How ‘dark money’ in US politics affects the Palestine-Israel debate

James Zogby

The National  / August 8, 2021

Candidates seeking a more balanced approach to the conflict are being outspent and defeated

This last week, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner lost her bid to fill the open US congressional seat in Ohio’s 11th district. The winner was Shontel Brown, the chair of the Democratic Party in the district’s largest county. What was troubling about this election was the role played by a “dark money” pro-Israel political group that spent about $2 million to defeat Ms Turner.

I know and respect Ms Turner. She was a friend to my late wife and me. I have worked with her in two presidential campaigns, and we served together as members of the select Democratic Party’s Unity and Reform Commission. I know her to be a passionate champion for universal health care, raising the minimum wage, and challenging racial, social and political inequities. These were the issues that have defined her career and on which she based her campaign.

Because Ms Turner ran as an unabashedly progressive candidate, the more centrist leadership of the Democratic Party’s establishment coalesced around Ms Brown. To make the divide even more pronounced, while Ms Brown was endorsed by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Congressman James Clyburn, President Joe Biden’s main 2020 election supporter, Ms Turner’s campaign won endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the group of progressive members of Congress known as “The Squad”, as well as Cleveland’s mayor, Frank Jackson, and The Plain Dealer, the city’s major newspaper.

On one level, the election played out as a classic “progressive versus moderate” battle, but beneath the surface a very different contest was taking place.

Because Ms Turner had criticized Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and stated that she would support legislation that would condition US aid to Israel based on its human rights behaviour, pro-Israel groups determined that it was imperative that she be beaten.

A political action committee, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), the group that has been spearheading the drive to defeat candidates who oppose unconditional support for Israel, sprang into action. Warning of the prospect of electing a dangerous anti-Israel advocate to Congress, they raised more than $3m in “dark money” to spend in this election – $1.6m spent on ads against Ms Turner, $400,000 on ads for Ms Brown, and much of the rest on pro-Brown/anti-Turner mailings, signs and polling.

These types of political committees and their expenditures are referred to as “dark money” because while there are legal limits on how much an individual can contribute to a candidate’s campaigns, political groups have no such limits. And unlike campaign contributions, which must be reported, monies given to these political committees are not. Hence, the designation “dark money”. Investigative reporters have discovered that a great deal of the $3m raised by DMFI came from corporate executives and even supporters of former president Donald Trump.

The ads that filled the airwaves in the weeks leading up to election day painted Ms Turner as a wild-eyed radical who wasn’t fit to serve in Congress. They questioned whether Ms Turner was a “real Democrat”, whether she would work to support Mr Biden’s agenda, and whether she was committed to universal health care, raising the minimum wage, and working for clean energy – issues central to Ms Turner’s life’s work and her campaign.

What was especially troubling about this effort to malign Ms Turner was the disconnect between the way the DMFI raised the money it spent against Ms Turner and the way it ultimately used it. Its fundraising pitches to prospective donors focused on its opposition to Ms Turner’s approach to the Palestine-Israel conflict, but they never once mentioned this issue in its paid TV advertisements. Instead, as it has in other campaigns, it focused its ads on defaming Ms Turner.

DMFI went to such drastic lengths in an effort to destroy Ms Turner because it saw this election as a “do or die” contest for supporters of Israel after pro-Israel candidates lost major races in 2020: Jamaal Bowman defeated Congressman Eliot Engel in New York, Marie Newman defeated Congressman Dan Lipinski in Illinois, Cori Bush defeated Congressman William Clay in Missouri. In addition to these defeats, every member of Congress who supported a bill conditioning US aid to Israel won re-election. As a result of these setbacks, the pro-Israel crowd became determined to stop the haemorrhaging of support for Israel out of the fear of losing their well-cultivated myth of invincibility.

But they are swimming against the tide. Among Democrats, public opinion is turning against blind support for Israel. Majorities of Americans now favour conditioning US aid to Israel based on that country’s human rights performance. A recent poll shows that even 59 per cent of American Jews feel that way. Ever since I came to Washington in the 1970s, I have observed how difficult it was to win congressional support for Palestinian rights. At one point, I joked that I wanted to form a club of members of Congress who had told me: “I’m really with you on this, but you know I just can’t say anything public because I want to win re-election.” Congress was haunted by the well-cultivated fear that pro-Israel PACs would gang up to oppose them if they stepped out of line.

As examples, they would point to two “pro-Arab” Republicans: former senator Charles Percy and Congressman Paul Findley – both of whom lost elections to pro-Israel, well-funded opponents. The main pro-Israel group at the time, AIPAC actually boasted: “We beat Percy.”

On closer scrutiny, however, that line just wasn’t true. Percy conceded to me that he lost because the black vote in Chicago, which he had previously carried, turned against him. And Findley lost primarily because he had been redistricted from a heavily Republican district, to one with a Democratic edge. Still, the myth of the power of the pro-Israel PACs once born, took hold and dominated thinking in Congress for years.

But now, all that is changing. Recognizing this, DFMI put everything it could into defeating Ms Turner and making her an example. This was exactly the argument it made in an email sent to donors the day after the election – in effect, boasting of its “invincibility”.

While this election was a setback to those who seek to create a more level playing field in Congress, it’s not the end of the story. DMFI warns in its post-election fundraising pitch: “Now, with our opponents on notice, and more fights sure to come in 2022, we’ll need to be stronger than ever.” With the tide of public opinion turning and now favouring a more balanced approach toward the Palestine-Israel conflict, we can expect more challenges to the status quo. Unless there is serious campaign finance reform, there will be more dark money being spent to defeat candidates who argue for a more balanced US policy.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National