The latest foray into Democratic Party primaries by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is targeting former Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards: a progressive who is running to represent Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, a seat she held from 2008 to 2017.
The contest between Edwards and corporate attorney Glenn Ivey had been relatively quiet. This week, the race was upended when United Democracy Project, an AIPAC-aligned super PAC that has spent millions to thwart the campaigns of progressive women of color who have defended the rights of Palestinians, put big money behind an ad accusing Edwards of poor constituent services during her previous tenure in Congress.
On Friday, Edwards’s campaign held a press conference outside the headquarters of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 — one of several local labor unions that have endorsed her bid — where Edwards blasted Ivey for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending from “corporate interests that are fueled by AIPAC.” After Edwards condemned AIPAC and its allies’ intervention, a number of her supporters — including elected officials, labor leaders, and constituents — also rebuked the ad’s content. One critic, in particular, stood out: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
In a video recorded this week in response to AIPAC’s attacks, Pelosi dismissed the new ad’s claims against Edwards. “She was one of the most effective members in Congress,” Pelosi says in the video. “Donna fought hard for Prince George’s County — for jobs and investments in her community, to help constituents in need and to deliver results.”
Pelosi, a Maryland native who endorsed Edwards in May, is a long-standing ally of AIPAC and aligned pro-Israel forces. She attends the group’s yearly conferences and rarely departs from its hawkish pro-occupation stances.
In a spate of competitive Democratic primaries between progressives and moderates this election cycle, AIPAC has reliably weighed in on the side of the moderate — including those with spotty records on abortion and gun rights. Pelosi had declined to weigh in on some of the races and, in others, supported the AIPAC-backed moderates.
Liberal pro-Israel group J Street, which has supported Edwards in past elections, identified at least $1.5 million in upcoming ad spending over the next week — nearly $200,000 a day. They expect that number to increase dramatically in the run-up to the July 19 primary. If that happens, Edwards may face more outside spending from pro-Israel groups than any other candidate this cycle.
AIPAC and its allies Democratic Majority for Israel and Mainstream Democrats PAC previously spent millions against the campaigns of Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, who prevailed anyway, and Jessica Cisneros in Texas, whose race to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar remains too close to call. Democratic Majority for Israel is already running ads supporting Ivey, but the full extent of their spending remains unclear until updated Federal Election Commission reports are filed.
The AIPAC ad’s attacks on Edwards’s constituent services echoed accusations that arose during her run for U.S. Senate against fellow Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen in 2016. In that race, Edwards was accused of not being a reliable supporter of Israel for eschewing many AIPAC-backed efforts on the Hill, including resolutions and letters in support of AIPAC’s agenda and sanctions against Iran being pushed by the group. Edwards was also criticized for joining nearly 60 other Democrats — including then-Vice President Joe Biden — in a boycott of a 2015 Capitol Hill speech by then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where the right-wing politician asked Congress to reject the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama had just struck.
The contest between Edwards and Van Hollen, who both represented Maryland in the House at the time, was in many ways a preview of Israel debates roiling the Democratic Party’s nominating contests this cycle. In the 2016 race, AIPAC’s donor and lobbying network supported Van Hollen, who ultimately won the Senate seat. J Street, which supported Edwards during her original Congressional run, backed her initially — but after Edwards faced scrutiny over her foreign policy views, the group moved to support both candidates at once. Now the two groups appear more firmly opposed.
In an interview with The Intercept Friday, Edwards highlighted AIPAC’s support for Republicans who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s election victory, and she criticized Ivey for accepting the outside spending from the group. She called on Ivey, a former state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, to disavow the new ads.
In an email to The Intercept, a representative for the Ivey campaign defended the contents of UDP’s ad. “The facts are clear cut and well-documented,” the statement said. “Ms. Edwards has publicly acknowledged on multiple occasions her poor constituent services.” Ivey’s campaign did not respond to questions about AIPAC’s support for election deniers or their repeated targeting of marginalized candidates.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for UDP, defended his group’s entrance into the race in a statement provided to The Intercept: “Donna Edwards has a lengthy track record of hostility to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and on top of that was one of the worst members of Congress in terms of constituent service. We are looking at races where there is a clear contrast between a pro-Israel candidate and a detractor of Israel, and there is no doubt that Donna Edwards would undermine the U.S-Israel relationship at every turn should she get the opportunity.” AIPAC did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement from J Street, spokesperson Kevin Rachlin condemned AIPAC’s latest ad blitz and lauded Pelosi for pushing back. “It’s great to see Speaker Pelosi standing with Donna Edwards to fight back against disingenuous smears funded by a right-wing group.” he said. “AIPAC has been attacking Democrats who stand for human rights and the rule of law on the one hand, while endorsing insurrectionist Republicans on the other. They shouldn’t be in the business of telling Democrats who to vote for, and Glenn Ivey should be disavowing these misleading ads.”
Correction: June 19, 2022
This story has been updated to mention J Street’s 2016 endorsement of Chris Van Hollen, who the group supported in addition to Donna Edwards.
Correction: June 28, 2022
This story previously stated that AIPAC endorsed Chris Van Hollen in 2016. While the group’s donor and lobbying network supported his candidacy, AIPAC did not begin formally endorsing candidates until the creation of its PAC, AIPAC PAC, last December.