August 9, 2021 In The News

Jewish Insider: Who’s in the majority now?

In the summer of 2020, Georgette Gómez, the former president of the San Diego City Council who was then running for Congress in Southern California, found herself in an untenable position. Months into a competitive runoff battle against a well-funded opponent, Gómez was at risk of losing a crucial fundraising lifeline from Justice Democrats, the feisty progressive group, amid an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious dispute over her unequivocal support for Israel. Making matters even more strained was a recent endorsement from Democratic Majority for Israel, whose political arm had just launched a series of attack ads targeting Jamaal Bowman, a Justice Democrats-backed primary challenger to longtime pro-Israel stalwart Eliot Engel in the Bronx.

DMFI, the formidable pro-Israel PAC founded in 2019, has quickly gained a reputation for its combative presence in a number of congressional races where far-left insurgents have sought to unseat longstanding House Democrats. And last June, in the final weeks of a heated New York City primary contest, DMFI was in the process of spending nearly $2 million to prop up Engel’s foundering bid for re-election. But the TV ad, which hit Bowman over unpaid taxes, backfired, and even Engel renounced it.

Gómez, for her part, was in a unique bind — not least because DMFI’s president and CEO, Mark Mellman, is a veteran Democratic pollster whose firm was employed by her campaign. Incensed by the ad and seeking payback, Justice Democrats presented Gómez with an extraordinary ultimatum, two sources familiar with the campaign who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal told Jewish Insider. Fire Mellman, she was told by Justice Democrats, or lose their support. Gómez refused, and the group all but officially revoked its endorsement while putting an end to active fundraising and promotional efforts — likely contributing to her double-digit loss in the general election.

Justice Democrats refused to comment on the record when asked about the ultimatum, which has not previously been reported. Gómez herself declined an interview request from JI.

While the ultimatum was no doubt atypical, the larger proxy war that ensnared the Gómez campaign speaks more broadly to a fierce and unusually personal intra-party rivalry between two opposing Democratic groups that has animated several high-profile contests in recent cycles, particularly amid growing divisions between the hard left and moderates over Israel. The closely watched House primary in Cleveland last week, where Shontel Brown defeated Nina Turner in a stunning upset, represents the latest in an ongoing battle that is likely to play out in the 2022 midterms.

“There is a conflict over Israel in the party that plays out in platform fights, that plays out in elections, that plays out on Capitol Hill,” Mellman, who says he was unaware of the ultimatum, explained in a recent interview with JI. “But at the end of the day, it’s an important fight that we have to wage.”

DMFI’s political action committee spent more than $2 million on Brown’s behalf in the high-stakes race to succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who vacated the seat for a Cabinet position in the Biden administration. The significant exertion of resources, which financed an onslaught of TV ads and mailers that blanketed the district in the final months of the race, was in many ways a refinement over a losing strategy in the Bronx primary matchup last cycle where Engel was defeated by a decisive margin.

This time, DMFI carefully calibrated its engagement over about four months of voter surveys and targeted advertising tailored to match the ebb and flow of a dramatic race in which Brown overcame an initial polling deficit of more than 30 points  and prevailed over Turner, who was endorsed by Justice Democrats as well as a number of leading progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Brown, who bested Turner by six points with just over 50% of the vote, is all but certain to win the general election because the district is heavily Democratic.

But as in previous races, DMFI’s involvement was not without controversy. DMFI first made headlines last year during the presidential primaries, when it launched an attack ad against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) questioning his fitness for office while highlighting his recent heart attack. Months later, the pro-Israel group angered some progressives with a series of ads blasting former Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse in his failed bid to unseat Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA).

In Ohio’s 11th district, which includes most of Cleveland as well as a slice of Akron, DMFI was accused of misrepresenting Turner’s record as it launched a litany of attack ads in an effort to tip the scales in Brown’s favor. Turner, whose campaign was also criticized for releasing misleading adsaddressed the influx of outside money in her concession speech on Tuesday night, without directly naming DMFI. “I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to another progressive candidate again,” she said. “We didn’t lose this race, evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”

Such rhetoric, coupled with similar accusations from other progressive leaders, has drawn scrutiny. The Anti-Defamation League announced on Twitter that Turner’s comments, intentionally or not, “echo long-standing antisemitic tropes,” while adding that its local office was “reaching out to her to discuss.” The ADL had no further updates as of late last week, and Turner’s campaign — which, along with outside supporters, likely spent more money than Brown in the race — did not respond to an interview request.

Mellman, for his part, took the criticism in stride. “I’ve been there, I know losing hurts, and when people are hurt, they lash out in sometimes unfortunate ways,” he told JI. “The suggestion that their money is somehow more pure than ours is, I think, ludicrous,” he added. “Most candidates’ definition of clean money is the money that’s supporting me, and dirty money is money that’s opposing me. And I think that’s the definition that’s being employed here as well.”

DMFI was hardly the sole outside group spending money on behalf of either candidate. Brown, facing a steep fundraising deficit, also benefited from the centrist Third Way’s PAC’s hefty independent expenditures, while Turner was supported by The Democratic Action PAC, affiliated with Justice Democrats and established to counter DMFI.

“The narrative from Turner’s camp is that this was wrong, that it shouldn’t have been allowed, and that is nonsense because they had outside groups as well,” said a national Democratic consultant with ties to Ohio who was not involved in the race. “I think it’s just a case of being a sore loser. There was no pact or pledge to not accept outside spending in this race.”

Pro-Israel groups aside from DMFI were also involved in the race. The political arm of Jewish Democratic Council of America, which endorsed Brown, launched a five-figure ad campaign targeting the 22,000 Jewish voters who make up about 5% of the electorate, and Pro-Israel America’s PAC raised $800,000 for Brown’s campaign while reaching voters through text messages and phone calls. PIA’s billboards were also plastered throughout the district, highlighting — as did DMFI — past comments in which Turner likened voting for President Joe Biden to eating a “bowl of shit.”

Still, DMFI, which spent more than JDCA and PIA, remains a unique source of frustration among hard-left progressives, all the more so now that Turner has lost. The group has been criticized for accepting contributions from donors who have also given money to Republicans while downplaying Israel in its advertising for political candidates. In April, a DMFI board member drew controversy for making an insensitive Twitter remark after Emily Mayer, a co-founder of the left-wing Israel group IfNotNow, announced her engagement to Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats.

“DMFI is a convenient funnel for Republican money to be rebranded as Democratic in order to stave off progressive candidates in primaries,” Shahid charged in an interview with JI. “That was true in Jamaal Bowman’s race and that was true in Nina Turner’s race. If they wanted to have a real discussion about foreign policy, which is what the organization claims to be about, they would run ads about the issue that they’re focused on and have a debate about the issue. But they don’t want to do that because they know their stance is increasingly unpopular with Democratic primary voters given all the recent polling in the past year on U.S. aid to the Israeli government.”

Shahid was referring to recent polls suggesting that Americans voters are in favor of conditioning aid to Israel, a policy Justice Democrats favors, as do all of the candidates now backed by the progressive group. “Our general stance is not having U.S. support for human rights abuses abroad, and we do ask about that in our endorsement process,” said Shahid. “I think what has happened is that the progressive movement’s stance on foreign policy, and Israel-Palestine more specifically, has become more unified,” he added, “and candidates are responding to voters’ preferences.”

But Mellman disputes that view, arguing that questions in those polls are “biased and irresponsible,” leading respondents to “presume that there are no conditions on the aid,” he said. “That’s completely ridiculous.”

“There are people on Capitol Hill in the Democratic party that reflect a very anti-Israel point of view,” Mellman told JI. “But it’s a distinct minority. Part of that is, we’re winning more elections than they are, and part of it is, we’ve been able to, I think, convince more Democrats than they are of the rightness of our position and the wrongness of theirs.”

Mellman rejected accusations of coziness with the GOP. “Most of us at DMFI are quite progressive in our views. The real question is, are they willing to accept pro-Israel progressives?” he mused. “We are an indigenous Democratic organization,” Mellman said of DMFI. “Everybody who’s on our board, everybody who’s active in our organization, is a long-term Democrat, have raised money for Democrats, have worked in Democratic administrations, have worked in Democratic campaigns. That’s who we are. We are part and parcel of the Democratic Party, and their goal is to expel pro-Israel forces from the Democratic Party.”

“It’s up to them to decide ultimately whether being anti-Israel is their most important concern or whether the rest of the progressive agenda is more important to them,” Mellman said of Justice Democrats. “If they’re deciding that the only issue that ultimately matters to them is whether someone is anti-Israel, then we’re going to clash more often.”

Brown’s primary win was a major victory for DMFI in that battle, though it was by no means assured. The Cuyahoga County councilwoman and party chair was operating at a significant disadvantage in the race against Turner, a former Ohio state senator and prominent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign surrogate. DMFI, which endorsed Brown in February, first looked at the race in April and found it was facing long odds, commissioning a poll that gave Turner a 30-point advantage in name recognition. In June, DMFI began advertising for Brown, at first emphasizing a positive message about her accomplishments in the district.

By July, as the pro-Israel group pivoted to attack mode, a new DMFI poll found that Brown, at 36%, was trailing Turner by just five points among likely Democratic primary voters. Near the end of the race, about a week out, DMFI commissioned a final poll that showed Brown was in contention. The poll, which wasn’t publicly reported on at the time, put Brown at 39%, just one point behind Turner.

“On the one hand, the data was clear that it was an uphill battle,” Mellman recalled. “We knew it was very much an uphill battle. But we also knew it was a critically important battle to try and win, and so you’re weighing two considerations. How important is it to try to win, and how likely are you to win? There were times when we thought it was very unlikely. But we always knew in the back of our minds that we had this very clear path, and that if we trode that path there was a real opportunity to win the race.”

While most of DMFI’s advertising made no mention of Israel, the group did publish some local newspaper ads characterizing Turner as an “anti-Israel candidate” and ran phone banks targeting the sizable population of Jewish voters in the district. Brown had largely locked up support from Jewish community members in Cleveland by election night, but she didn’t take such backing for granted . Early internal polling from the Brown campaign, conducted in April and provided to JI, showed Brown at just 18% among Jewish voters compared with Turner at 42%.

As the race developed, however, the contrast between both candidates over Israel came into view, most notably amid violence between Israel and Hamas. In May, Brown released a statement defending Israel’s “right to defend its citizens” that was widely circulated among Jewish voters in the district, while Turner shared a social media post accusing Israel of apartheid. By mid-July, after months of Jewish outreach, Brown had inverted the dynamic, garnering 63% among Jewish voters against Turner’s 27%.

In her victory speech last Tuesday night, Brown thanked her “Jewish brothers and sisters,” who were credited with helping swing the election thanks to an organized effort to increase voter turnout in traditionally Jewish enclaves like Beachwood and Cleveland Heights.

“When you look at places like Beachwood where an overwhelming majority voted for Brown, they obviously got it,” said Jeff Rusnak, a Democratic strategist in Cleveland who supported Brown but wasn’t involved in the race. “They understood what was at stake.”

In thwarting Turner, a left-wing stalwart and outspoken Israel critic, Brown charted a path that DMFI and other centrist groups will no doubt be analyzing in detail going forward. “This is a clear rejection for a national progressive movement where Israel and Jews are a significant part of the rhetoric,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist. “But they shouldn’t get too carried away, because it’s only one.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about DMFI’s success. “It’s very dangerous for any organization to get involved in a party primary because if they’re not successful there’s going to be a lot of bad feelings,” said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “Instead of making enemies of these potentially new members of Congress,” he said of DMFI, “they should be thinking in terms of lobbying and persuasion.”

Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, which did not make an endorsement in the Cleveland race, argued that DMFI was “injecting Israel as a sort of a partisan football in a way that misrepresents the views of a lot of people in our community,” as he put it in a recent interview with JI. “It doesn’t seem to be healing any kind of divide inside the Democratic Party.”

Mellman, who has claimed Brown’s victory “reaffirms that being pro-Israel is good politics as well as wise policy,” dismisses such charges. “People said that to the pro-choice people in my memory,” he told JI. “What they said, rightly, was it’s the right moral position and it’s the right political position for the party to be in. We make exactly the same argument.”

Either way, DMFI insists it didn’t start the fight. But the Cleveland battle is likely not its last as Justice Democrats prepares to take on a growing number of pro-Israel House Democrats in the upcoming midterms.

“We’re a threat to them from inside the tent, and they want to get us out of the tent, and they want to win the fight, and we’re a problem from both points of view,” Mellman said. “This is a battle, and they are on the other side of that broader battle in the Democratic Party.”