Democratic divisions over Israel aren't guaranteed to sink The Squad

But pro-Israel donors and personal scandals could present hurdles for some.

April 26, 2024, 12:06 PM

Three down, six to go.

On Tuesday, progressive Rep. Summer Lee won renomination in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District. She fended off a challenge from an opponent who'd attacked Lee's willingness to break with President Joe Biden and her vociferous criticism of Israel's policies in the ongoing war in Gaza. Such critiques have put electoral pressure on Lee and other members of The Squad, an informal group of about nine progressive Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. With Lee's victory, three members have won renomination in solidly Democratic districts in March and April primaries, all but ensuring that they'll win reelection in November.

Yet as the electoral calendar turns toward summer, around half of the group's other members must contend with serious threats in their respective Democratic primaries. The Squad's criticisms of Israel and its actions in Gaza in the wake of Hamas's October attack on Israel helped spur many of their challengers' campaigns back in the fall, and pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee could boost efforts to take down these progressive incumbents. Still, Democrats writ large have become increasingly critical of Israel, so The Squad's views about the conflict may not sink them. Rather, other scandals and controversies might be the extra ingredient that proves to be the undoing of some Squad members.

The Squad and primary opposition

The Squad burst on the scene following the 2018 election, in which Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib won their first terms in the House. The group has since grown in size to include Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Lee and, arguably, Reps. Greg Casar and Delia Ramirez — The Squad does not have a formal membership list, which makes detailing its representatives an inexact science.*

Regardless of whether we include Casar and Ramirez, the reality is that neither had opposition in their March primaries, which makes them outliers in The Squad. Lee's victory on Tuesday began a run of primaries in which Squad members will encounter at least some level of competition: Of the six who still face renomination contests, all but Pressley appear to have at least one opponent on their primary ballot so far.

That some Squad members have primary opposition is nothing new, thanks to their tendency to break party ranks and their efforts to move Democrats to the left. For instance, its members (six at the time) were the only House Democrats to vote against the Biden-supported bipartisan infrastructure package in 2021. In the 2022 primaries that followed, Bowman had multiple intraparty challengers who held him to 54 percent, while Omar narrowly survived to win renomination. Earlier, in 2020, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar turned back well-funded primary challengers who ran as moderate alternatives.

How the Israel-Hamas war spurred challengers in 2024

In the 2024 election cycle, The Squad's response to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has generated opposition within their own party. Following Hamas's attack on Oct. 7, Democratic divisions developed, as Biden and many Democratic leaders signaled support for Israel in the face of a terrorist attack on its population, while The Squad and some other Democrats pushed back because of the danger Israeli military action represented to the lives of Palestinian civilians. Some Democrats even joined in a mostly Republican-backed vote in the House to censure Tlaib, the lone Palestinian American in Congress, for her rhetoric, including her use of the Palestinian nationalist slogan "from the river to the sea" — a phrase some consider a call for Israel's destruction, an interpretation Tlaib has disputed.

Such intraparty hostility has affected The Squad's primary races, thanks in part to the influence of pro-Israel outside groups. The bipartisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee has played a feature role, having reportedly worked to recruit challengers and developed plans to spend $100 million against progressive candidates, including The Squad. Although United Democracy Project, AIPAC's associated super PAC, has not yet spent money against The Squad, AIPAC itself has formally endorsed Westchester County Executive George Latimer in his challenge to Bowman and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell in his race against Bush. Other pro-Israel and/or moderate groups have also endorsed challengers or made overtures about opposing Squad members in their primaries.

Israel's potency as an anti-Squad issue, however, appeared mixed in its first test: Lee's primary in her Pittsburgh-based district against Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel. Patel launched her campaign just before Hamas attacked Israel, but she made Lee's stance toward Israel — Lee condemned Hamas but claims Israel's military has committed "war crimes" — part of her broader pitch that Lee was too divisive and not supportive enough of Biden in a crucial election year. Yet Lee defeated Patel 61 percent to 39 percent on Tuesday, a solid, if unspectacular, result for a House incumbent who appeared at least somewhat threatened.

This is not to say that concerns about Israel didn’t affect Lee’s support in some places. One example is the primary results in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish neighborhood where, in 2018, an antisemitic shooter attacked the area’s Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 worshippers. Patel sought to make inroads in this community, although Lee garnered federal funding for the Tree of Life’s planned education center and museum to combat antisemitism. Across Pittsburgh as a whole, Lee won about 67 percent, a 12 percentage point improvement on her 2022 primary showing against multiple opponents. But her support in Squirrel Hill’s precincts actually fell slightly: After winning the area with a narrow plurality of 46 percent two years ago, Lee won only 43 percent to Patel’s 57 percent on Tuesday.

Still, Lee’s relative strength despite criticisms of her views on Israel speaks to a larger challenge for anti-Squad efforts: Democrats have become increasingly critical of Israel’s actions and U.S. military assistance to Israel. In March, Gallup found that just 18 percent of Democrats approved of Israel’s military action in Gaza, down from 36 percent in November. And in Quinnipiac University’s polling, support among Democrats for sending military aid to Israel for its war against Hamas fell more between late October and late March — from 49 percent to 25 percent — than among Republicans or independents.

In this environment, the politics of AIPAC have made its potential support for primary challengers less of an unalloyed boost than some may have expected a few months ago. A “Reject AIPAC” coalition of progressive groups have launched a campaign to defend Squad members and other House members who oppose further American support for Israel. And because AIPAC’s United Democracy Project super PAC has received substantial funding from both Democratic and Republican donors, progressives have ammunition to attack the group as a GOP-backed vehicle for taking down politicians on the left.

The Democratic Party and its leaders too have grown more reticent about unqualified support for Israel. In recent days, the House and Senate did pass legislation to provide more aid to Israel (as well as separate packages for Ukraine and Taiwan), but the Israel legislation included $9 billion in “worldwide humanitarian aid,” including for civilians in Gaza, that House Democrats made clear was a necessary inclusion to receive their support. Still, the lack of restrictions on the military aid in the Israel package frustrated some Democrats — about 1 in 6 House Democrats opposed the legislation, including all nine Squad members.

Which Squad members are in real danger?

Amid these shifting political sands, primary voters will determine the fates of six more Squad members over the next four or so months. And although Israel and Gaza have been center stage in the early campaign season, some Squad members — namely Bowman and Bush — face unrelated scandals that could be just as worrisome for them, if not more so.

In New York’s 16th District on the edge of New York City, Bowman drew renewed scrutiny in September when he pulled a fire alarm in a Capitol office building right before a pivotal vote to avoid a government shutdown, for which he was censured by the House and had to pay a fine. Then in January, discovery of Bowman’s years-old blog posts showed that he once dabbled with conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. These strange episodes may add fuel to the fire for Latimer’s bid to defeat the incumbent. And he very well could: A late March poll by the Mellman Group for Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, which has endorsed Latimer, found Latimer ahead 52 percent to 35 percent. Looking to counter the DMFI survey, Bowman’s campaign released older data from an early March survey conducted by Upswing Research that showed Bowman only a tick ahead, 44 percent to 43 percent.

But especially in a district with a roughly 10 percent Jewish population, Israel is still playing a major role in this primary race. For one thing, Latimer has built a fundraising edge over Bowman with the help of AIPAC’s endorsement and financial support: Individual donors have used the group as a conduit to contribute $1.3 million to Latimer, constituting about one-third of the nearly $3.7 million he’s raised. That puts the Westchester County executive about $1 million ahead of Bowman, who has brought in $2.7 million, and is the best-funded of the Squad primary challengers.

With two months to go until New York’s June 25 primary, AIPAC’s role and the Israel-Hamas conflict may only ratchet up tensions. In a nod to AIPAC’s influence and bipartisan funding base, Bowman’s campaign has run ads arguing that “Donald Trump’s megadonors are funding” his opponents’ attacks, and the congressman has claimed that AIPAC has “spread racist propaganda” in its efforts targeting Squad members. Latimer, for his part, has worked to balance his support for Israel with concern about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza as Democratic opinion sours on Israel’s actions. In a seeming nod to Bowman’s controversies, Latimer’s initial ads argued that “true public service means putting people over personal agendas,” and emphasized his “real progressive results” as county executive.

Meanwhile in Missouri’s St. Louis-based 1st District, Bush looks to be in trouble in her primary. The incumbent faces investigations by the Department of Justice, Federal Election Commission and House Ethics Committee into alleged misuse of funds to pay her security team, including payments to her husband as part of that operation. Bush has claimed the allegations are spurious, driven by “right-wing organizations” looking to damage her standing. But this development has cast a cloud of potential scandal on top of other points of division. Bell has criticized Bush for voting against money for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, though more of his criticisms of Bush focus on issues such as her vote against the 2021 infrastructure package. He’s also emphasized his credentials as part of the progressive prosecutors movement by highlighting his work to divert nonviolent offenders away from prison.

Bell, who abandoned a bid for Missouri’s U.S. Senate race to challenge Bush, has also found himself in an advantageous fundraising position. He has slightly outraised Bush, $1.7 million to $1.6 million, and he finished the first quarter of 2024 with more than twice as much money in the bank, $1.1 million to Bush’s $529,000. AIPAC has served as a conduit for around one-third of Bell’s fundraising receipts by bringing in more than $550,000 in contributions from individual donors. Bush’s legal troubles have hampered her campaign finance situation, too, as she paid legal firms about $86,000, according to reporting by Axios. The primary won’t take place until Aug. 6, but an early February poll by Remington Research/Missouri Scout found Bell up 50 percent to 28 percent, a pretty terrible finding for an incumbent.

Beyond Bowman and Bush, the only other Squad member who could have some primary difficulties is Omar, who faces a rematch against former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels. In 2022, Samuels only lost to Omar by 2 points in Minnesota’s 5th District primary, boosted in part by his criticisms of Omar for being soft on crime in a city that had wrestled with debates over the future of policing in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. Now, Samuels has added Omar’s stance on Israel to his criticisms, suggesting that she may have alienated Jewish voters, while he would pursue healing and unity.

This time around, however, Omar looks readier to deal with a primary challenge. As of March 31, the incumbent had raised $4.9 million, more than twice what she had raised just before the 2022 primary. She has about 10 times as much money in the bank as Samuels, too, with $2.2 million to his $233,000 (Samuels has raised $755,000 this cycle). In 2022, AIPAC-affiliated United Democracy Project sent about $350,000 to another super PAC that ended up spending about $625,000 on behalf of Samuels. Though there’s still time to go before the Aug. 13 primary, AIPAC hasn’t played in this race yet, and Samuels doesn’t have an endorsement from AIPAC — so unlike Latimer and Bell, he hasn’t received a boost from individual donors who use the group as a vehicle to support pro-Israel candidates.

The three other original Squad members appear unlikely to have much primary trouble. In New York’s 14th District, Ocasio-Cortez will face former insurance executive Marty Dolan, but she’s outraised his mostly self-funded campaign $6.7 million to $242,000. Dolan originally ran against Bowman, but switched races to take on Ocasio-Cortez. Conservative media outlets have taken the most notice of Dolan’s bid — Ocasio-Cortez is their bête noire — but his appearances on Fox News are unlikely to boost his chances in a Democratic primary. Tlaib, meanwhile, has raised $6.5 million, boosted by a surge in donations after the House censured her for her criticisms of Israel. Michigan’s still-unofficial candidate list suggests she’ll have one primary challenger in the 12th District, but that unheralded contender doesn’t offer much of a threat. As for Pressley, she currently has no primary opponents in Massachusetts’s 7th District, as was the case in her 2020 and 2022 reelection bids.


*Media outlets hadn’t necessarily included Ramirez as part of The Squad in the past — although she had a similar voting record — but a collection of left-wing groups recently began a “Protect The Squad” campaign that included Ramirez, who reposted it on X (formerly Twitter). However, this pitch didn’t name Casar.