Up until a few weeks ago, it looked like Nida Allam was on track to make history.
The Durham County commissioner is running to the left in North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, and it looked like she was set to outpace her better-known and more experienced rivals.
If elected, the 28-year-old Allam, an observant Muslim, would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and its first Pakistani-American member.
Thanks in part to her status as a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who got her start in politics working for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential race, Allam announced another banner fundraising quarter on April 1 that put her well ahead of her top two competitors, state Sen. Valerie Foushee and “American Idol” singer-turned-activist Clay Aiken. An April 8 endorsement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added to Allam’s momentum.
Then the dam burst. Foushee picked up a flood of influential endorsements, donations and super PAC investments that have upended the dynamics of the race in a solid Democratic district where the May 17 primary is the only contest that matters.
The influx of big national money into the race for an open progressive seat that includes Durham and Chapel Hill speaks as much to fears of Allam’s ascent as it does to Foushee’s strengths.
“National groups are pouring money into North Carolina for the sole purpose of stopping a new Squad member from going to D.C.”
Moderate and progressive Democrats watching the contest agree that it is a clear sign of establishment forces striking back against the left’s recent gains in Congress ― and a possible preview of the lopsided internecine battles still to come this election cycle.
“National groups are pouring money into North Carolina for the sole purpose of stopping a new Squad member from going to D.C.,” said Morgan Jackson, referring to the progressive six-person “Squad” in Congress that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.). Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist, is supporting Foushee but isn’t working with anyone in the race.
The drumbeat of good news for Foushee has picked up steadily in the past two weeks. The deep-pocketed EMILY’s List, which supports female candidates who back abortion rights, endorsed Foushee on April 11; the Congressional Black Caucus PAC lent her its blessing two days later.
When Foushee revealed her first-quarter fundraising on April 15, she disclosed that the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the famously influential pro-Israel lobby, had bundled more than half of her $320,000 haul.
Thus far, Foushee herself has lacked the funding to spend more than a negligible amount on TV herself. But AIPAC’s new super PAC, United Democracy Project, has purchased $720,000 in airtime for TV ads promoting Foushee’s personal story and work.
Last week, Protect Our Future, a super PAC funded by a cryptocurrency billionaire who claims to be motivated by an interest in improving the country’s pandemic preparedness, also began spending heavily on Foushee’s behalf. The group has spent more than $830,000 bolstering her, with the vast majority of it on television.
Since there has been no public polling in the race, it’s difficult to know what kind of effect the money has had so far. Early voting begins Thursday.
In the near term, news of AIPAC’s support for Foushee prompted a backlash from the state Democratic Party’s progressive caucus. The caucus, led by Ryan Jenkins, had given its stamp of approval to five candidates in the race, including Allam and Aiken, but withdrew its blessing for Foushee on Sunday. In its statement announcing the decision, the group cited AIPAC’s endorsement of 109 out of the 134 Republican members of Congress who objected to the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
“No American candidate should be accepting funds from an organization that provides financial support for those seeking to destroy our democracy,” the caucus wrote.
But for a candidate who was struggling to raise money and campaigning relatively quietly ― Foushee skipped three candidate forums attended by Allam and Aiken ― the resources have been a game changer.
“Valerie Foushee is clearly in the driver’s seat in this primary and appears to be headed towards a strong victory,” Jackson said.
House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the state Democratic Party have notably stayed out of the race.
The sudden convergence of big money behind Foushee in a district that is not competitive in the general election has nonetheless confirmed progressives’ suspicions that influential forces in Washington are involved because of their fear of Allam.
“These kinds of actions are not just hurting progressives. They’re hurting Democrats, period.”
“It’s definitely, ‘We don’t want more progressives; we don’t want another member of the Squad fucking with our establishment politics,’” said Jenkins, a 4th District resident. “The Squad really turned D.C. upside down a bit.”
Although Allam is not exactly a harsh critic of the party ― she previously served as third vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party ― she hails from a wing of the party that is at times in open conflict with party leaders. She is a supporter of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and she’s an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement. It would not be a stretch to envision her joining the Squad if she’s elected.
And unlike Foushee, Allam is a critic of the Israeli government whose rhetoric on the topic has occasionally ruffled even other progressives’ feathers. She has apologized for a 2018 tweet about Israeli influence in U.S. politics that some Jewish leaders saw as antisemitic.
Although much of the money for Foushee is coming from outside the state, Jackson believes that the election of a potential Squad member, even in a safely Democratic district, is a source of concern for many North Carolina Democrats.
“The last thing we need in North Carolina is a Squad member that every Democrat in the state gets asked every day about their comments,” Jackson said.
The involvement of EMILY’s List, with its close ties to official Democratic Party organs, has been especially rankling for progressives, however.
Allam has been open about receiving an abortion to terminate an ectopic pregnancy and serves on the board of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. (She announced last week that she is now in the second trimester of a healthy pregnancy.)
“Nida is a tribune of women’s health,” said Jenkins, who emphasized that he is not revealing the candidate for whom he plans to vote.
He and other progressives wonder why EMILY’s List chose to jump into the 4th District race ― which has two women who support abortion rights ― and not the one in the neighboring 1st District, where the policy stakes appear to be clearer.
“If the priority is making sure pro-choice people are elected to Congress, the 1st District should have been a higher priority than the 4th District, where there are two good options,” said Braxton Brewington, a Democratic strategist from North Carolina who is supporting former state Sen. Erica Smith’s bid in the 1st District.
The 1st District is a rural seat in the northeastern part of the state, where Smith, who is backed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is running against state Sen. Don Davis, a conservative Democrat who has cast votes for Republican bills designed to undermine abortion rights. (Davis says he is committed to protecting the fundamental right to an abortion.)
“I have no idea why they’re not supporting Erica Smith. She’s so much of a better candidate than Don Davis,” said a female progressive activist in North Carolina who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
“It says that they don’t want to wade in with something that is going to piss the [establishment] off and that they don’t care if they throw their belief in a woman’s right to choose under the bus,” she added.
Davis is also backed by AIPAC. The pro-Israel group’s super PAC has spent more than $325,000 in support of his bid.
Moderate Democrats “have their beliefs, and we have ours, but these kinds of actions are not just hurting progressives,” Jenkins said, referring to the influx of outside cash. “They’re hurting Democrats, period.”
“If the priority is making sure pro-choice people are elected to Congress, the 1st District should have been a higher priority than the 4th District, where there are two good options.”
EMILY’s List rejected the idea that its approaches in the two races should be looked at in tandem and instead provided statements about the decision in each race.
In the 4th District, EMILY’s List spokesperson Benjamin Ray said, the organization simply believes Foushee is better positioned than Allam to defeat Aiken.
“North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District is a deep-blue seat, and a Democratic pro-choice woman must defeat the male front-runner to become the nominee,” he said. “Valerie Foushee stands the best chance of doing that with our support and resources.”
Aiken actually trails Allam and Foushee in overall fundraising. But Ray said they were categorizing him as the front-runner based on his high level of name recognition and his previous run for Congress in 2014.
Regarding North Carolina’s 1st District, Ray declined to go into detail about EMILY’s List’s decision-making process but suggested that an endorsement is still possible.
“We endorse races on a case-by-case basis and are frequently engaged with candidates and their campaigns prior to making endorsement decisions, as we are here,” he said.
One possible consideration for EMILY’s List is that the 1st District was redrawn in March to be slightly less Democratic-leaning, suggesting it might be competitive in the general election in November and require a longer-term investment from the group than the safely Democratic 4th Congressional District.
Smith, who dropped out of the U.S. Senate race to run for Congress, also has some baggage that could hurt her against a Republican.
Smith, a former public school teacher, and some of her former colleagues are being sued by a former member of a high school girls’ volleyball team that she coached. The plaintiff has accused Smith of negligence for being present on a school bus in 2013 when the player was sexually assaulted by teammates.
Smith’s campaign insists that she was unaware that the assault was taking place and did not neglect her responsibilities. One court dismissed the lawsuit against her in 2019.
“Erica’s involvement in this incident is peripheral,” the Smith campaign said in a statement. “If for any reason [the lawsuit] were to come before a court again, we’re confident that it would again be dismissed.”
In North Carolina’s 4th District, there are also plausible reasons for EMILY’s List to see Foushee, 65, as more qualified for elevation to Congress than Allam, 28. Foushee has been an elected official for more than a decade, rising to lead the state Senate Democratic caucus.
“We endorse races on a case-by-case basis and are frequently engaged with candidates and their campaigns prior to making endorsement decisions, as we are here.”
She is also a Black candidate running in a district where Black voters tend to make up a large share of the Democratic primary electorate.
“In Valerie’s case, you’ve got somebody who’s been an incredible leader in the state Senate, who’s been a trailblazer for African American women,” Jackson said.
But the sight of EMILY’s List making common cause with AIPAC has been enough to turn off even some of the group’s onetime allies.
A second progressive activist in North Carolina told HuffPost that after AIPAC’s support for Foushee came to light, she wrote to EMILY’s List to complain about their endorsement of Foushee. This year, the progressive activist plans to send the money she would typically give EMILY’s List to Erica Smith’s campaign.
“They’re not vetting their candidates very well,” said the activist, who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “A candidate comes as a whole package. She may be fine in terms of a woman’s right to choose, but every other candidate is too.”
Other North Carolina progressives shrugged at the EMILY’s List endorsement of Foushee precisely because they see the group as part of a party establishment that thwarts progressives. Dave Nelson, a resident of North Carolina’s 1st District who preceded Jenkins as chair of the state party’s progressive caucus, is one of them.
“I see them as a valuable arm of the mainstream Democratic Party,” said Nelson, who is supporting Smith in North Carolina’s 1st District. “Do they even present themselves as progressive?”