Last Tuesday night in the Democratic primary for Michigan’s Eleventh District, Representative Haley Stevens defeated Representative Andy Levin by a decisive margin of 20 percent. For most of the country, these two names mean nothing, and this intra-party contest barely registered. But for a subset of activists focused on Israel, the election has taken on outsize importance. That’s because Levin, a Jewish labor organizer and former synagogue president, is known as one of Israel’s strongest critics in Congress, while Stevens is aligned with the more centrist pro-Israel approach of most Democratic lawmakers today. When redistricting caused the two members to run against each other, dueling Israel-related money followed. A super PAC aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) poured $4 million into the race supporting Stevens. J Street, a liberal Zionist group and staunch ally of Levin, spent $700,000 behind him. In the end, the candidate with the bigger Israel outlay won: Stevens trounced Levin 60 percent to 40 percent.
The story I just told is technically true, but it is mostly misleading. Here’s another one. Consider this hypothetical matchup between two Democrats in Michigan:
Candidate A is a center-left former Obama administration official whose work saving Detroit’s auto industry was publicly praised by the former president. She entered Congress in 2019 after flipping a historically Republican district. As a woman and strong pro-choice advocate, she was endorsed by EMILY’s List, which put $3 million behind her primary campaign at a time when women were turning out in record numbers, even in deep-red Kansas, to oppose anti-abortion measures. Candidate A previously represented 45 percent of the new district she is now running to represent.
Candidate B, a progressive scion of a political family, took over the congressional seat held by his father in 2019. Despite his father representing the district for 36 years—and his uncle serving as Michigan’s senator, also for 36 years—Candidate B only won the primary to succeed his father by 10 points. And that was before he was redistricted into a more conservative area: Candidate B previously represented only 25 percent of the new district he is now running to represent.
In case it’s not obvious, Candidate A is Stevens and Candidate B is Levin. When we zoom out from the tunnel-vision Israel framing, we see that the race was actually decided by more normal, boring factors: candidate quality, issue salience, and political environment. Simply put, Stevens won because she was a better politician who was better suited to the make-up of the district and the current political moment. By contrast, Levin had never really been tested in a competitive election, and was fighting an uphill battle to represent a district filled with former Republican voters who Stevens had previously flipped. (Two-thirds of Levin’s old constituents resided in the neighboring Tenth District, which Levin declined to run in, angering his own party.)
This was not fertile ground for even the most politically talented progressive trailblazer, and Levin is not quite that. And yet, far from moderating his image, Levin tried to run to Stevens’s left, with predictable results. In the end, Stevens won nearly every precinct where big names like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren showed up to personally campaign for Levin.
HuffPost’s Daniel Marans, one of the most astute observers of progressive politics in the Democratic party, reached a similar conclusion while reporting from Michigan before the primary. As he wrote on election night, “Levin’s campaign insisted that leaning into his left-leaning views and associations was a good strategy. His final 10 days featured [former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Mark] Pocan, Warren, [Jane] Fonda, Sanders, and [Representative Rashida] Tlaib. Maybe there was no alternative in a race against Stevens, but this is not a left-wing district.”
None of this has stopped AIPAC from declaring total victory in the race or its critics from darkly intoning that the organization is buying congressional seats. Political lobbies rely on the perception of their power to project influence and are thus incentivized to overstate their sway. Critics of those lobbies are likewise incentivized to oversell the clout of their adversaries, as a way to juice donations and rally supporters against a common enemy. And that’s not to mention the anti-Semitic undercurrent that inevitably surfaces whenever “money” and “Israel” appear in the same sentence.
But sober political observers should not be fooled by this political theater or by conspiracy theories about control of Congress. As newsletter readers know from my discussion with historian Walter Russell Mead, American policy on Israel is determined largely by non-Jewish political concerns, not Jewish or Israeli money or influence. (Indeed, most American Jews are actually more left-wing on Israel than most non-Jews, which is why it should not surprise that Levin was more critical of Israel than his non-Jewish opponent.) Stevens defeated Levin because she was the better candidate for the time and place and ran a better race.
In fact, when one examines the other alleged AIPAC and mainline Israel-lobby victories in recent Democratic primaries from Ohio to Maryland, a similar pattern emerges: They won races by backing the strong horse against a weak one, supporting talented center-left politicians who already agreed with them against flawed progressive opponents. A few examples: