Washington — In the tight race for control of the U.S. Congress, pro-Israel political action committees fought not just to make sure their dollars sent politicians supportive of Israel to Washington, but also to determine hegemony in the world of pro-Israel political giving.
J Street PAC, the dovish lobby’s political action committee, gave out more than $2 million to candidates in the 2014 midterm elections, claiming the mantle of the largest pro-Israel PAC. For J Street, this lead is viewed as an important milestone, marking the group’s growing acceptance as a legitimate representative of pro-Israel interests. “It shows that there is deep, meaningful support in the Jewish community for the views of J Street,” said Dan Kalik, J Street’s political director.
But critics of the pro-peace organization note that pro-Israel PAC money is a drop in the bucket of Jewish giving to political candidates, especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision known as Citizens United came about, opening the flood gates for unlimited independent expenditures by corporations and individuals on behalf of candidates. Though they totaled more than $5 million in this election cycle, pro-Israel PAC donations are a fraction of the private and general PAC money given to candidates by Jewish donors.
“It’s not about the PACs,” said Morris Amitay, head of the Washington PAC, which is pro-Israel PAC. “It all takes place at the private events. That’s where they raise the real money.”
Seeking to maximize its impact, J Street gave its largest donations to Democrats battling in the key races that could have determined control of the U.S. Senate. The PAC provided Michelle Nunn, who was running in Georgia, with more than $200,000, and gave similar amounts to Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Mark Udall in Colorado and Bruce Braley in Iowa. Except in Shaheen’s case, the candidates’ respective Republican rivals defeated them.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, who funneled its own PAC money into some of these key races, argued that the results prove J Street’s PAC was ineffective.
The RJC made a point of contributing to races in which J Street was involved, and as results came in it pointed to at least two third of these races won the candidates RJC supported. “The RJC,” said the group’s executive director Matt Brooks, “will focus its efforts to ensure that candidates supported by J Street do not have electoral success.”
In the most watched key races, pro-Israel money came in from all sides. Udall, for example, was also endorsed by BiCPAC, a Long Island based pro-Israel group considered to be centrist, and by the Tucson, Arizona-based Desert Caucus PAC. Shaheen, one of J Street’s top recipients, also got support from NORPAC, one of the largest pro-Israel PACs, and is considered to have a more hawkish view on Israel.
It is somewhat unusual for NORPAC to endorse a candidate receiving funds from J Street. Though the PAC does not have a policy barring support for candidates who take J Street money, NORPAC president Ben Chouake told the Forward that this type of backing doesn’t happen very often. “We decide by the record of the candidate, not by who has endorsed him,” he said, “but it is unusual for us to support a candidate that J Street is supporting.”
Amitay, whose PAC is viewed as being right-of-center on issues relating to Israel, took a harsher stand on politicians backed by J Street PAC. “We will not contribute to a candidate who takes their endorsement,” he stated. According to Amitay, candidates taking money from both J Street and other Pro-Israel PACs “have no idea what J Street really is.”