability for the party when these interest groups, these outside groups, can just throw in millions of dollars like that,” he added. “That’s what happened in New York. It’s going to happen in St. Louis. It may happen in other races, but those two races, definitely AIPAC is weighing in.”

According to Open Secrets, UDP shoveled nearly $15 million into the New York District 16 primary, most of which went into opposing Bowman, in the span of just over five weeks,making it the most expensive House primary in history. Bowman went on to lose the nomination to Latimer, the Westchester County executive, by 17 points last Tuesday.

Such a sum, experts told Salon, is an “extraordinary” amount of money to see put into a congressional primary.

“What you saw in New York was way beyond anything one could normally anticipate seeing spent in a primary campaign,” Squire said. “It’s a large sum even for a general election campaign. That’s sort of a one-of-a-kind event. What we’re seeing in Missouri is some money coming in and a competitive race, at least from what we can tell.”

Seeing incumbents being challenged seriously, much less at all, is atypical, he added, noting that those who are challenged “tend to have some obvious weakness — either personal scandal or a mismatch with the district” — bringing them down.

Such was the case with Bowman. While UDP’s heavy spending likely played a role in the New York progressive’s loss, he was already saddled with controversy after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for pulling a fire alarm on Capitol Hill during a government funding vote last year and suggested over a decade ago that 9/11 was a conspiracy, according to Politico.

Much like with Bowman, scandal has left Bush vulnerable in her race. The Missouri Democrat is under multiple federal investigations over alleged misuse of campaign funds for private security, including payments made to her now-husband. Though Bush has denied any wrongdoing, her legal troubles have forced her to dish out a significant amount of campaign money for legal fees.

“In general, ‘weak’ incumbents are at risk to primary challengers and since both of these districts are safely Democratic, any Democratic super PAC would jump at the opportunity to get a new candidate in that they prefer — especially if they are a single-issue PAC,” Christian Cox, a professor of economics at the University of Arizona who has researched campaign contributions and dark money in congressional house elections, told Salon.

Unlike Bowman, however, Bush is in a much stronger position, La Raja said. Even before proclaiming his outspoken stance against the United State’s military support of Israel and calls for a ceasefire — which La Raja described as Bowman’s going “way out on a limb” given that his district has a large Jewish population — the Democrat’s district had “changed considerably,” becoming “more white, more upscale” and costing him some of his base.

“Bowman was falling behind in the polls much sooner,” La Raja added. In contrast, “it seems neck and neck with Bush and Bell, so I don’t think it’s exactly similar.”

Responding to Bowman’s defeat last week, Bush issued a statement calling out AIPAC as a “threat to democracy.”

“AIPAC and their allies—backed by far-right Donald Trump mega donors—poured a tidal wave of cash into this primary race showing us just how desperate these billionaire extremists are in their attempts to buy our democracy, promote their own gain, and silence the voices of progress and justice,” she wrote. “There should be no question about the need to get Big Money out of politics.”

Hours after the New York congressman’s primary defeat, pro-Israel group Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) released internal polling that showed Bush had 42 percent support — one point behind Bell.

While that data point fell within the margin of error of the poll, the survey was striking given that Bell trailed by 16 points in the previous DMFI poll from January, according to The Daily Beast.

“Bush is still seen favorably, but assessments of her and her performance are moving in a negative direction, while Bell’s image is improving, leaving him with an underlying image advantage,” pollster The Mellman Group, wrote in the memo.

“With some six weeks to go and 11% [of voters surveyed] still undecided, this race can go either way, but Bell has achieved a slight advantage,” it added.

One key takeaway from the New York District 16 Democratic nomination race and the independent expenditures is that primaries are increasingly becoming a site of competition in elections, “especially in districts where the general election is reliably safe for one party or the other,” Conor Dowling, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, told Salon, arguing that such a change could lead super PACs and PACs to “become more involved in primary elections in subsequent election cycles.”

“I would expect UDP to continue with their strategy of painting some of these incumbents as out of touch with their district as that’s a more broad-based appeal than focusing on Israel and Gaza,” he added.

UDP has appeared to follow that formula. The group launched its campaign against Bush much earlier than it did with Bowman, dropping its first ad in the Missouri race at the end of May months before the August primary. It had also already allotted $2.5 million to ads, which is likely to increase, Politico noted, citing ad tracker AdImpact. While that amount pales in comparison to what UDP shelled out in Bowman’s race, the media market in New York being more expensive than it is in St. Louis makes such a sum significant.

Like in its ads against Bowman and other races, the PAC avoided discussing Israel or its war in Gaza, with its first ads in Bush’s primary emphasizing Bell’s experience. More recent messaging unloaded on Bush the same accusations of not supporting Biden and pushing her own agenda.

“Right now, my guess is they’re probably getting his name recognition up, the challenger,” La Raja predicted. “As you get closer to the election, the attack ads against [Bush] are going to get heavier and heavier and heavier. If he stays neck and neck with her, you’re gonna see just millions being poured in.”

“She’s gonna have to defend her record,” he added. “Not necessarily her record on the Gaza situation, but she’s going to have to defend her record in other ways. It’s going to be a very grueling two months for her.”

For now, Squire speculated, Bush is likely in a “good” but “uncomfortable” position. She has the advantage of incumbency, while also seeking re-election in a district where she “knocked off” incumbent Lacy Clay in the 2020 congressional primary. She’s also had her fair share of controversies, while also doing “all the things of bringing resources back to the district and taking credit for it,” he said.

“The best thing to keep in mind is this will probably be a low turnout event, so both candidates are probably trying to build up their turnout machine,” Squire said. “Bush will probably be advantaged because she’s been through this before and has a core of people that she can count on to show up.”

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