Rep. Haley Stevens Wins Hotly Contested Democratic Primary In Michigan

Stevens defeated Rep. Andy Levin, a Jewish progressive targeted by pro-Israel groups.
Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, on July 23.
Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, on July 23.
Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

Rep. Haley Stevens decisively won a contentious Democratic primary in the northern suburbs of Detroit on Tuesday, delivering a critical win for the pro-Israel lobby and other establishment groups that spent millions of dollars on her behalf.

Stevens defeated Rep. Andy Levin, a progressive known for championing union rights and the Green New Deal, who was drawn into the same district as Stevens following the 2020 Census. When the race was officially called late Tuesday night, Stevens was ahead of Levin by 20 percentage points with nearly all of the vote counted.

Levin, unlike Stevens, is Jewish, but he elicited the ire of pro-Israel advocates for supporting additional U.S. pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands, including restricting how Israel can use U.S. aid.

Stevens’ victory in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District also speaks to her strengths as a candidate, the overall power of a female candidate in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a federal right to abortion, and the moderate preferences of many Democratic voters in the relatively affluent suburbs of Oakland County, just outside Detroit.

“It shows the importance of money, the importance of women candidates, the importance of interest group support ― and also just the importance of being an incumbent in more of the district and people being satisfied with their representation,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University.

In a statement to the press, Levin congratulated Stevens on a “strong campaign” and promised to help her and other Democrats win their elections in November. Stevens will face Republican nominee Mark Ambrose, a military veteran and financial analyst.

As a result of nonpartisan redistricting, the electorate in Michigan’s 11th is much more Democratic-leaning than it was last election cycle. President Joe Biden would have carried the new seat by 20 percentage points. Stevens’ victory in the primary makes her the heavy favorite to return to Washington for a third term.

The contest between Stevens and Levin justifiably drew national attention ― and the outcome of the race will have national implications.

Levin, a fourth-generation Michigander, is akin to Jewish political royalty in metropolitan Detroit. For decades, his father Sandy represented Detroit suburbs in the House, and his late uncle Carl represented Michigan in the Senate.

But while that pedigree helped Levin succeed his father in Congress in 2018, it was also a key reason that pro-Israel donors arrayed against him this year. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which boasts a highly active membership in Oakland County, prioritized defeating Levin on the grounds that his proud Jewish identity and self-described “love” for Israel created a permission structure for non-Jewish progressives to challenge Israeli policies without fear of being branded antisemitic.

AIPAC’s new super PAC, the generically named United Democracy Project, has won all but one of the races on which it has spent significant money this cycle. The group spent more than $4.2 million to help Stevens prevail.

EMILY’s List, which endorses female candidates who support abortion rights, and which has ties to official Democratic Party organs, also spent more than $3.1 million on Stevens’ behalf. Progressive super PACs supporting Levin, including the more liberal pro-Israel group J Street Action Fund, stepped in to offset the pro-Stevens money, but ultimately matched only a fraction of their rivals’ funds.

Stevens chats with Pontiac City Councilman William Parker Jr. at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, where Parker is the pastor, on July 23.
Stevens chats with Pontiac City Councilman William Parker Jr. at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, where Parker is the pastor, on July 23.
Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

Grassroots Muslim-American groups like Emgage, and the upstart left-leaning Jewish group Jews for Andy, likewise sought to counter the influence of big money with face-to-face conversations at people’s homes. But in the end, their efforts fell short.

U.S. policy in Israel and Palestine is not a high-ranking concern for the vast majority of voters, and the ads funded by United Democracy Project, which did not mention Israel, reflect that reality. Levin’s triumph is nonetheless likely to make progressive candidates and lawmakers think twice before they seek to make U.S. policy in the region more evenhanded.

In a statement about the race’s outcome, AIPAC argued that Democratic candidates should conclude from Stevens’ win that the Party’s base strongly prefers a U.S. policy of unconditional support for Israel.

“Democratic voters have sent the unambiguous message that being pro-Israel is both sound policy and smart politics,” AIPAC said. “They have demonstrated that it is perfectly consistent with their progressive values to support candidates who stand with the Jewish state.”

Levin and his allies also expressed concerns ahead of the race that the AIPAC-aligned super PAC, which received a pair of seven-figure checks from Republican megadonors, could offer a model for other conservative interest groups hoping to influence Democratic primaries.

“The comparison is not that wild that if Elon Musk decided he wants to destroy the auto industry here in Michigan, he could start an independent expenditure and do the exact same thing,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said at a joint press conference with Levin on July 22.

Of course, plenty of Detroit-area politics watchers believe Stevens would have defeated Levin without any of that external help. They characterize her as an overachieving candidate who simply has more experience running in, and winning, competitive elections. She triumphed over an establishment-backed Democratic candidate in her 2018 primary, flipped the GOP-held district later that cycle, and held the seat in 2020 despite a surge of Republican votes.

Those skills were on display during the race against Levin. As of mid-July, Stevens’ campaign, which continued to accept most corporate PAC donations, had raised about $2 million more than Levin’s.

“She’s a better fundraiser and a better campaigner, who is more in line with where voters are in her district and the issues that they really care about,” said a prominent Michigan Democrat supporting Stevens who asked for anonymity to protect professional relationships. “Maybe he wins against a lesser candidate, but Haley is a juggernaut.”

In addition, Stevens’ stint as chief of staff to then-President Barack Obama’s auto industry rescue program ― and video of him praising her ― made for ideal TV advertising content. And though Levin’s credentials as a supporter of abortion rights are unimpeachable, Stevens benefited from being able to talk about defending abortion rights as a woman with a direct stake in the matter.

Levin also made some errors that may have cost him support. With permission from the family trust of the late John Lewis, a Black civil rights hero and longtime member of Congress from Georgia, Levin featured old footage of Lewis endorsing him in a June TV ad. Two Black members of Congress supporting Stevens, including retiring Detroit-area Rep. Brenda Lawrence, condemned the ad, arguing that it implied Lewis had endorsed Levin’s current campaign. United Democracy Project went on to circulate the Detroit News article quoting Lawrence in Facebook ads.

“Even though [Lewis] might have supported you then, you don’t know who he’s supporting now,” Steve Brady, a retired land surveyor in Pontiac who is Black and planned to vote for Stevens, told HuffPost at a church picnic on July 23. “It seemed like people took offense to that, like, ‘How dare you?’”

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade at the end of June, Levin also drew ridicule for posting photos of one of his daily yoga poses on Twitter. In the tweet, which Levin deleted within an hour, he spoke of his need to briefly “turn inward” at a “moment of wildly conflicting emotions.”

Finally, Levin never fully quieted the complaints of detractors who maintain that Democrats in the state would have been better off if he’d chosen to run in Michigan’s neighboring 10th Congressional District.

Stevens chats with Pontiac City Councilwoman Melanie Rutherford at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac.
Stevens chats with Pontiac City Councilwoman Melanie Rutherford at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac.
Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

Competing for the 10th would have been fraught with the risk of general-election defeat for Levin. Former President Donald Trump would have carried the new seat, centered in Macomb County, by a single percentage point. And, as Levin pointed out, he currently lives in the new 11th District.

But proponents of the idea note that Levin represented much of the new seat in his current district, and they argue that his family name remains popular in rightward-trending Macomb.

Melanie Rutherford, a Pontiac City Council member supporting Stevens, blamed Levin for allowing John James, the Republican nominee in Michigan’s 10th, to run for an open seat. She predicted that James will now win, but that he would have lost against Levin.

Levin is “giving this idiot a seat at the table, and all he had to do was buckle down and work a little harder,” Rutherford told HuffPost at the July 23 church picnic.

Levin tried to subtly rebut that charge in his statement about the results of the race, arguing that AIPAC would have hounded him in a different district as well.

“Unfortunately, I was ... the target of a largely Republican-funded campaign set on defeating the movement I represent no matter where I ran,” he said. “I will continue to speak out against the corrosive influence of dark money on our democracy. Onward.”

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