Skip to main content

There Sure Are a Lot of Republican Billionaires Funding the Democratic Primaries

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries—who took more money from the Israel lobby in 2022 than from any other group and is featured on AIPAC’s website (alongside House Republican leadership)—has so far refused to condemn this tsunami of Republican money.

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

The presidential field is basically set, but before the Trump vs. Biden rematch begins in earnest, there are still a bunch of highly contentious primaries for the House and Senate left to be decided. On the Democratic side, none will draw more attention and money than the campaign to knock the Squad—the famed young, progressive legislators of color—out of Congress. And now, thanks to the most recent round of fundraising reports filed to the Federal Election Commission, we know exactly who’s funding that campaign.

Surprise! It’s Republican billionaires and megadonors.

Let’s back up: During the 2022 midterms, one of the super PACs affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group—called the United Democracy Project—spent more than any other outside group during the Democratic primaries. Yes, it was spending on Democrats. But it boosted only conservative Democrats who were in races against progressive legislators, in part because progressives are, as a whole, willing to criticize Israel, and sometimes even question unconditional military aid to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

AIPAC’s most successful sally in 2022 was kicking Andy Levin—not only one of the most prominent Jewish members of the House, but also a former synagogue president—out of his House seat in Michigan, in favor of a more conservative, non-Jewish representative in Haley Stevens. (Levin had dared to indicate support for a two-state solution, introducing a bill that would have prevented U.S. aid from being used to fund Israeli settlements in the West Bank and that recognized East Jerusalem as “occupied territory,” among other provisions.)

And all of that was before Israel’s devastating war in Gaza began.

Now, AIPAC has made it a clear goal to defeat every progressive Democrat it can in 2024. At the end of January, Federal Election Commission filings revealed that the United Democracy Project super PAC already had $40 million on hand by the end of 2023, nearly double the $26 million it spent on the 2022 midterms. Those numbers will likely skyrocket further.

Massive though it is, the dollar figure is actually less notable than who donated it. Of the top 10 biggest donors to the Democrats-only super PAC during the past six months, boosters of Donald Trump abound. GOP megadonor Bernie Marcus, former CEO of the Home Depot, kicked in $1 million. An LLC affiliated with Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots (who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration) chipped in $500,000. Paul Singer, another billionaire financier—and Nikki Haley megadonor, and Rudy Giuliani fundraiser—also kicked in $1 million. (Singer is perhaps best known as the luxury vacation sponsor of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.)

Singer and Marcus also sponsored AIPAC’s guerrilla campaign to overrun the Democratic primary process back in 2022; some of the even more generous donors in this cycle are new to the project. The top individual United Democracy Project donor during the past six months was Jan Koum, billionaire founder of WhatsApp. He donated $5 million to UDP over the final half of 2023; during that very same period, he also gave $5 million to the super PAC of Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley.

Behind Koum was financier Jonathon Jacobson, who contributed $2.5 million. Jacobson has a long history of political giving; since 2008, the top beneficiaries of his largesse, other than the $1 million he gave UDP Project in 2022, have been Republican super PACs, Republican candidates including Scott Brown and Lindsey Graham, and Republican fundraising committees, including Mitch McConnell’s National Republican Senatorial Committee. David Zalik, who gave $2 million, is a Haley, Giuliani, and Mitt Romney donor as well.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Amazing that all these Republican megadonors are now so keen to put money behind Democrats in 2024!

To be fair, they’re not all pure saboteurs. A few of the top 10 contributors to the United Democracy Project super PAC have given small amounts to Democrats before. One donor of the top 10 can even plausibly be called a regular Democratic booster, and that’s Haim Saban, a prominent Hillary Clinton backer. But in no world could you even call this a bipartisan group of benefactors. It’s Republicans who know what they’re doing.

It's going to make House and Senate races really tough for progressives—even the ones who have survived AIPAC-backed primary challengers before. Most of these races are happening in deep-blue districts not in play for Republicans. But Republicans see a way to make them competitive, by seeking out conservative Democrats and propping them up with TV advertising budgets befitting major statewide candidates. The candidates, too, know this is the deal—Squad member Summer Lee’s primary opponent Bhavini Patel said on a recent fundraising call that her campaign was instructing Republicans to re-register as Democrats to vote against Lee in their Democratic primary showdown. (Lee was a top AIPAC target in 2022, as well.)

That’s bad news for Democrats of all political persuasions. As they do with any incumbent member, Democratic leadership has endorsed and pledged money to the progressive members who are facing challengers. Not for nothing, many of them are among the most popular and prominent Democratic politicians in the country. But that doesn’t mean they are immune to being outspent. If AIPAC is spending millions of dollars, House Democratic leadership will also need to spend precious resources to counteract some of these attacks—which will then drain money and attention away from red-to-blue House seats that Democrats are hoping to flip to secure a majority in Congress.

So you can see why Republicans would delight in this strategy. In a difficult fundraising environment, siphoning limited resources away from frontline races means Democrats will be less competitive in toss-up contests. Meanwhile, if UDP succeeds in knocking out, say, Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th District, they will make the Democratic caucus whiter and more conservative—more like the Republican Party—all while weakening the Dems elsewhere.

Even if those AIPAC-funded campaigns fail, it could still jeopardize the path to a House majority for Democrats. Millions of dollars of attack ads are certain to weaken the standing of any candidate, and if these progressives survive their primaries, they will be wounded in the general, where AIPAC then could (and will) help their Republican opponents. In 2022, after spending millions to oppose Summer Lee in her Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, UDP then continued to spend on attack ads in the general, boosting her Republican opponent in what became a fairly competitive race. If it wasn’t clear already, UPD has no loyalty to the Democratic Party broadly, or to its greater ambitions.

There are other reasons for concern, too. Progressives—the Squad in particular—are standout small-dollar fundraisers and excellent grassroots campaigners. In an election where enthusiasm for Joe Biden is at a perilous low, the support of those politicians, who have a record of speaking to young people and voters of color, will be crucial to bringing those constituencies back into the fold. They are almost certain to play a role in a winning Democratic presidential campaign. In fact, despite recent criticism of Biden’s Israel policy, progressives have been his closest allies when it has come to passing the president’s signature legislation.

The donations from Republican megadonors filed with the FEC are only part of the AIPAC war chest. So the biggest issue is that, beyond UPD, there could be a lot more money coming to prevent Democrats from getting the majority they need.

Of course, it’s not the most novel strategy to fund the friend of your enemy. Democrats even tried their hand at it in 2022, putting money into elevating Trumpian loons who were running for Congress and gubernatorial elections in blue-state primaries so that they would be easier for Democrats to beat. And it worked! In other words, there’s no rule against fighting dirty. But the real problem is that Democratic leaders in Congress haven’t fought back.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries—who took more money from the Israel lobby in 2022 than from any other group and is featured prominently on AIPAC’s website (alongside House Republican leadership)—has so far refused to condemn this tsunami of Republican money being brought into Democratic primaries via AIPAC’s super PAC. A public disavowal of this financial support, or a declaration than any political consultancies aiding these campaigns are unwelcome in Democratic politics, would hardly be unprecedented; in 2019, House Democrats made it an official policy to blacklist any pollster, consultant, or strategist who aided a progressive challenger against a sitting Democratic incumbent ahead of the 2020 elections.

Jeffries has so far, in this cycle, endorsed incumbent progressives Lee and Ilhan Omar, and even donated small amounts of money to their campaigns—and Bowman’s too.* But he has not rung any alarm bells, saying late last year: “Outside groups are gonna do what outside groups are gonna do.”

It’s weird. Getting (and keeping) Democrats in power is key to Jeffries’ own success. And if Democrats are willing to let Republicans openly sabotage them in their own primary races in the spring and summer, it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to defeat Republicans in an open fight in the fall.

Alexander Sammon is a Slate politics writer.

Slate is a daily magazine on the web and podcast network. Founded in 1996, we are a general-interest publication offering analysis and commentary about politics, news, business, technology, and culture. Slate’s strong editorial voice and witty take on current events have been recognized with numerous awards, including the National Magazine Award for General Excellence Online. The site, which is owned by Graham Holdings Company, is supported by advertising and subscription revenues.