Updated: Dec 25, 2022
Last October, before the midterms and before the FTX implosion and political scandal, Ryan Grim posted a wicked-long substack piece, The story of how AIPAC and DMFI are reshaping the Democratic Party. By way of introduction, he wrote that “there’s been an insurgency brewing on the left flank of the Democratic Party that transformed its politics and also threatened to fully take over the party. That didn’t happen in 2020, but the progressive wing continued to make major gains, and significantly shaped Biden’s legislative agenda in 2021 and 2022. But this midterm cycle, the movement ran up against an obstacle it didn’t fully see coming: a flood of money from private equity executives, hedge fund barons, and other titans of industry organizing their efforts through super PACs that say American policy toward Israel is their primary purpose. They were also joined by a tech billionaire, Reid Hoffman, and a crypto billionaire, Sam Bankman-Fried, in many of the races they played in, and they have fundamentally reshaped how primaries are contested and what is possible for the progressive wing of the party. Now that the primaries are over, they’ve mostly walked away from the Democrats they backed, because winning a majority isn’t the point. This cycle more than any other has given us a look at the real harvest of the Citizens United seeds that were planted back in 2010.”
Grim began his piece in Orlando, where Maxwell Alejandro Frost, then an Uber-driver now a congressman-elect, was running in a crowded primary boosted by a million dollars from the Bankman-Fried brothers, Sam, recently arrested, and Gabe, not arrested yet. Grim wrote that Frost “for all appearances, was a true believer in the [Palestinian] cause.” Of course, he wasn’t. He was then and is now nothing more than a true believer in the Maxwell Alejandro Frost cause. His campaign advisors decided that to win he would have to run as a progressive. Even the Progressive Caucus bought into the pretense. They also decided to run him as the “first Gen Z candidate,” even though another young politician he is very much like, Madison Cawthorn, beat him to the punch. But how good does it sound in an ad to claim you’re the second Gen Z candidate?
On page 685 of Maxwell Frost’s 716 page FEC report last month, I found an interesting entree, something I don’t recall seeing on the FEC reports of even the worst congressional grifters-- at least not since Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell. On November 21, not only well after the primary, but well after the general, Frost had his campaign pay him a $9,832.02 salary— buried between legitimate expenses for Uber and Lyft rides.
Anyway going back to Grim's narrative, he then brought us to Cleveland, where, he noted, “In a special election to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge in the House after Fudge was named Housing and Urban Development secretary, Nina Turner, a former state senator and surrogate for both of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, was polling some 30 points ahead of the field. Amid the Gaza War, she retweeted a Jewish advocacy group, If NotNow, that is the bane of right-wing ‘pro-Israel’ groups.” Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America threw their $upport behind an establishment, corporate Democrat, Shontel Brown.
Two groups— Democratic Majority For Israel, or DMFI, and Mainstream Democrats PAC— began spending millions pummeling Turner on the airwaves. The two were effectively the same organization, operating out of the same office and employing the same consultants, though Mainstream Democrats claims a broader mission. Strategic and targeting decisions for both were made by pollster Mark Mellman, according to Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Democratic operative and Silicon Valley executive who serves as the political adviser to LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, who funds the Mainstream Democrats PAC. DMFI has also funneled at least $500,000 to Mainstream Democrats PAC.
…While DMFI is ostensibly organized around the politics of Israel, in practice, it has become a weapon wielded by the party’s centrist faction against its progressive wing. In fact, DMFI, Mainstream Democrats PAC, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have spent so much money that the question of Israel-Palestine now dominates Democratic primaries.
Across the country, progressive candidates who a cycle earlier had been loudly vying for national attention with bold ideas to attract small donors were instead keeping their heads down, hoping to stay under the radar of DMFI and AIPAC.
…Mellman, in an interview with HuffPost, acknowledged that his goals extended beyond the politics of Israel and Palestine. “The anti-Biden folks and the anti-Israel folks look to her as a leader,” Mellman said. “So she really is a threat to both of our goals.”
Turner said she was told she had to distance herself from members of the Squad, particularly Muslim Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, or face an onslaught. “I was told by a prominent Jewish businessman that ‘We’re coming at you with everything we got, you need to disavow the Squad,’” Turner said, and “if I didn’t do it, they were coming for me. And that also the Palestinian community didn’t have rights that were more important than the state of Israel.”
…Frost told another ally that his goal was to avoid getting crushed by DMFI. “We’re just trying to see if we can keep them out, and maybe if they come in, they won’t spend anything,” they recalled him speculating.
Frost [nearly as much a liar as George Santos] told The Intercept that he wasn’t really aware of the influence of outside spending at that point in his campaign. “I honestly didn’t know much about outside spending at that point, or IEs”— independent expenditures made by Super PACs— “or kind of the role that they play,” Frost said. “I didn’t really learn about the outside money that played into [Turner’s] race until months after, to be honest… I saw the results come in, I looked at my phone, I remember I was like, sitting in my kitchen and I was just like, Damn, we lost. I remember being surprised and being upset and then kind of saying, you know, I need to win, we need more progressives in Congress. So I hadn’t really connected those dots, to be honest, and wasn’t really fully aware of, kind of, the role of outside money in general in these Democratic primaries.”
Campaign sources, however, say the issue was front and center, with questions about what type of positioning might keep the outside money out. When allies in the free Palestine movement warned him that capitulating to DMFI and AIPAC wouldn’t let up even after he was elected, whether he capitulated or not, they recall Frost saying, “I’ll figure that out when I get there.”
…The names on DMFI’s endorsement list, and the names left off, tell a story of the group’s commitment to fighting back against the party’s left flank in Democratic primaries and an increasingly extremist view of what being pro-Israel meant.
“In Michigan and Illinois, Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Sean Casten (D-IL) are, with support from DMFI, waging respective battles against progressive Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Marie Newman (D-IL), who have frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over their criticism of the Jewish state,” the Jewish Insider piece read.
Levin was an incumbent member of Congress and a scion of a powerhouse Michigan family that included Carl Levin, his uncle and a former lion of the Senate, and former House Ways and Means Chair Sander Levin, his father. Levin had been redistricted into a primary against another incumbent Democrat, Stevens, who became conspicuously outspoken about her unwavering support for Israel, becoming one of just 18 Democrats casting public doubt on the wisdom of President Joe Biden reentering the Iran nuclear deal. To include Levin among an anti-Israel cohort stretched the definition to a breaking point. Wrote Jewish Insider:
While Levin, a former synagogue president, describes himself as a Zionist and opposes BDS, the Michigan political scion has frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over his criticism of the Israeli government, including the recent introduction of legislation that would, among other things, condemn Israeli settlements while placing restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel.
The attack on Levin helped define what DMFI meant by pro-Israel, and it included support for expanding settlements and ruled out criticism of the Israeli government. That Levin couldn’t be written off as antisemitic made him that much more of a threat. That he was willing to defend his colleagues like Omar and Tlaib was intolerable. Accusing Tlaib of antisemitism is made difficult if a former synagogue president has her back. AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr, asked by the Washington Post in a rare interview why Levin was targeted, said, “It was Congressman Levin’s willingness to defend and endorse some of the largest and most vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The list also included Summer Lee. In 2018, as an unapologetic democratic socialist, she unseated a member of a powerhouse Pittsburgh political family in a state House race. Her win made national news. Now she was running for an open congressional seat with the backing of Justice Democrats, and, Jewish Insider noted, was a member of “the Democratic Socialists of America, which formally endorsed the BDS movement in 2017.” BDS — which is modeled after the effort to boycott South Africa’s apartheid government and stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society groups in response to Israel’s construction of a wall that cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory.
DMFI came out early for her opponent, attorney Steve Irwin. “There’s a context here that I think we ought to take cognizance of, which is to say that we have had some organized groups out there that have said they are attempting to execute, in their words, a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party,” Mellman told Jewish Insider, referring to the organization Justice Democrats, which cultivates progressive congressional candidates to primary moderate Democrats, but expanded his discussion to include DSA. Freshman Rep. Marie Newman had also been backed by Justice Democrats in her campaign to unseat a conservative Democrat the previous cycle. “A number of those groups have moved anti-Israelism from a peripheral part of their issue agenda to a central part of their issue agenda,” Mellman said. “Their strategy is to go into deep-blue districts that the party doesn’t care about because it’s going to be a Democrat no matter who wins.”
Lee heard early on that her campaign was going to have an “Israel problem,” she told The Intercept. “We heard people in the establishment talk about it, you know, Summer’s gonna have an Israel problem,” Lee said. “It’s an issue that we knew was going to come up. And I think it’s really funny because, for me, as a Black woman who is a progressive, Israel is not, at the state level, it’s not an issue that we ever had to talk about, that we broached.”
…As the campaign wore on, progressive forces consolidated around Frost. It was a meaningful achievement, since the left is often hobbled by multiple progressive candidates splitting the vote and allowing a centrist candidate to slip through. (Levi Strauss heir Dan Goldman winning a Manhattan primary with less than 30 percent of the vote is just the latest example.)
The field initially included not just Frost, but also populist firebrand former Rep. Alan Grayson and Aramis Ayala, a popular former progressive prosecutor in Orange County, Florida, who had repeatedly clashed with state Republicans. Grayson had a dedicated but diminished base in the district, but Frost, in significant part thanks to the alliance with movement organizers in the district that Mubarak helped him build, began emerging as the leading progressive. A truce was brokered, with Ayala dropping out of the race in early March and winning the nomination for state attorney general instead.
Consolidating support was key but so was fending off DMFI. The critical question was whether DMFI or AIPAC would put money against him. “It was a conversation from the jump, honestly, because DMFI endorsed Bracy so early,” recalled Mubarak. “Every progressive under the sun who has even a little sympathy for Palestine, [the question of DMFI] comes up, because they just dump so much money.” Frost, according to people on his campaign, made it his mission to keep the groups at bay or find a way to neutralize them. But he had a balance to strike: Until March, Ayala was still in the race, so he needed to keep the full support of the progressive wing of the party without inviting a multimillion-dollar onslaught.
The answer came in the form of Ritchie Torres. A Bronx congressman in his first term and also Afro-Latino, Torres had made a name for himself in three overlapping areas. He was at war with the progressive wing, an outspoken ally of right-wing pro-Israel groups, and a cryptocurrency evangelist. [And, like Frost, as eager to be corrupted as anyone in politics I’ve ever seen. He’s at the center of the Bankman-Fried scandal and if there is any Justice left in America, he’ll wind up in prison.]
“In New York City we’ve seen the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is explicitly pro-BDS,” Torres said in a private meeting with DMFI after winning his 2020 primary, video of which was leaked to me. “The democratic socialist left endorsed in about 11 races and won every single one except mine. So it’s proven to be effective at winning elections and I worry about the normalization of anti-Semitism within progressive politics.”
Torres went on to say that his own identity as a gay man influenced how he approached the question of Israel: “If the message to those who are both progressive and pro-Israel, especially to those of Jewish descent, is that in order for you to be part of the progressive community you have to renounce your identity and your history and your ties to your own homeland— and you have to be in the closet— that to me is profoundly evil. That’s a perversion of progressivism.”
A DMFI board member told him, “It was so beautiful and almost not otherworldly, but amazing the way you speak with such honesty and conviction about Israel. … I just wish we could clone you so there were a million Ritchies running around talking about Israel.”
Another DMFI member on the call asked how a progressive, pro-Israel Squad could be built, and Torres told them it was all about building infrastructure and support for [fake] progressive candidates willing to side with Israel.
…Mellman had been the leading pollster for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 and was also a longtime AIPAC strategist. DMFI was an effort to do something of a rebrand for AIPAC within Democratic circles. AIPAC itself had become a toxic brand inside the Democratic Party after the organization worked to torpedo Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. Mellman’s firm, the Mellman Group, had consulted for AIPAC’s dark-money group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. The Mellman Group was also the second-largest contractor for AIPAC’s educational arm— the American Israel Education Fund, which organized congressional trips to Israel— in the year it fought the Iran deal. The biggest contractor that year was a travel business then-owned by Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul and Republican mega-donor.
…Mellman’s new organization was rolled out with a splashy New York Times profile and supportive comments from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (who leads the AIPAC-sponsored congressional trips), Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez, and Arizona’s freshman Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema. DMFI provided a forum for Lapid’s first call with an American Zionist organization after his election, during which he declared his intention to reinvigorate Israel’s ties to American political parties.
But in DMFI’s first cycle, it hit obstacles. The group’s first play for power, an effort to persuade Bernie Sanders to dismiss two Muslim advisers from his presidential campaign, was unsuccessful, as was DMFI’s later effort to hit him with TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. Next, would-be Squad member Jamaal Bowman of New York overcame more than $2 million in DMFI spending in 2020 to oust Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the most outspoken Israel hawks in Congress. That Bowman won in a landslide, and even carried heavily Jewish precincts, was a stinging defeat for DMFI and AIPAC, as Bowman had refused to back off his support of Palestinian human rights.
…AIPAC transferred $8.5 million to the Super PAC it set up called United Democracy Project. Private equity mogul and Republican donor Paul Singer kicked in a million dollars, as did Republican Bernard Marcus, the former CEO of Home Depot. Dozens of other big donors, many of them also Republicans, kicked in big checks to give United Democracy Project a $30 million war chest. By the end of March, it had spent $80,000 on polling, as it targeted races and honed its messaging, according to disclosures.
In April, it dropped its first ads of the cycle, tag-teaming with DMFI to make sure Turner’s second run against Brown never got off the ground. That same month it launched its assault on Nida Allam, a Durham County commissioner and the first Muslim woman elected in North Carolina. She ran for office after three of her Muslim friends were murdered in the gruesome Chapel Hill hate crime that drew national attention. AIPAC spent millions to stop her rise, backing state Sen. Valerie Foushee in the May primary. Elsewhere in the state, AIPAC spent $2 million against progressive Erica Smith in another open primary.
United Democracy Project also began hammering away at Lee, who was running in an open primary to be held the same day as North Carolina’s. J Street’s new outside money group had been planning to raise and spend about $2 million to compete with AIPAC, which they guessed would spend somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. That, said J Street’s Logan Bayroff, would at least be something of a fair fight, given that AIPAC and DMFI had to overcome the fact that what they were advocating for— unchecked, limitless support for the Israeli government, regardless of abuses— was unpopular in Democratic primaries. “We’re always gonna expect the right to have more money, given that they’re operating off of the basis of big donors. But that’s a little bit more of a fair fight,” he said of the disparity between J Street and DMFI. “But now you add to what DMFI is doing 30 million from AIPAC, that’s just in a whole other realm.”
..[O]n April 27 Frost announced a “national council” to advise him on “cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies.”
The council included experts but also Adelle Nazarian, CEO of the American Blockchain PAC, and Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive polling operation Data for Progress, who had played an early role in Torres’s election to Congress [and we have now discovered helping Bankman-Fried with straw donations for crooked candidates like Frost and Torres].
On May 10, Frost appeared on a crypto podcast hosted by one of the crypto council members, and that evening, at an Adams Morgan bar in Washington, D.C. that held a fundraiser hosted by McElwee; Ben Wessel, campaigns director for the Emerson Collective, funded by Laurene Powell Jobs; and Leah Hunt-Hendrix, a progressive organizer and founder of Way to Win and a member of Frost’s crypto advisory board. Gabe Bankman-Fried, the brother of crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, spoke at the fundraiser. Gabe is the head of Protect Our Future, a PAC funded by his brother and dedicated to policy advocacy around pandemic prevention, which teamed up on high-profile races, such as Nida Allam’s, with DMFI, AIPAC, and Mainstream Dems. (Building a Stronger Future Foundation, one of Sam Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic entities, provides financial support for The Intercept’s bio-risk, pandemic prevention, and lab-bio safety coverage. A nonprofit affiliated with Way to Win, Way to Rise, has also donated to The Intercept, facilitated by Amalgamated Foundation.) In April 2022, according to campaign finance records, Protect Our Future paid the Mellman Group for polling. (The report doesn’t indicate which race they collaborated on, but both DMFI and Protect Our Future spent heavily to beat Allam in North Carolina.)
At the fundraiser, for longtime D.C. hands who’d seen hundreds of candidates come through town, Frost, charming in person and charismatic on the stump, was talked about as a future presidential candidate, not in terms of if but when.
Frost said that his involvement with Gabe Bankman-Fried’s Super PAC was rooted in an interest in preventing future pandemics. “I remember we had our first Zoom,” Frost said, “where Gabe was talking to me about, what are the policies that they’re championing? Why are they doing this at this time? And honestly, pandemic preparedness was something I knew zip about. So I actually had a pretty informative call with Gabe about what Guarding Against Pandemics is fighting for and it actually really piqued my interest, because I remember a few weeks prior to that I was speaking with some community members, and they had brought that up. And I felt like wow, the appetite for pandemic preparedness will kind of get lower and lower and lower as time goes, as that happens with mass shootings and gun violence. And I saw a parallel there. So I told Gabe this is something I can get behind.”
Protect Our Future (a Super PAC linked to Guarding Against Pandemics) announced on May 17 that it would be spending at least $1 million to back Frost. Former Rep. Alan Grayson, competing with Frost for progressive votes, didn’t buy the rationale that it was all about pandemic preparedness. “I don’t think you’ll ever see a more clear-cut example of somebody putting themselves up for sale,” said Grayson, noting the proximity of the creation of the advisory board with the influx of crypto money. He would hammer Frost for it in the closing weeks of the campaign. “He auditioned for the role of corruption, and he won the part,” said Grayson, who was polling competitively before the deluge of money.
…That Tuesday was a day that DMFI, AIPAC, and Mainstream Democrats had hoped would be a death blow to the nascent insurgency that had been gaining traction in the primaries. Reid Hoffman’s PAC had spent millions to prop up conservative Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, who was facing a credible challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon… McLeod-Skinner knocked off Schrader, and progressive Andrea Salinas overcame an ungodly $11 million in Bankman-Fried money through Protect Our Future PAC to win another Oregon primary.
The marquee race, however, was in Pittsburgh, where AIPAC and DMFI combined to put in more than $3 million for an ad blitz against Lee in the race’s closing weeks. (Mara Talpins— the wife of hedge funder Jeffrey Talpins, named as hosting credit card-stacked AIPAC fundraisers in New York— gave $5,000 to Steve Irwin.) In late March, Lee held a 25-point lead, before the money came in— and that amount of money can go a long way in the Pittsburgh TV market. As AIPAC’s ads attacked her relentlessly as not a “real Democrat,” she watched her polling numbers plummet.
But then Lee saw the race stabilize, as outside progressive groups pumped money in and her own campaign responded quickly to the charge that she wasn’t loyal enough to the Democratic Party. Justice Democrats poured in nearly $1 million, WFP put in $450,000, and the Progressive Caucus PAC put in $200,000. Her backers made an issue of the fact that AIPAC had backed more than 100 Republicans who had voted to overturn the 2020 election while pretending to care how good of a Democrat Lee was.
“When we were able to counteract those narratives that [voters] were getting incessantly — the saturation point was unlike anything you’ve ever seen — when we knocked on doors, no one was ever saying, ‘Oh, hey, does Summer have this particular view on Middle Eastern policy?’ Like, that was never a conversation. It was, ‘Is Summer a Trump supporter?’” she said. “We were able to get our counter-ad up, a counter-ad that did nothing but show a video of me stumping for Biden, for the party. When we were able to get that out, it started to really help folks question and really cut through that.”
On Election Day, she bested Irwin by less than 1,000 votes, 41.9 percent to 41 percent, taunting her opponents for setting money on fire.
…I asked if the amount of spending had gotten into her head and influenced the way she approached the issue. “Yes, absolutely, and not just with me, I see it with other people. I see people who are running for office or thinking of running for office in the future and they feel deterred because this is a topic that they know will bury them,” she said. “There’s absolutely a chilling effect… I’ve heard it from other folks who will say, you know, we agree with this, but I’ll never support it, and I’ll never say it out loud.”
More broadly, though, it makes building a movement that much more difficult, Lee said: “It’s very hard to survive as a progressive, Black, working-class-background candidate when you are facing millions and millions of dollars, but what it also does is then it deters other people from ever wanting to get into it. If you’re somebody who sat through my race as a supporter or not, someone in our district, who’s witnessing the movement that we’ve been a part of, they will look at the onslaught, they will look at what they said about me and how they conducted those campaigns, and then they would say, ‘I would never want to run myself.’ So then it has the effect of ensuring that the Black community broadly, the other marginalized communities, are just no longer centered in our politics.
“It’s a way of maintaining that status quo,” she said. “But also it’s just disingenuous when we say that we’re not winning because we’re not winning on the issues. No, we’re not winning because we’re not winning on the resources.”
With the primaries over, Bankfried-Fried’s PAC, AIPAC, and DMFI have mostly stopped spending to help Democrats. In September, the Democratic National Committee refused to allow a vote on a resolution, pushed by Democratic National Committee member Nina Turner and other progressives, to ban big outside money in primaries. Leah Greenberg, co-founder of Indivisible, said it was absurd that Democrats continued to allow outside groups to manipulate Democratic primaries even though they clearly have little interest in seeing the party itself succeed. Their goal is to shape what the party looks like— whether it’s in the minority or majority is beside the point. “For a group called Democratic Majority for Israel they don’t seem to be putting much effort into winning a Democratic majority,” Greenberg said. Dmitri Mehlhorn said Mainstream Democrats, for its part, remains invested in the party, and is focusing on swing-state governor’s races, adding “we’ve moved quite a bit to Pelosi’s team.”
Earlier I spoke with Alan Grayson about the meaning on what Grim wrote and he summed it up very nicely: "Constantly, going back thousands of years, there has always been an effort to corrupt public officials. What varies is not the demand, it’s the supply. And right now, the supply is very substantial, in both parties. In fact, as we’ve seen in the primaries lately, the corrupt have a huge advantage. Communicating with voters costs money. The corrupters have money. 2+2=4."