AIPAC Is Helping Fund Anti-Bernie Sanders Super PAC Ads in Nevada

The group is telling donors that contributions to the Democratic Majority for Israel, whose ads are attacking Sanders, count as donations to AIPAC.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is helping to fund a Super PAC launching attack ads against Sen. Bernie Sanders in Nevada on Saturday, according to two sources with knowledge of the arrangement. The ads are being run by a group called Democratic Majority for Israel, founded by longtime AIPAC strategist Mark Mellman

The Nevada attack ads, which will air in media markets in Reno and Las Vegas, follow a similar spending blitz by DMFI ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Like the ads that aired in Iowa, the Nevada ads will attack Sanders on the idea that he’s not electable, Mediaite reported

DMFI spent $800,000 on the Iowa ads, while the spending on the Nevada ads remains private. AIPAC is helping bankroll the anti-Sanders project by allowing donations to DMFI to count as contributions to AIPAC, the sources said. As is typical with most big-money giving programs, the more a donor gives to AIPAC, the higher tier they can claim — $100,000 level, $1 million level, and so on — and the more benefits accrue to them. A $100,000 donor gets more access to members of Congress at private functions, for instance, than someone who merely pays AIPAC’s conference fee. A $1 million donor gets still more, which means that it is important to donors to have their contributions tallied. There is also status within social networks attached to one’s tier of giving. The arrangement allows donors to give directly to DMFI, which is required to file disclosures naming its donors, without AIPAC’s fingerprints. 

Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI, said she was unaware of any AIPAC encouragement to donate to the organization. “As far as we know, what you are suggesting is completely untrue,” she said. “But because we are a separate organization, we can’t know exactly what other organizations are doing. Therefore, we are the wrong address for the the specific questions you ask — they need to [be] directed to AIPAC.” 

AIPAC denied the arrangement. “AIPAC is not and has not been involved in the ad campaigns of any political action committee,” spokesperson Marshall Wittmann wrote in an email. “The accusation that AIPAC is providing benefits to members for donating to fund these political ads or this political action committee is completely false and has no basis in fact.”

In the past, AIPAC enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress. But as it’s cozied up to the GOP in recent years and taken a harder right-wing stance on Israel policy, reflecting a rightward drift in Israel, more Democrats are cutting ties with the group and tacking further left. AIPAC’s faltering relationship with Democrats was the initial spur for Mellman’s new organization, founded by donors and operatives linked to AIPAC.

On Wednesday, Rep. Betty McCollum slammed AIPAC as trafficking in “hate speech” for a recent social media ad campaign that warned that “radicals in Congress” presented a threat “maybe more sinister” than the Islamic State, along with photos of Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and McCollum. Representatives of AIPAC spent Wednesday and Thursday on Capitol Hill apologizing in private meetings with House Democrats for those ads, claiming that they were made by AIPAC’s Democratic digital firm (though how that shifts responsibility from AIPAC is unclear). Omar, Tlaib, and McCollum were not invited to — nor even aware of — those meetings, despite being the subjects of the ads, Tlaib and Omar told The Intercept.

Sanders has long been one of the most outspoken critics of unconditional U.S. support for Israel and has become an even sharper critic of the alliance during his 2020 campaign. He said in October that he would condition military aid to Israel on changing its settlement policy, and redirect some military aid to humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip. DMFI sent a fundraising email in January attacking Sanders for that comment. While Sanders would certainly be more sympathetic to Palestinians than any president in U.S. history, he tends to qualify support for Palestinian rights by first prioritizing Israel’s security.

DMFI’s anti-Sanders ads that aired in Iowa in the week leading up to the caucuses had nothing to do with Israel or the Middle East. Instead, they focused on his label as a democratic socialist and his recent heart attack. Following that ad buy, Sanders raised $1.3 million in one day. 

The DMFI ads have been controversial and represent one of the first Super PAC interventions by a Democratic group against a Democratic presidential candidate in the post-Citizens United era. (Hillary Clinton in 2016 had the benefit of the group Correct the Record, which was legally a Super PAC and attacked Sanders. The group  coordinated with the Clinton campaign, rather than operating independently, yet that coordination went unpunished.) But the revelation that AIPAC has been encouraging donors to fund DMFI suggests how seriously the lobby is taking Sanders’s candidacy and that it is willing to intervene in the Democratic primary. On Thursday night, news leaked that a Super PAC connected to the Democratic group EMILY’s List had been contemplating an attack ad against Sanders. In a statement, the group said the ad had not been approved and that it would support whichever candidate won the Democratic nomination.


Meet Mark Mellman: the Centrist, Pro-Israel Operative Behind the Anti-Sanders Ads in Iowa

Big-money groups are doing all they can to ensure that Sanders doesn’t become the nominee, however, and after the Iowa caucuses, DMFI boasted that its ads had left a mark on Sanders. “Now that almost all of the Iowa results are in, the incredibly close race shows that DMFI PAC’s ad blunted Senator Sanders’ momentum,” the group wrote to its email list after some of the results were in. “The network entrance poll proves it. Among those who decided which candidate to support before DMFI PAC’s ad aired, Sanders was in first place by a 6 point margin. However, among those who made a decision while the ad was airing, Sanders came in 5th, 10 points behind the leader.” 

Conservative writer Jonathan Tobin, in a recent piece for Ha’aretz, discussed AIPAC’s posture toward Sanders in a recent column headlined, “AIPAC Must Stop Bernie Sanders — at All Costs.” 

In the lead up to the Iowa caucus, the Democratic Majority for Israel, a year-old political action group and super PAC, invested heavily in negative ads aimed at derailing the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Mark Mellman, the veteran Democratic strategist who leads the group, told me that its efforts – which are funded by the party’s leading pro-Israel donors – helped steer late deciding voters away from the Vermont Democratic Socialists.

It’s in that context that the AIPAC Facebook ads that so offended Democrats must be seen. For centrist pro-Israel Democrats, the problem with Sanders is not just that he is the most critical toward Israel of all the Democrats. It’s that the left-wing activist base that is fueling his candidacy is also largely hostile toward the Jewish state. Sanders is backed by Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich), who are supporters of the BDS movement and are accused of using anti-Semitic language and tropes in their criticisms of Israel’s supporters.

DMFI denies that it has any link to AIPAC, but Mellman’s firm, the Mellman Group, has close ties with AIPAC and consulted for the lobby group’s dark-money cutout, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, as part of Mellman’s work to defeat former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal in 2015. CFNI paid the Mellman Group $241,439 that year. 

Mellman’s firm has also consulted for AIPAC’s educational group, the American Israel Education Fund, which organizes congressional trips to Israel. The Mellman Group was AIEF’s second-largest contractor in 2015, receiving $1.3 million for “program research.” AIEF’s biggest contractor that year was a travel business owned by Sheldon Adelson, a far-right Israel advocate and mega-donor to the GOP. 

At least 11 of DMFI’s 14 board members have links to AIPAC as well, having either worked at, spoken to, volunteered for, or donated to the group, The Nation reported in December.

AIPAC’s annual conference is in March. A coalition of progressive groups, including the left-leaning Jewish advocacy group IfNotNow, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, and Indivisible, launched a campaign this month to pressure presidential candidates not to attend. So far, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has committed to skip this year’s conference. During a town hall in New Hampshire this month, Sanders told a student that he didn’t think he was going but had “no objection.” He, Warren, and several other candidates skipped it last year.

Update: Feb. 14, 2020, 5:20 p.m. ET
This article has been updated to include a statement from AIPAC that was received after publication. 

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