The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Michigan, a pro-Israel group works to beat a Jewish Democrat

Rep. Andy Levin find himself fighting for his political life against a fellow Democrat, Rep. Haley Stevens

Rep. Andy Levin (D) speaks to Paul and Keely Tyson at a Juneteenth event in Royal Oak, Mich., June 19. (Gregory Korte/Bloomberg News)
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PONTIAC, Mich. — Rep. Andy Levin had watched it happen in Ohio, then in Pennsylvania, then North Carolina, then Maryland. He knew that the United Democracy Project, a super PAC created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had become the single biggest spender in Democratic congressional primaries, helping pro-Israel Democrats beat left-leaning candidates.

But it was astounding, he said, to see the pro-Israel PAC spend at least $4.2 million to help Rep. Haley Stevens in their member-on-member primary just outside Detroit.

“The whole thing is so absurd,” said Levin, 61, in an interview here, after a rally with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “I’m a way out-there Jewish person. I have mezuzas on the doors in my office. I’m one of two former synagogue presidents in the Congress.”

The Aug. 2 primary in the new 11th Congressional District, drawn last year by a nonpartisan commission, has become one of the country’s most expensive, and the latest battle between the Democratic Party’s left and donors who want to reduce progressive clout in Congress. It’s also a test of the pro-Israel group’s clout in Democratic primaries, where, seven months into its existence, it’s won all but one of the races it has played in.

Four years after Levin and Stevens arrived in the House — the scion of a Michigan political dynasty, and a first-time candidate who became freshman class president — they’ve waged a bitter, sometimes personal battle for a safe Democratic seat.

As donors fought a proxy conflict over support for Israel, Levin, echoing supporters like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has framed their race as a fight for the party’s soul. Stevens, who has easily outraised Levin, sees a different choice — a pragmatic young Democrat who’d be the first woman to represent some of the district’s towns, or a “60-something white man,” as she referred to him in a debate, who shouldn’t have run here.

“I am not running for Congress to debate ideology,” said Stevens, 39, after a tour of a steel fabricating plant in Madison Heights. “I think there's a generational component here, but I also believe that there is a ‘who’s going to be Oakland County's champion?’ component.”

Neither Democrat wanted to face each other, though pro-Israel donors were eager to take down Levin — the main sponsor of a Two-State Solution Act that calls East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza “occupied territories,” and would put financial pressure on Israel not to annex them. Michigan lost one of its House seats after the 2020 census, and while the old map put Levin in a safe seat and Stevens in a swing one, redistricting put them both in a district that was out of Republicans’ reach.

The pair’s disagreements start over who should’ve run where. Stevens had represented nearly half of the new district, and run two tough races where her story — “I was chief of staff to President Obama’s auto rescue,” referring to the 2009 bail out of car companies during the financial crisis — appeared on TV constantly.

Levin represented about a quarter of the new 11th District, but his home was smack in the middle of it. (Stevens, who got married last year, purchased a home with her husband that relocated her in the redrawn seat.)

Some Democrats wanted Levin to run in a neighboring seat that voted for Trump narrowly, and where two-time Senate candidate John James was a shoe-in for the GOP nomination. “I’m an Oakland County kid,” said Levin, explaining his decision. “My kids are the fifth generation of my family to live here in the new 11th District.” Had he run in the 10th District instead, he expected AIPAC and its allies to come in against him.

“It would be the same story there,” Levin said. “There it would be in the general; here, it's in the primary.”

Critics of Levin’s Israel views saw an opportunity right away. In mid-January, just weeks after Levin and Stevens declared for the 11th District, former AIPAC president David Victor, an Oakland County resident, typed out an email to potential Stevens donors.

The “race of the cycle,” Victor wrote, was not in Detroit, where Israel critic Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D) was seeking reelection. Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), two frequent AIPAC targets, had “very little influence on fellow members given their background and fringe status.” But as a self-described Zionist, whose father and uncle served in the House and the U.S. Senate, Levin was “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Stevens and Levin did disagree on Israel; she pledged “unequivocal support” for the country, while Levin was a critic of Israel’s settlement building and the “forced removal” of Palestinians from east Jerusalem. Alana Alpert, who has been Levin’s rabbi since 2015 — the year they co-founded a liberal group called Detroit Jews for Justice — said the attacks were clearly unfair, and that her own mother had been so distraught to see them that she’d sworn off support for AIPAC.

“There are some very progressive folks in our community who are basically having their fears about Israel exploited, to distract them from like the issues that most impact us,” said Alpert. “Who’s benefiting from that, ultimately? The corporations that Andy wants to hold accountable.”

Some supporters of Levin’s Israel stance have mobilized against Stevens. In early July, an activist with IfNotNow, which calls Israel an “apartheid” state, confronted Stevens on camera. In the race’s final stretch, a local IfNotNow organizer formed “Jews for Andy” to campaign for the congressman.

But as in other races where the United Democracy Project (UDP) has spent money — around $30 million this cycle — Israel was not a top issue in the district. When the PAC’s ads began running, they echoed Stevens’s own positive messaging. In interviews around the district, voters who said they were still deciding and cited other priorities as they made what, for many, was a tough choice between two Democrats they liked.

“I think we can’t lose on this one,” said Lori Mizzi-Spillane, 62, who said she’d thought hard before deciding to support Levin. “The environmental issues are what tipped me over the edge.”

Levin and his allies tried to highlight more distinctions, from his background as a union organizer — “A Shop Steward for Congress,” goes one campaign slogan — to his support of left-leaning principles like Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.

“I trust Andy!” said Warren at the rally in Pontiac, after Levin reminded the crowd that he’d endorsed her campaign for president. “I don’t trust Andy because he has a slick line, because he’s carefully chosen just which bill he’s going to put his name on, because he hangs back and waits. I trust Andy because he fights from the heart.”

Convincing voters that Stevens won’t fight for them — or that she’s compromised by the PAC spending — has been as difficult here as in the other states where the UDP intervened. Levin has echoed supporters like Sanders, highlighting Republican donations to the PAC — and AIPAC’s support for dozens of Republican incumbents — to argue that the GOP is trying to buy the seat. That’s the message that J Street, a liberal group that opposes further annexation and supports the creation of a Palestinian state, put on the air.

“No campaign cash is worth abandoning our democracy,” says a narrator in the 30-second spot, linking AIPAC’s support for the Republican incumbents to their votes to overturn the 2020 election. The group put more than $700,000 behind that spot, far less than UDP — and less than the Emily’s List super PAC Women Vote!, which works to elect female Democrats, had spent on its own spots.

“It’s disingenuous to whine about dark money while using dark money ads to unfairly attack Haley Stevens, who by any measure is a great mainstream House Democrat that even Andy Levin endorsed in the past,” said Patrick Dorton, a UDP spokesman.

On Friday, Sanders will head to Pontiac to rally with Levin, and elevate the case that the super PAC spending is a trick to replace a reliable progressive with a business-friendly centrist. But Logan Bayroff, a J Street spokesman, agreed there was more work to do convincing Democratic voters that the pro-Stevens ads on their screens had a darker motive.

“We did the best we could to get this information in front of voters,” said Bayroff. “The ads are coming from a super PAC called the ‘United Democracy Project.’ Nobody reads the fine print.”

Stevens, too, was dismissive about the effort to portray spending on her behalf as a crime against democracy. “I don’t come from a political family,” she said, before telling a story about the trouble she’d had raising money in 2018 — and the help that national Democrats came in with, after Republican super PACs attacked her.

“It’s quite ironic to be chastising a colleague for super PAC money when you as well have super PAC money coming in,” Stevens added, referring to J Street.

Stevens has also benefited from developments unrelated to the PAC spending, from the larger share of the district that’s voted for her before to news that synced with her campaign’s messaging. Levin stumbled in June, running an ad featuring a 2018 endorsement from the late John Lewis (D), a civil rights icon and Georgia congressman who died in 2020. That drew complaints from some members of the Congressional Black Caucus — including Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), who endorsed Stevens after declining to run in one of the new districts.

Stevens has also been helped by liberal anger at the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which led to a surge of new fundraising for Democrats last month, boosting Democratic women in particular. On Monday, Stevens knocked on primary voters’ doors in one of the places Levin had represented since 2019, telling residents the ways she’d work for them, and what she’d change.

“I want to be the first woman to represent Madison Heights!” she said.

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