WASHINGTON DC – “It’s all about turnout,” Congressman Andy Levin told me over the phone on 16 May. “It’s really all about turnout.”
Levin, a progressive Democrat, is running for re-election in Michigan’s 11th district. Because of the way in which congressional maps have been redrawn, to remain in Congress he’ll need to beat Congresswoman Haley Stevens, a more centrist Democrat, in Michigan’s primary this August. Levin supports the Green New Deal, an ambitious legislative package designed to tackle the climate crisis, and has promised to work to shut down a pipeline that runs through Michigan; Stevens said it was not a federal issue.
Some felt Levin should have run in Michigan’s newly drawn 10th, which includes much of the district he currently represents; he believed it more appropriate, as a progressive, to run in the more snugly Democratic 11th. Michigan, located in the upper mid-west of the country, is a “purple” state, consistently electing neither Democrats nor Republicans. It went for former president Donald Trump in 2016 but broke for Joe Biden in 2020.
“I feel so clear that we have to run on a progressive agenda that rings like a bell to break through to the American people that there’s hope,” Levin said, “and that we can have great jobs, we can have childcare, [we can have] great public school education for everyone, we can save this planet.”
That is not only the right thing to do heading into the November midterm elections, he told me, but the most politically viable. The president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterms (in 2010, the then-president Barack Obama famously said the Democrats took a “shellacking”). “How are we going to buck the trend?” Levin asked. Turnout, he said, answering his own question.
“We have to turn out young people who are clamouring for action on climate change, [black voters and other voters of colour] who are saying what are you doing on protecting our democracy… Running as a progressive is not only who I am, but it’s what we need to do to win.”
And what of those who say that progressive politics is all well and good on America’s coasts, but not in Midwestern Michigan?
“Look who won the [Democratic] primary in 2016 in Michigan. It was Bernie Sanders,” said Levin. “Michigan swings more from a Trump to a Sanders kind of vibe than Trump to a mushy middle.” Levin is not the first in his family to make his way in Michigan politics; he occupies the seat previously held by his father, Sander Levin, and is the nephew of the late senator Carl Levin.
“We need to speak directly to people about their pocketbooks [wallets], freedom to form unions, pension, dignified retirement, about cutting costs for them so they can breathe.”
Those are the opportunities. But Levin’s politics have brought him some challenges, too.
Levin is Jewish. He is, he told me, a Zionist. He is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Last year, he introduced the Two State Solution Act, which was meant to “empower the US government to take responsible measures to push back against actions that deepen the occupation [of the West Bank] and [provide] key provisions to promote successful diplomacy and peace-building efforts to help lay the groundwork for a two-state solution”. Which is to say, it wants to put in practice what the US’s Israel policy is in theory. I first saw Levin speak in a media briefing put on by J Street, a non-profit advocacy group that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace”; its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, accompanied Levin when the latter introduced the bill.
But while he won J Street’s endorsement (and J Street’s political action committee (Pac) has raised more than $200,000 for his campaign), the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), the self-defined “voice for Jewish Democrats and socially progressive, pro-Israel, and Jewish values”, endorsed Stevens. The JDCA said that endorsements are not made on the basis of whether a candidate is Jewish, and that Stevens had advocated on issues important to Jewish voters.
Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), endorsed Stevens, telling the Jewish Insider that Levin “leaves a lot to be desired” on the matter of Israel and that, on Israel and anti-Semitism, “he uses his Jewishness [and] respected political family name as a cover for softness on both issues.” I asked Levin what he made of that.
“It’s a shande,” he said, using the Yiddish word for shame. “My policies are pro-Israel and pro-peace,” adding that American Jewish voters agree with him on these issues. Polling suggests that he’s right: for example, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute, most American Jewish voters do not consider Israel to be their number one priority, and support a two-state solution. They also think US aid to Israel should be restricted so as not to support expanding West Bank settlements.
Levin’s harshest words were for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, which has also endorsed Stevens. Aipac is a bipartisan pro-Israel lobbying group. In recent years, many have viewed it as increasingly conservative, in part because of its opposition to Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and its support for several of Trump’s positions. As of last month, it had given $2,900 to Stevens directly and had moved $300,000 in earmarked contributions to her campaign.
“You have to do what they say or else they oppose you,” Levin said of Aipac. “I guess I commit the sin in their eyes of believing the only way to have a secure homeland for my people is to realise [the] human rights of Palestinian people as well.”
Levin also criticised Aipac for having endorsed 109 of the 147 Republicans who voted against certification of the 2020 presidential election. Aipac also received criticism for this from others within the communal Jewish world. J Street criticised Aipac for advocating those who, per J Street, threaten the future of the country. The CEO of the JDCA called the endorsements “profoundly troubling”. Morriah Kaplan, the national spokesperson for IfNotNow, a left-wing Jewish group that aims to build “a movement of Jews to end Israel’s occupation and transform the American Jewish community”, told the New Statesman, “I think there’s an important distinction to be made between people who disagree politically and people who have worked to erode our democracy, and worked to undermine a functioning democracy.”
Aipac wrote in an email to the New Statesman: “We support both Democrats and Republicans who would advance the US-Israel relationship. It requires bipartisan support in Congress to adopt legislation that would advance that relationship. Consequently, our PAC supports members from both parties in their election races.” Aipac added that this was “the standard practice of numerous other bipartisan PACs, as well”.
Levin rejected that logic. “You can say, ‘oh, we’re a single-issue organisation’… I have news for you: when we’re not a democracy anymore, you’re not going to be able to lobby. The very idea of advocating for an issue presumes a democracy where you can go in to elected officials and support your point of view.”
What the Republican Party has done, Levin said, is “not about partisanship. It’s outside of the realm of democracy all together.”
Some have called Levin hypocritical. Earlier this month, Jewish Insider reported that Levin, who had said he was “proud to not be funding my campaign through an organization supporting insurrectionist Republicans and anti-choice candidates on both sides of the aisle”, had taken $55,000 from corporate Pacs that had also given to those who had voted not to certify the 2020 presidential election. In response, Levin said he would be donate that money and not take any more from corporate Pacs.
Levin’s contest is one of several Democratic primary races in which Aipac and J Street’s preferred candidates are at odds. But his case is unusual because he is Jewish and liberal, and Levin has found that his own identity and commitment to Jewishness have become fodder for attacks on his character and candidacy.
“I’m not going to be intimidated,” he said. “I don’t care how much money they throw at the race. We’re going to prevail by living out Jewish values.”
Despite all his election difficulties, Levin ended on an optimistic note. “I’m really having a great time in the campaign,” he said.
There are still several weeks to go between now and the election. Levin insisted that, between now and then, he will continue to do what he’s been doing.
“We’re going to keep on building a beautiful, broad coalition of progressive Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of every community and environmentalists and labour folks to win this election,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to win in November. Getting our base excited about being active participants in their democracy.”
August, like November, will be all about turnout.