The Squad Is About to Fight for Its Political Life

Gun Rights

One of the biggest, bitterest, and most expensive political battles of the 2024 election cycle has emerged: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful, best-funded influence operations in Washington, is planning to go all out to knock the famed “Squad”—the small group of highly visible and popular progressive legislators of color, most of them women—out of office.

The most outspoken and unapologetically leftist contingent of the Democratic Party in national office, the Squad has been vocal in its criticism of Israel’s retaliatory assault on Gaza following the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis by Hamas. Members of the group have prominently pushed a cease-fire resolution in Congress; it now has 18 signatories.

Their positions on the issue are hardly radical: A recent Data for Progress poll found that 66 percent of Americans support a cease-fire, as do 80 percent of Democrats. But AIPAC has trained its attention on these members to make an example of them. And it has spent heavily against a few of them before.

AIPAC wants “to make the statement this cycle that no one is safe from their wrath, that if you speak out, you can be targeted no matter how popular or how many cycles of incumbent you are,” said Connor Farrell, president of the progressive fundraising group Left Rising, in a phone call. “It’s extremely audacious.”

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There are now seven indisputable members of the Squad—up from the original four elected in 2018. (Those are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley.) In 2020, the contingent of progressive members of color expanded with the election of Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, then the first male member of the group. In the 2022 midterms, another member was added with the election of Summer Lee. (Other young progressives who have since joined Congress and might more accurately be referred to as Squad-adjacent include Greg Casar, Delia Ramirez, and Maxwell Frost.)

Strongly activist-allied, the Squad members are staunch advocates for progressive causes that include Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, police reform, and student debt relief. Critically, all of them reject big-money backing, surviving on just grassroots support and small-dollar fundraising. They have quickly become some of the most well-known members of Congress (most are quite adept at using social media), and are equivalently reviled by Republicans (and some corporate Democrats) for their advocacy.

AIPAC has a turbulent history with them, and progressives in general. In the 2022 midterms, the Israel lobby became the largest single-issue outside spender in Democratic primaries, pouring in nearly $30 million via the super PAC the United Democracy Project, and millions more via the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. It was an astronomical amount of money, mostly directed at knocking progressives out of the primaries, largely in open and redrawn seats. Despite there being fewer vacancies in 2024, that money figure is expected to at least triple.

Israel policy was rarely ever mentioned in the ads those super PACs ran against progressives in the 2022 election cycle. But the lobbying group clearly sees Republicans (and conservative Democrats) as more likely to push for unconditional military aid from the U.S. to Israel, and has, in recent years, seen some mission creep toward the advancement of conservative policy priorities more broadly.

In 2022, AIPAC endorsed 109 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election, and raised millions from Republican megadonors like Trump backers Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer. It has staffed up heavily from far-right corners of Republican politics; the group’s digital director was hired away from Trump’s Republican National Committee just before Election Day in 2020.

Already, Bush, Bowman, Lee, and Omar have drawn primary opponents for their safe blue seats for the 2024 cycle, thanks to strenuous recruiting efforts from AIPAC, which has already begun making expensive, incendiary ad buys against those members, according to reporting in the Associated Press, the Intercept, and Jewish Insider.

Bush is facing St. Louis prosecuting attorney Wesley Bell, who was running for Senate until late October. Bowman is facing 70-year-old Westchester County executive George Latimer. Lee is facing perennial candidate Bhavini Patel. Omar is facing a rematch with Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, former Illinois congressional candidate Sarah Gad, and military vet Tim Peterson. Jewish Insider has reported that AIPAC is still feverishly recruiting for a challenger for Tlaib as well, and is reportedly still looking for primary challengers for Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez.

Close watchers now expect AIPAC to spend at least $100 million in Democratic primaries, largely trained on eliminating incumbent Squad members from their seats. It’s likely that even more money will be spent by affiliated super PACs, including the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC and the Mainstream Democrats PAC, too. (These PACs have already launched six-figure ad buys against Bowman, Lee, and Tlaib, a year away from the election—an exorbitant, hardly strategic commitment largely meant to prove that money will not be in short supply.) Meanwhile, small-dollar fundraising numbers are way down across the board, making it even more difficult for those progressives to fund a defense.

So far, House Democratic leadership has been quiet about all this. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries—who took more money from the Israel lobby in 2022 than from any other group and is featured prominently on the lobbying group’s website (alongside House Republican leadership)—hasn’t tried to dissuade the primarying of these progressive Democratic incumbents. He could easily publicly disavow such spending and make it clear to candidates that accepting such support is against caucus policy; in 2019, House Democrats made it an official policy to blacklist any Democratic consultant or political group who aided a progressive challenger against a sitting Democratic incumbent ahead of the 2020 elections. But so far Jeffries has only managed to say: “Outside groups are gonna do what outside groups are gonna do. I think House Democrats are going to continue to support each other.”

It’s strange. Sitting quietly by while a Republican-funded outside group lays waste to a popular group of incumbents would invite a host of disastrous risks, and would—crucially—jeopardize Jeffries’s own campaign to retake the House. He certainly can’t be Speaker of the House if AIPAC knocks Democrats out of their races. And it will try: In 2022, AIPAC spent millions on a conservative Democrat to oppose Summer Lee in her 2022 primary race. After failing to knock her out, the group continued to spend against her in the general election, helping her Republican opponent and nearly costing Democrats the seat.

But the coming year will bring risks for AIPAC as well. Toppling an incumbent is not easy. Tlaib, Omar, Bush, Bowman, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez are all well-liked, especially in their districts. Some, like Tlaib, are masters of constituent services. Others have shown incredible fundraising chops, and boast massive grassroots networks. There have been previous attempts to take out Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez that failed spectacularly, and expensively. Omar, who looked vulnerable in her previous race, didn’t really campaign that time around. AIPAC may find itself burning money to fight on inhospitable terrain. And if it fails, the group’s fearsome reputation in D.C. will be greatly diminished.

That AIPAC feels the need to spend this much money at all could well be taken as a sign of weakness, not strength. Already, unlimited Israeli militarism is deeply unpopular; a full year of bombings of Palestinian hospitals and mass casualties of children in Gaza could make the AIPAC line even more unpopular still.

In fact, there is a familiar trajectory here. Not long ago, the National Rifle Association was known as a bipartisan organization that Democrats desperately courted for support. But as the lobby became increasingly right-wing and with its leadership becoming increasingly fringe, it embraced highly unpopular positions on the total deregulation of gun violence and pushed far-flung Republican agenda items. Quickly the group drove itself into marginalization. It took only a handful of cycles for Democrats to totally disaffiliate from the organization, its reputation too politically toxic for even the most cash-strapped Democrat. “It could be that in two or four cycles, AIPAC will be totally ostracized, their support plummeting” as well, Farrell said.

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