AIPAC’s Defeat of Jamaal Bowman Disguises Its Weakness

Lost in the triumphalism over Jamaal Bowman’s loss is that AIPAC has had to drastically narrow its ambitions, targeting those critics of Israel who are already most vulnerable to electoral defeat in order to inflate its strength.

Jamaal Bowman watches during a campaign event at Hartley Park on June 24, 2024 in Mount Vernon, New York. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

Left-wing insurgent campaigns have hoped that while getting into Congress might be extraordinarily hard, once in, they could rely on the benefit of being incumbents to hang onto their seats and stay in Congress. Last night’s Democratic primary race for New York’s 16th congressional district, which saw Squad member and two-term representative Jamaal Bowman fall to Westchester County executive George Latimer by nearly 20 points, shows this is no longer a safe bet.

Last night’s result will be a boon for the Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which, through its super PAC United Democracy Project (UDP), poured nearly $15 million into the race to unseat Bowman. It is arguably the crowning achievement of a strategy that pro-Israel groups first pioneered three years ago to deny Bernie Sanders’s campaign surrogate Nina Turner a safe congressional seat in Ohio she was set to easily win.

Bowman’s loss will soon be used — in fact, it already is and was before the polls even closed — by AIPAC and other pro-war forces to scare less courageous candidates and members of Congress into line. Pro-Israel groups have framed the race as a referendum on Bowman’s and the rest of the Squad’s stance on the Gaza war and US-Israel policy and argued that these positions are out of step with a more centrist Democratic electorate. They have been assisted by much of the press, which you will soon see helpfully spreading AIPAC’s preferred narrative in coverage of Latimer’s victory.

US politicians were already terrified of AIPAC when it ramped up the scale of its political interference in 2022 by entering Democratic primaries directly and funneling massive amounts of cash against progressive candidates critical of Israel, however mild or tangential to their candidacy those criticisms were. As several people involved in progressive campaigns told me earlier this year, candidates and politicians often privately say they have to hide or walk back their disgust toward Israel’s actions in case they get primaried over it. The goal with the Bowman result is to wield it as a cautionary tale of what can happen to your political career if you defy the pro-Israel lobby, whether by voting against US military aid to Israel or even by simply backing a cease-fire, both of which Bowman did.

This gambit of using Bowman’s loss to convince others that criticizing Israel will end their careers may well work. But it really shouldn’t. In reality, AIPAC’s threat is more of a bluff than it seems.

Hidden Weakness

AIPAC’s high-profile involvement in Bowman’s primary (and its plan to do the same to fellow Squad member Representative Cori Bush this August) was, in reality, a carefully calibrated public relations move meant to inflate its own fearsome reputation on Capitol Hill while disguising a less-than-stellar track record this year. It’s easy to forget, but the media narrative for much of the past eight months was that the Squad was facing an extinction-level event: an “electoral bloodbath,” with at least four members (Bowman, Bush, and representatives Summer Lee and Ilhan Omar) facing “brutal” and “competitive primaries,” not to mention the entire bloc “grappling with one career-threatening problem or another,” such as Representative Rashida Tlaib’s November censure by the House.

“There is a 100-percent chance that members of the Squad are going to be tagged with these far-left positions that are out of sync with the mainstream of the party and the general public,” one Democratic strategist said in October.

That hasn’t really worked out. Despite her censure and generally becoming a lightning rod for pro-Israel attacks, Tlaib is safe in her seat, facing no serious challenger and out-fundraising everyone in Michigan, with AIPAC having failed to recruit a challenger to run against her despite dangling $20 million in front of them. Omar has won the state Democratic Party endorsement — and has a fundraising advantage — over her primary challenger in a race the pro-Israel lobby has been pointedly absent from so far.

The lobby has also fallen flat on its face in non-Squad-involved races, blowing $4.6 million on beating centrist representative Dave Min in March over his mild criticisms of Israeli policy; the $400,000 it set on fire running ads against Representative Thomas Massie, a prominent GOP critic of Israel, didn’t move the needle an inch in that race, which Massie won with nearly 76 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, much of the public, particularly Democratic voters, has shifted closer to the Squad’s positions on the Gaza war and US-Israel policy since October, contrary to what AIPAC and its allies were rubbing their hands together while imagining eight months ago — and contrary to neoliberal Democratic representative Josh Gottheimer’s hopeful claim this morning that “the Squad politics are on the way out, not the way in.”

But AIPAC’s biggest failure this cycle was in fellow Squad member Summer Lee’s reelection for the 12th district in Pennsylvania just two months ago. Lee’s race, which she won by more than 20 points, had many of the same factors that AIPAC and its boosters are arguing doomed Bowman: her district had a significant Jewish population; she didn’t mince words when it came to Israel and its war; she was criticized by some local Jewish leaders who even accused her of being an antisemite; she voted against military aid to Israel; and, in theory, she had a precarious grip on her seat, having only served one term after just barely scraping through to win the Democratic primary two years earlier, when a tidal wave of AIPAC spending obliterated her early lead.

And yet, this year, AIPAC preemptively bowed out of Lee’s race despite big plans to spend $10 million to $20 million to beat her, because at least four people the lobby feverishly tried to recruit in Pittsburgh said no, deciding she wasn’t beatable. As Lee told me, “AIPAC lost because they couldn’t win.”

This is part of a pattern: in both Pennsylvania and across the country, AIPAC endorsed candidates who tended to be in noncompetitive districts or even running unopposed. That way, when its endorsees won, regardless of whether or not their AIPAC endorsement actually figured in the race, the lobby could then swoop in and loudly take credit, publicize its reverse-engineered 100 percent (or close to it) success rate in a cycle, and proclaim that “being pro-Israel is good policy and good politics.”

That’s exactly why UDP scrambled to publicize the defeat of Kina Collins this past March in Illinois’s 7th district at the hands of a fourteen-term incumbent, calling her a “Justice Democrats candidate” whose loss “was a significant defeat for the Squad and the anti-Israel fringe.” In reality, Collins was neither a Justice Democrats endorsee this year nor received a cent of outside spending backing her campaign, unlike two years ago. But UDP spent nearly half a million dollars on a race in which Collins came a distant third anyway, so it could claim victory over pro-Palestinian activists.

None of this paints an image of an indomitable force assured of its own power or the popularity of its ideas. And AIPAC’s involvement in Bowman’s race fit squarely in this public relations–minded strategy. The two-term congressman became such a major target of AIPAC’s spending barrage not because he was a critic of Israel but because he was one of the few critics of Israel that the organization could actually beat.

Bowman’s Vulnerabilities

What made Bowman such a vulnerable candidate?

It’s hard to argue that it was because his challenger’s position on the Gaza war — which Latimer made a habit of not giving a straight answer on — was more popular than Bowman’s support for a cease-fire and cutting off US military aid. An Emerson College poll of voters in the district from early this month found that more voters favored a candidate who backed a Gaza cease-fire than vice versa, and that far more (50 percent) believed the United States was spending too much on aid to Israel in its war than too little (17 percent) or the right amount (33 percent). Yet despite this, voters also said they were more aligned with Latimer on the war by a nearly 16-point margin.

In fact, Bowman wasn’t even disliked in the district, with voters holding a favorable opinion of him by a 53 to 41 margin. It’s just that Latimer was better liked: 65 percent viewed him favorably, compared to 23 percent who had an unfavorable view.

Bowman’s disadvantage went well beyond the issue of Israel. Having come out of nowhere to win the seat in 2020, he was never secure in the district. As the Huffington Post’s Daniel Marans reported, Bowman won reelection handily in 2022 largely because the establishment vote was split between two candidates.

Latimer, meanwhile, was a local boy who had spent decades in Westchester and New York politics serving in various political posts: Rye city councilman, Westchester County legislator and board chairman, county Democratic Party chair, New York state assemblyman and senator, and Westchester County executive. This helps explain Latimer’s advantage in name recognition and favorability in the district, as well as the unusual amount of local official and party endorsements he drew against an incumbent.

It’s not a coincidence that Squad members like Tlaib and Lee — who came to their seats by first rising through state politics and, in Lee’s case, riding a progressive wave that put several progressive allies in key posts — managed to ward off similar local challengers. The victorious Lee was even endorsed by her two AIPAC-backed senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both of whom oppose a cease-fire. A former Bowman adviser told the Atlantic that “he did not make the kind of connections and build out the coalition like he needed to in the district” — a district that had been redrawn since his 2020 win to include wealthier, whiter parts of the county.

Bowman was also hamstrung by a preexisting, widely covered, and non-Israel-related scandal: pulling a fire alarm in the middle of a House session, for which he earned a censure from the Republican-led lower chamber and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. The embarrassing incident made national and local headlines for many months.

AIPAC’s spending onslaught may have taken advantage of these vulnerabilities, but it also had an impact in itself. The sheer scale of anti-Bowman money poured into the race — a total of $18 million from anti-Bowman outside groups, which made it the most expensive House primary in history, and, as one observer pointed out, amounted to more than three times the total amount raised in the entire British election taking place right now — funded a relentless stream of negative ads that played on this scandal and highlighted Bowman’s other missteps. Those included opposition research that had him espousing fringe views before he was an elected official and, most prominently, his vote against the president’s infrastructure bill.

That vote, in reality, stayed true to the legislative strategy Democratic leadership had themselves devised to get the president’s ambitious agenda across the finish line. But shorn of context, the attacks sent a message that AIPAC had first devised way back in 2021 against Turner, and that pointedly never actually mentioned Israel: progressives and the Squad were incompetent, fringe extremists disloyal to the party and not serious about legislating. It was an effective message in a solidly blue district where 87 percent voted for Joe Biden in 2020. The pro-Bowman side simply could not match that firepower to counteract this wall-to-wall narrative and redefine him in the voters’ eyes, having been outspent by a massive ratio of more than seven to one.

It’s also impossible to deny that, in a heavily Jewish district, the outcome was affected by Bowman’s positions on Israel. More specifically, as Marans pointed out, the congressman made several unforced errors, including failing to turn up to post–October 7 vigils and arrange meetings with local Jewish leaders and constituents, and using rhetoric of questionable political wisdom to criticize Israel’s war that made it easier for opponents to smear him as a fringe extremist. These errors alienated persuadable middle-of-the-road pro-Israel voters, including the liberal Zionist group J Street, which had worked with Bowman in previous elections. Some of it came as a last-minute attempt to shore up his left flank and drive up turnout. But some of it predated the election, seemingly in response to pressure to move left on the issue.

The result was a double-edged sword. Bowman ended the race as a candidate whose rhetoric and positions more closely matched those of activists, while campaigning in a district that had become more conservative than the one he had first won with more moderate posturing. Whether forcing Bowman to shift constitutes a bigger win than keeping in Congress one of the few members willing to vote against military aid to Israel and one of its most prominent pro-cease-fire advocates will be up for internal left-wing debate.

Make Them Realize

No one, not even the staunchest liberal supporters of Israel or its current war, should come away feeling good about the Bowman race. As many have correctly pointed out, much of the unprecedented sum of money UDP blasted into the district to defeat him came from pro-Trump Republican megadonors who hold repugnant views at odds with most of those who voted against Bowman, whether on labor rights and taxing the rich or on abortion rights and the legitimacy of the 2020 election result. Through AIPAC, these donors have jerry-rigged a way to interfere in and shape the Democratic Party.

There’s no reason to believe this playbook is going to stay limited to the pro-Israel lobby. As former representative Andy Levin told me, “This may have been pioneered by AIPAC, but Big Pharma isn’t stupid, the tobacco industry isn’t stupid, the fossil fuel industry isn’t stupid. Why won’t they just say, ‘Great idea, AIPAC. Thank you very much. We will pick the nominee of both parties and that’ll be great for us to advance our interests.’”

Meanwhile, to the extent that anyone believed it in the first place, no one should take seriously anymore the Democratic establishment’s claims that it believes in diversity, protecting incumbents, and passing the torch to a new generation. Party bigwigs enabled, and in some cases actively assisted, the replacement of an exciting young black educator with a seventy-year-old white career politician who has a history of obstructing federal desegregation efforts.

Bowman’s challenger’s campaign also happened to be one of the more shockingly racist ones in recent history, with Latimer accusing Bowman of having an “ethnic benefit,” of having the heavily Arab American town of Dearborn, Michigan, as his “constituency,” and of “taking money from Hamas,” to name just a few potshots. Press coverage fixated on Bowman’s scandals while largely sidelining Latimer’s numerous missteps, including missing a budget vote because he was on a trip with a woman who wasn’t his wife, whom he also set up with a six-figure government job — a black mark on the supposed objectivity of the mainstream media.

Bowman was defiant and morally clear-eyed in conceding defeat, as he has been throughout the past eight months. “We will never stand for the bombing and killing of babies in Gaza,” he told supporters. “Our opponents . . . may have won this round at this time in this race. But this will be a battle for our humanity and justice for the rest of our lives.” We will never know if he might have overcome his disadvantages had events gone a little differently here and there, or if he had made a handful of different choices. But overcoming is also a lot harder with the weight of nearly $20 million on your neck.

Bowman’s loss is a projection of AIPAC’s financial strength but also, paradoxically, a sign of the limits of its ability to defeat Israel critics despite the ungodly sums of money at its disposal. After giddily anticipating the Squad’s obliteration last October and a firm swing in public opinion toward its positions, the lobby has serially failed to defeat its targets and had to drastically narrow its electoral ambitions in the face of its left-wing opponents’ strength, all while watching the US public turn against Israel’s ghastly war and US support for it in ever larger numbers.

The Left’s first job is to recognize this. Its next job, whether through Representative Bush’s upcoming primary election or future contests, is to make the rest of the political establishment realize it too.