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This Michigan Democratic Primary Is AIPAC Versus J Street

Two incumbent Democrats facing off in a new district—and debating Tuesday night—have dramatically different views on Israel.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
Representative Haley Stevens (center, red coat) walks arm-in-arm with Representative Andy Levin (second from right) and other members of the Michigan congressional delegation during the 2019 memorial for Representative John Dingell. Stevens and Levin are now Democratic primary opponents in Michigan’s redrawn 11th district.

One of the most vicious primaries of the 2022 midterm cycle is underway in Michigan between, of all candidates, two incumbent Democratic members of Congress vying for the newly drawn 11th congressional district. On one side is Representative Andy Levin, a liberal member related to the late Senator Carl Levin and former Congressman Sandy Levin. Levin’s opponent is the comparably more moderate Congresswoman Haley Stevens. The catalyst fueling the heated primary? The two most powerful Israel-focused advocacy groups in American politics.

Stevens and Levin are set to face each other in a forum on Wednesday, the latest chance the two have to publicly butt heads in advance of the August 2 primary.*

Stevens has the support of Democratic Majority for Israel, EMILY’s List, and most notably the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, which has wielded enormous power over Congress for decades. On the other side, Levin is being supported by the constellation of liberal outside groups that the most unapologetic progressives in Congress seek out: Our Revolution, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Muslim-American civil rights organization Emgage, and J Street, the more liberal Israel lobby.

The newly drawn district covers the “majority” of the Jewish community of metro Detroit, according to The Detroit News, as well as affluent communities like Birmingham and West Bloomfield. Foreign policy is rarely the deciding issue for any congressional race, and both members of Congress, while admitting that their positions on Israel and Palestine are diametrically opposed, contend that it is not the major issue constituents of the district care about. In an interview, Levin ticked off health care, climate change, and the “environment in general” as the top issues in the district. 

Nevertheless, AIPAC and J Street have been pouring resources and support into the race. AIPAC’s PAC has moved $300,000 in earmarked contributions to Stevens’s campaign and directly contributed $2,900, according to a spokesman for the organization. That’s not an insignificant sum of money for any congressional race, especially a primary fight. The fact that AIPAC is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Stevens’s campaign shows how invested the organization is in ousting Levin. J Street’s PAC, meanwhile, has raised over $195,000 in individual contributions for Levin.

The primary fight has been framed as a near perfect showdown between the two major competing views on Israel. The Forward newspaper ran a story with the headline “This Michigan primary battle is a bellwether of American Jewish politics,” and The Jerusalem Post described Stevens as a moderate who is “laser-focused on staunch defense of Israel against its enemies and is skeptical of a reentry into the Iran nuclear deal.” In February of this year she released a statement saying she was “deeply concerned by the persistent and growing effort to demonize Israel, the world’s only Jewish state and a close American ally on the international stage.”

Levin, meanwhile, has been eager to stress the importance of human rights for Palestinians as part of improving Israeli-Palestinian relations. He has said, “I don’t see a way to have a secure, peaceful future for a democratic homeland for my people unless we realize the political and human rights of Palestinians.” In May 2021, in response to a New York Times article on the Biden administration’s approach to Israel, Levin released a statement saying, “I believe U.S. policy must support real human rights for Palestinians and real security for Israelis, who have a right to live without fear of deadly rocket fire. We must admit the status quo protects neither and examine the policies that brought us here.”

Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for J Street, said AIPAC wants “to try to make an example of Andy Levin for having the audacity to actually be more representative where most of the community is and be willing to talk about occupation. They want things to stay in what we call the ‘old school approach,’ which is basically there should be no daylight between the U.S. and Israeli governments. Whatever the Israeli government decides to do, American Jews and Congress and the president should just stand up and applaud. They would love to see Andy Levin no longer be in Congress for that reason.”

David Victor, a former AIPAC president who has been supporting Stevens in the primary, wrote in a January fundraising email that Levin is “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S. Israel relationship.”

That spurred 11 current and former representatives to write their own letter defending Levin. The letter’s authors included Sara Jacobs, Jamie Raskin, and John Yarmuth. “It is fair to disagree on debate and policy approaches,” the letter read. “But it is out of bounds to malign the only Jewish candidate in this race by impugning Andy’s love for the State of Israel or his community bona fides, which run strong and run deep.”

In many ways, Stevens and Levin are as different as two members of today’s Democratic Party could be. She is a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She was first elected to Congress in 2018 and previously served as the chief of staff for the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry during the Obama administration. A Protestant, Stevens is 38 and a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. She joined Congress having won what was then the Michigan 11th congressional district over Republican Lena Epstein, who stepped into the race after two-term Republican incumbent Representative David Trott opted to not run for a third term.*

The 61-year-old Levin, who is Jewish, is a deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He succeeded his father in representing the ninth congressional district.

In an interview, Levin was eager to jot off his liberal credentials. “I am one of, I think, twenty-six or twenty-seven senators and representatives to co-sponsor all Green New Deal bills,” he said. “I was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.… I’m the union organizer in the Congress, and I am the author of the resolution to allow our own staff to unionize.”

He said he believed all 12 national unions have weighed in on the primary and endorsed him. (The United Auto Workers has not endorsed anyone yet.)

On Israel, Levin said that “all the progressive policy groups that have endorsed have endorsed me, because I have a lifetime [record] of fighting for human rights around the world.” Levin added, “I am somebody who supports Israel, supports our aid to Israel. I have opposed the [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement. I voted to replenish Iron Dome. But I also believe that the only way to have a secure, peaceful, democratic homeland for the Jewish people is to fully realize the political and human rights of the Palestinian people.”

Levin took a shot at Stevens, saying she “is fully aligned with AIPAC, I guess.” He pointed out that AIPAC has endorsed both Republicans and Democrats this cycle.

 Stevens describes herself and the district differently. She says the district is a “pro-business, pro-economy, pro-worker” district. She said her ties to the Jewish community are deep. “Andy’s Jewish. Andy was raised Jewish. He comes from an incredible family of lawmakers, of history makers, and on,” Stevens said. “For me, I went to a predominately Jewish summer camp, and I have a lot of deep friendships and relationships in the Jewish community.”

With the exception of retiring Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (who is backing Stevens), no member of the Michigan delegation has picked sides in the primary. But there has been a high level of frustration among House Democrats with Levin because he opted to run against Stevens in  the 11th district rather than running in the 10th, where former Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James is running. James is a conservative and lost to Senator Gary Peters in 2020. The leading Democrat running in the 10th, Huwaida Arraf, has raised very little money, and The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate the district as Lean Republican. The 11th, meanwhile, is a safe Democratic seat.

Levin, when I asked him about this, said, “We need to have a great candidate in all the districts that we’re running in, but I’m running where I live and where I’ve lived” for decades. But while he lives in the 11th district, the 10th includes more of his old district and thus would give Levin home-field advantage if he ran there. Stevens represents the current 11th congressional district and moved within the border of the new 11th district recently.

During a recent Zoom meeting with members of the Waterford Democratic Club of Michigan, Levin was aggressively pressed with questions about his decision to run against Stevens. He was asked why he was taking on a woman and faced comments about how hard some of the club members worked for Stevens previously. Levin, according to one Democrat with knowledge of that meeting, was visibly surprised by the interactions. According to another Democrat, after the congressman hung up, the chair of the club conceded she had been rude to him, but Levin knew which side the chair was on.

In reporting this story, one thread I came across again and again was a subtle difference in personality between Stevens and Levin. Democrats would often describe her as a sort of head-down Democrat who eschewed the spotlight and put in the work. Levin, meanwhile, was pegged as a lawmaker who hasn’t always built the kinds of strong relationships with fellow Democrats that he needed when he had to bump elbows with another Democrat. 

But mainly, the primary has emerged as a key measuring stick for the competing approaches on Israel within the Democratic Party. If Stevens wins, other lawmakers will take pause when going against AIPAC. If Levin prevails, J Street will chalk it up as a major win.

* This article originally misstated the date of the forum. It also mischaracterized how the 11th district was won.