The Squad's views on Israel could bolster primary opposition in 2024

Outside groups could spend big to boost their challengers.

November 17, 2023, 10:03 AM

The war between Israel and Hamas has not only shifted the American political landscape, but it's also paved the way for some bitter Democratic primary fights in 2024. The conflict has upended the internal politics of the Democratic Party and sparked a backlash against The Squad, a cadre of around eight progressive Democrats who often clash with their party's establishment. Since the war's outbreak, many Democrats have criticized the group for expressing sentiments that critics have described as antisemitic, or at least unsupportive of Israel. Last week, 22 House Democrats even joined with most Republican members to formally censure Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the lone Palestinian American in Congress and an original Squad member. The censure focused on her comments about the Israel-Hamas war, in which she repeated the Palestinian nationalist slogan, "from the river to the sea," which some consider a call for ending Israel's existence — an interpretation Tlaib disputes.

These intraparty divisions could produce seismic electoral repercussions. Already, four Squad members are facing declared primary challengers for the 2024 election cycle, at least two of whom announced in the wake of the war's outbreak and cited it as an impetus for running. And for those who don't yet have primary opposition, potential support from groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Mainstream Democrats PAC could encourage future challengers to jump in. Although only a handful of House incumbents lose renomination each election cycle, the burgeoning opposition to Squad members could exploit existing weaknesses to defeat some of them in next year's primaries. These primary challenges could also exacerbate divisions among Democrats along the lines of age, race and attitudes toward Israel and Palestine.

A penchant for breaking party ranks

The Squad originated in 2018 and has doubled in size since then — it now has eight or so members, although there is no official membership list. All of its members are people of color, most are women, and the group is notably younger than the rest of Congress, with an average age of about 42 years. And they are unabashedly progressive, to the point that they sometimes break with their party on votes that otherwise get overwhelming Democratic support. We can see this by looking at DW-NOMINATE, a measure of ideology based on members' congressional voting record. The measure's first dimension, which generally describes how liberal or conservative a member is, actually places The Squad among moderate Democrats because of their penchant for voting against the Democratic party line for being insufficiently progressive. However, DW-NOMINATE's second dimension maps these party-bucking tendencies by ranking Squad members among the most anti-establishment in the House.

The House vote in late October on a resolution expressing support for Israel was the latest example of The Squad's tendency to split with the vast majority of Democrats. Although the resolution was approved 412 to 10, with six members voting present, none of The Squad voted for it. Reps. Greg Casar of Texas and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts voted present, while the other six voted nay: Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Tlaib.

Because they all represent solidly Democratic seats, Squad members could really only meet defeat in a primary. That's because all but one hail from districts that President Joe Biden carried by at least 43 percentage points in 2020, according to Daily Kos Elections's calculations. Some have seen serious primary challengers before, however. Although no Squad members have lost reelection so far, three of them (including two who were incumbents) won their 2022 primaries with less than 55 percent of the vote. And those three — Bowman, Lee and Omar — already have declared primary opponents for 2024, as does Bush. In this cycle, the Squad's stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict could fuel stronger primary challenges and spell trouble for a group already at odds with much of its party.

The Squad's primary challengers

Of the four who already have declared challengers, Omar faces arguably the most conspicuous challenge: a rematch against former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels. In 2022, she narrowly won her primary against Samuels by 2 percentage points, 50 percent to 48 percent, as the challenger criticized her support for a failed 2021 Minneapolis ballot initiative that would have replaced the city's police department with a public safety department. On Sunday, Samuels announced his second bid against Omar, arguing that Omar had "minimized" Israel's difficulties and "exacerbated divisions" in how she framed the conflict there. Omar, meanwhile, countered that Samuels is the tool of "right-wing donors" who've opposed her since she sought elected office. At the very least, Omar won't have to worry about her party's powerbrokers opposing her: Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and other House Democratic leaders have endorsed her reelection.

It remains to be seen whether Samuels will be Omar's only major primary opponent, however. Minneapolis City Council member LaTrisha Vetaw reportedly has been eyeing the race with encouragement from AIPAC — the highest-profile pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. — which may view her as a stronger bet to defeat Omar than Samuels. Either way, AIPAC will likely play a much more active part in opposing Omar than it did in 2022, when the organization's super PAC, United Democracy Project, contributed $350,000 to a super PAC supporting Samuels — a far smaller amount than the millions it poured into other Democratic primaries. However, should a candidate like Vetaw also enter the race, multiple high-profile challengers could help Omar by splitting the opposition vote. That would make it easier for her to win with a plurality, as Minnesota does not have primary runoffs. (A couple of lesser-known candidates had already joined the race against Omar before Samuels did.)

In her Pittsburgh-based seat, Lee has attracted primary opposition from Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel. In the 2022 cycle, Patel initially ran here but withdrew as that open-seat race became a mostly head-to-head tilt between Lee and attorney Steve Irwin, whom Lee squeaked by 42 percent to 41 percent en route to becoming the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. Patel kicked off her campaign in early October by emphasizing her immigrant background — her mother came to Pittsburgh from India — and her desire to bring people together. Patel's calls for a more collaborative approach served as an implicit rebuke of Lee, whose critics have argued that her more combative stance has made it harder for her to build relationships and bring in the resources the district needs. But Lee has pushed back on this accusation, and she's worked to shore up her relationship with the party establishment, which she's battled with since winning a state legislative seat in 2018.

Although Patel hasn't made the Israel-Hamas conflict a centerpiece of her campaign, Jewish Insider reported in August that pro-Israel critics of Lee in the district planned to rally behind Patel. And we can expect AIPAC to play a role here, too. After all, its super PAC spent nearly $4 million opposing Lee or supporting Irwin in the 2022 primary, the fourth-largest sum the group spent on any Democratic primary that year. Unlike in 2022, Lee is an incumbent, but she hasn't necessarily made that count in one pivotal way: campaign cash. As of Sept. 30, she had $253,000 in her account, which is not a figure likely to scare away primary opposition.

In Missouri, Bush will have to defend her position in the 1st District against St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who dropped out of the U.S. Senate race to take on Bush, citing Bush's stance on Israel as one of his reasons for entering the race. Bell has received a sizable number of early endorsements from current and former local officials, which could help his campaign take flight. That Bush and Bell are facing off is especially notable because each grew in prominence during the unrest in Ferguson in 2014-15, as Bush helped lead protests against police brutality and Bell won a seat on the Ferguson City Council. Another potential candidate, state Sen. Brian Williams, is taking the temperature of organized labor and pro-Israel groups before entering the race, according to the St. Louis Dispatch. As with Omar, a multicandidate field could potentially ease the path for the incumbent, as Missouri also does not have primary runoffs.

There's no question that pro-Israel groups would like to defeat Bush. In October, Bush introduced a resolution calling for Biden to pursue an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and send humanitarian aid to Gaza. The legislation has 17 co-sponsors, including all of the other members of The Squad. While cease-fire proponents have condemned Hamas's attack and antisemitism, opponents of the resolution have attacked it for not mentioning Hamas's aggression or that the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist group. In 2022, an outside group critical of Bush's stance on Israel (and connected to her chief primary opponent) spent $171,000 against her, but Bush easily won her primary 69 percent to 27 percent. Recent events could drive outside groups — like AIPAC and the Mainstream Democrats PAC, backed by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman — to put far more into opposing Bush's 2024 candidacy than they did previously. And spending by these groups could make a particularly significant impact on this primary because of Bush's fundraising woes. At the end of September, Bush only had about $20,000 in her campaign account, an exceedingly low figure for an incumbent and the smallest amount of any Squad member.

The other Squad member with a declared primary challenger is Bowman, whose 16th District mostly consists of the southern half of Westchester County north of New York City. But Bowman's situation may depend greatly on whether an as-yet-unannounced challenger gets into the race. Michael Gerald, a pastor, announced in August that he would run against Bowman. But Gerald put his campaign on pause in late October to wait and see if Westchester County Executive George Latimer decides to throw his hat into the ring versus Bowman. Given his position, Latimer would undoubtedly make for a serious challenger if he decides to run. Last week, reports surfaced that Latimer would indeed challenge Bowman, but Latimer pushed his decision-making timeline to December. Before then, Latimer plans to take part in a "solidarity mission" to Israel with other Westchester officials.

Like Bush, Bowman didn't see much major outside spending in his 2022 primary, although he did have two notable, less progressive challengers who held him to 54 percent of the vote. But the Israel-Hamas conflict and Bowman's support for a cease-fire have generated discord in his district, and AIPAC looks likely to spend against him if he has a notable primary opponent. Beyond Israel, Bowman has also come under fire for setting off a false fire alarm in a House office building amid last-minute wrangling over legislation to avoid a government shutdown in late September. Bowman said he accidentally pulled the alarm, which prompted an evacuation of the building, but he agreed to pay a $1,000 fine. It's hard to know how much this incident might influence voters, but incumbent scandals are a common reason why primary challengers run, so it could add to the reasons why someone like Latimer might jump into the race.

Although the other Squad members don't have primary challengers, that might change in the coming weeks and months. Democratic Majority for Israel, another pro-Israel group, has run ads criticizing Tlaib, who fended off primary opposition in both 2020 and 2022 after narrowly winning her first congressional primary in 2018. Meanwhile, Casar released a polling memo on Thursday that argued "there is virtually no room to challenge Casar in a Democratic primary." Such a release would seem to indicate concern about potential primary opposition, but would-be challengers are running out of time because Texas's candidate filing deadline is Dec. 11. The other Squad members seem to be on safer footing. Pressley hasn't had any opposition since first winning in 2018, and while Ocasio-Cortez did face some opposition in 2020, she had no challenger in 2022 and has big-time money in her campaign account to discourage 2024 entrants ($5.4 million as of Sept. 30).

The bigger picture

More broadly, opposition to The Squad offers an interesting case study of larger trends in why challengers "primary" incumbents. Such challenges are often ideological, which in the case of Democrats would typically involve a candidate running against an incumbent from the left. Half of the Squad embodies this: Bowman, Bush, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley each defeated incumbents in primaries by running as a more progressive alternative. Now, 2024 primary challenges backed by pro-Israel forces differ in this respect, effectively amounting to opposition from the center-left of the party instead of the left. However, such challenges will bear the hallmark of another trend: big spending by interest groups involving themselves in intraparty conflicts. The participation of outside organizations in primaries means these contests sometimes become proxy battles for those groups to move the political needle in their preferred direction, with opposing organizations backing different primary candidates to gain the upper hand in national ideological or issue-based battles.

Another issue to keep an eye on is how challenges to The Squad could exacerbate divides within the Democratic Party along the lines of age and race, as well as views on Israel and Palestine. In two of the four primary challenges laid out above (Omar and Bowman), the most prominent opponent or would-be opponent is notably older than the incumbent. In Bowman's case, Latimer is also white, meaning a Bowman defeat would remove a person of color from Democrats' ranks. (In the other districts, the principal challengers or potential challengers so far are people of color.) And while pro-Israel forces want to defeat these incumbents based on their lack of support for Israel, Democrats are already deeply divided on the issue. A slight majority of Democratic voters hold unfavorable views of Israel, and recent polling from Ipsos/University of Maryland found that 57 percent want the U.S. to play a neutral role in the conflict instead of leaning toward one side. This trend goes even further among younger voters, who are even more likely to hold negative views toward Israel and favor a neutral U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestinians.

We're still a few months from the start of congressional primary season, but primary challenges to The Squad are already serving as a battleground for Democratic disagreements that could affect the party's makeup, and its attitudes toward the conflict in Israel.