15 Feb, 2020
After emerging as the Democratic frontrunner in wake of Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, Bernie Sanders heads to Nevada leading in polls but facing new opposition: the Israel lobby and its vast cash reserves.
Despite being pipped at the post in Iowa by Pete Buttigieg (with the help of a malfunctioning voting app, his supporters claim), Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders came out victorious in last week’s New Hampshire primary. With the Nevada primary just a week away, a Morning Consult poll published this week put the progressive senator ten points ahead of Joe Biden, the former vice president and until now, the supposed frontrunner for the 2020 nomination.
While the news has energized Sanders’ supporters, it’s also motivated mainstream Democrats and establishment talking heads, who’ve taken to slamming Sanders as a “communist,” and a “left-wing version of Trump.”
These are familiar talking points to Sanders, who has spent his entire political life an avowed socialist. Yet Sanders now faces fresh attacks from the powerful Israel lobby.
Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) is a super PAC headed by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. With a week to go until the Nevada showdown, the group has been airing ads criticizing Sanders’ “electability” — a nebulous concept that nobody but political strategists seem to understand. The ads begin airing on Saturday.
For Mellman’s organization, the strategy is not a new one. DMFI spent $800,000 on anti-Sanders ads in Iowa, prompting Sanders himself to slate the “big-money interests” for attempting to derail his campaign with “negative ads.” The exact amount spent in Nevada is still unknown.
The Iowa ads did not directly attack Sanders on his Israel policy — which is considerably softer than any recent administration’s, and would restrict aid to the Jewish state unless its settlement policy is reversed. Instead they trashed him for his “socialist” views and highlighted his recent heart attack as proof of his lack of “electability.”
The big money interests have incredible wealth. They have incredible power. But at the end of the day, they are just the 1%.
We are the 99%. We have the people. pic.twitter.com/HCzPQ1riJR
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 10, 2019
Israeli lobbying in Washington is usually the domain of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an organization that spent more than $3.2 million on federal lobbying in 2016. Notably, AIPAC was forced to apologize to House Democrats this week for an ad campaign that called Muslim congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) — outspoken opponents of Israeli policy — a “radical” threat “maybe more sinister” than Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).
AIPAC denied that its upper management had anything to do with the ad campaign.
AIPAC has always lobbied politicians from both sides of the aisle. However, President Trump has already granted Israel a veritable policy wishlist — supporting Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and presenting a peace plan heavily weighted in Israel’s favor. With Trump on one side and Sanders, Tlaib, and Omar on the other, the organization cannot therefore pretend to favor no party in Washington.
That partisan work is left to organizations like DMFI, whose ads AIPAC claims to have no involvement with. However, the Intercept reported that AIPAC is allowing donations to DMFI to count as donations to AIPAC, with big money contributions buying donors access to AIPAC’s list of friendly congressmen, all without implicating AIPAC in the Sanders smear campaign. The investigative site also reported that DMFI is staffed by a host of AIPAC alumni, who switched over to focus their lobbying efforts exclusively on the Democratic Party, following the GOP’s rightward drift on Israel in recent years.
As with the Tlaib/Omar ad campaign, AIPAC denied the Intercept’s claim.
For Sanders, who is Jewish, DMFI’s ad spend and AIPAC’s alleged support for the campaign will present an obstacle to winning in Nevada. However, if the DMFI’s experience in Iowa is anything to go by, not even mountains of cash can halt the Vermont senator’s momentum. Sanders’ campaign raised $1.3 million after the progressive candidate warned supporters of an “outside spending group” attempting to quash his efforts in the Hawkeye State.
Sanders’ team too seems unfazed by the coming ads. “Hard to think of a better measure of electability than winning the first two states,” communications director Mike Casca told Mediaite on Wednesday.