(February 4, 2022 / JNS) Pro-Israel organizations are likely to be closely watching a contest between two Democratic incumbent members of Congress running against each other in a newly formed congressional district in the metropolitan Detroit area.
Michigan lost a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and for the first time in state history after a successful referendum in 2018, a new independent commission was formed to create new districts in the state.
The commission released its new district map on Dec. 28, and within two hours of the announcement, two Democrats—Michigan 9th Congressional District Rep. Andy Levin and Michigan 11th Congressional District Rep. Haley Stevens—said they would be running in the newly formed 11th Congressional District, which will become the most Jewish district in the state.
While there are ongoing legal challenges to the new districts, most believe the federal district map will remain the same or with minor alterations.
For the national pro-Israel community, the race pits two distinct political positions on America’s relationship to the State of Israel, with Levin, who is Jewish, reflecting the far-left progressive stances of J Street; and Stevens, who is not Jewish, representing the traditional pro-Israel perspective that has long been a consensus among Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of Detroit’s Jewish Community Relations Council and American Jewish Committee, said his organization has relationships with both candidates and does not take sides. He also noted that both candidates are considered pro-Israel, and both are in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but have different opinions on how America can best have a relationship with Israel.
Lopatin said many of Levin’s political stances “are very much in keeping in harmony with J Street’s positions, including being very concerned about what J Street calls the occupation,” also noting that Levin participated on a J Street-sponsored trip.
He describes Stevens as “much closer to what I would describe as an AIPAC position, really being very supportive of Israel; this is for the benefit of the United States. It’s not out of loyalty to another country; it’s only out of loyalty to the United States. She sees America supporting Israel as the best thing America can do as an ally of Israel.”
He did point out that Levin is also voted in favor of the supplemental funding of Iron Dome when it was approved in the House of Representatives on Sept. 23.
“Obviously, whatever your politics are, you might find one position more attractive than the other,” said Lopatin.
‘Respecting each other despite our disagreements’
Lopatin called the newly formed district the “heart of Jewish Detroit”—covering most of Oakland County, with major Jewish populations in the cities of West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, Farmington Hills and Oak Park.
He estimated that about 50,000 Jews live in the district.
“Jews vote in higher percentages, and participate more and are very much involved in the political process,” said the rabbi. “I know Jews already had events to meet the candidates and to discuss this. Letters have gone out in support of both candidates from Jews.”
Lopatin said that when it comes to Israel, the Detroit Jewish community’s views are more mainstream, closer to that of AIPAC than J Street and against pressuring Israel on what its policies should be.
Both campaigns, he said, have already reached out to the Jewish community to make sure that the community knows that they are pro-Israel and are supportive of the values of the Jewish community.
Lopatin said that he knows the candidates want it to be a friendly race. “They’re friends, and they don’t want this to be a bitter race,” he said. “They want this to be a positive thing.”
“I’m really hoping that this actually could be very healthy for the Jewish community to understand that people have disagreements, and yet we can all be friends. And we can all understand that we’re committed to the things we value, like the State of Israel,” said Lopatin. “There’s just a very small group that’s probably not Zionist; it’s not pro-Israel, but it’s a very small group of Jews. The vast majority are pro-Israel and are Zionist.
“I think that this is a chance for the Jewish community to rise to the challenge of how can we disagree in an agreeable, friendly and even loving way. So this will be a challenge, and we can be a model for other communities on how they can have a really serious, substantive conversation and election campaign, and at the same time, respecting each other despite our disagreements.”
How to court a mix of voters
David Dulio, professor of political science at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., said that after redistricting, it’s not uncommon to have incumbents forced to run against each other, though he was surprised by how quickly both Stevens and Levin jumped into the race, despite it being obvious that they would have to run against an incumbent.
Dulio said that Stevens’s advantage is that a larger part of her old district is within the newly formed district. But this time, the new district will also include part of what’s currently Michigan’s 14th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.). This part, with its most significant city being Pontiac, will bring in an influx of African-American voters.
“So you’ve got a large number of African-Americans in this district. And the question will be: How do Haley Stevens and Andy Levin court those voters?” said Dulio.
So far, Levin has been endorsed by Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel, who was once a primary opponent of Stevens when she ran for her first term in 2018, while Lawrence has been campaigning with Stevens.
Levin has also built a strong level of support with labor unions, which could be important in the area.
Stevens, on the other hand is a prodigious fundraiser, who has so far raised $2.6 million and has a little less than $2 million cash on hand as of the last reporting period on Dec. 31. Meanwhile, Levin has raised a little more than $1.3 million and has $1.1 million cash on hand.
Stevens won her seat in the 2020 election running on what Dulio called “bread and butter” issues such as manufacturing jobs, coupled with her work on auto-industry task force in the Obama administration—issues that resonated with voters in Oakland County. Since her election, she has garnered more support from the political left without paying a political price.
Dulio, who lives in Levin’s district, described Levin as a member who stays below the radar.
“I think he’s a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of member who works to represent his constituency without much flash,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch how these two colleagues battle each other,” said Dulio. “They may each have issues that that they want to focus on. And they may not go the traditional route of trying to create contrast by creating conflict.”
‘A very one-sided bill’
Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, said that his organization endorsed Stevens in the last election and has already endorsed her again even before redistricting.
“And we stand by that endorsement. She has demonstrated during her time in Congress consistent and clear commitment to advancing America’s relationship with Israel through her actions and the legislation she has supported,” said Mendelsohn.
In Congress, Stevens has supported further sanctions on Hamas through the Hamas International Financing Prevention Act. She also co-sponsored a piece of legislation that seeks to extend and encourage the benefits of the Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab nations. Mendelsohn said that when supplemental funding for the replenishment of defensive Iron Dome interceptor missiles was taken out of a spending package by Democratic leadership after members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus threatened to vote against it, Stevens was one of the members of the House to pressed leadership to do a standalone funding bill, which passed overwhelmingly.
She is also signed on to several letters, reiterating support for America’s security alliance with Israel, encouraging the Biden administration to take a strong negotiating position with Iran, as well as signing letters that stressed the bad actions of Iran and the need for the United States to push back “not just on the nuclear program but the full range of bad actions by the Iranian regime,” said Mendelsohn.
During the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip last May, Mendelsohn said that Stevens clearly expressed her support for Israel and for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets.
Meanwhile, Levin has stood up against accusations of anti-Semitism against progressive members in the House of Representatives—namely, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), an American with Palestinian ties who represents a neighboring district.
In September, Levin also marked the end of the High Holidays by introducing the Two-State Solution Act, a bill supported by J Street, Ameinu, Foreign Policy for America, Partners for Progressive Israel and Americans for Peace Now, which, if passed, will condition aid to Israel if Israel’s actions are not seen as conducive to a two-state solution and provides a pathway to terminate the terrorist organization designation of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“There’s nothing wrong with the title, it’s what’s in the bill that’s the problem,” said Mendelsohn. “It’s a very one-sided bill. It at its core, places the blame for the lack of progress towards a two-state solution on Israel, which is both unfair and doesn’t represent the facts. The fact is that Palestinian leadership, for decades, has refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people. And it’s that refusal to recognize and accept Israel in the midst of the Middle East that’s really at the core of the lack of progress towards peace.”
Mendelsohn said that he believes it will be an important race to watch, with a lot of national attention focused on it, but the organization’s strategy and whether it will have to run ads on behalf of Stevens is still to be determined. So far, Pro-Israel America PAC has donated more than $10,500 to Stevens.
“We are very serious about our support for Stevens, and we’ll do what we can throughout the election cycle to support her,” he said. “I’m confident that the Jewish community will participate fully in the election and will be vocal about the candidate they support. I think that the pro-Israel community will stand with [her].”
‘Being female is helpful’
Mark Grebner, a Democratic political consultant and founder of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing, Mich., said that neither Levin nor Stevens have very deep roots in their districts, each concluding only their second term.
Levin comes from a long line of Michigan politicians, the son of former Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), nephew of the late Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and cousin of former Michigan Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Levin.
“Andy Levin is best known as being related to Sander Levin. If you just kind of went and did a focus group,” you wouldn’t get a deeper response, said Grebner. “I don’t think that either of them has really made a deep impression.”
This won’t be helped by the area’s media market, which is so big that it would be hard for them to get the proper exposure with their district being such a small piece of it.
Grebner did not see the Jewish community playing a large role in this or any Michigan election, despite it being the most Jewish district in the state and higher voter turnout.
According to Grebner, the new district has 79,000 likely voters, whose median age is 61. Of those likely voters, 28,000 overlap the old 11th Congressional District currently represented by Stevens and 24,000 from the old 9th Congressional District represented by Levin.
“When you actually look at the voters, you discover that no area is heavily Jewish. There are Jewish concentrations, but the next-door neighbor is something else, the people across the street are something else,” explained Grebner. “There’s sort of a flavor of it, but it’s when places are settled initially by an ethnic group, you can get very high concentrations. But when you’re settled secondarily, you just don’t get that. … There may be a hint of Jewishness to, say, Farmington Hills, but it just isn’t a Jewish town.”
“Jews make up a substantial part of the civic life of Bloomfield Hills, but it’s not a Jewish town,” he said. “They’re a substantial factor in some walks of life and in some neighborhoods, but … they’re not like a solid ethnic community about to deliver a big vote.”
Rather, Grebner believes that Stevens will have an advantage because she is female, and women make up 60% of the Democratic primary vote.
“There are people who are neutral or people pro-female, but there’s nobody who’s anti-female in a Democratic primary,” he said. “So being female is helpful. I mean, it’s not a huge factor, but it’s helpful.”
“Look at the Democratic [state election] ticket in 2018 and ask yourself how was that we ended up with a Democratic candidate who was female for attorney general and a female candidate for Secretary of State and a female candidate for governor and two new members of Congress, in addition to Andy Levin winning primaries,” added Grebner. “If I were running a candidate and I had a choice—if I know nothing else about it—but one is male and one is female, I’d go with female. A female is in a better position to win a Democratic primary.”
Levin, on the other hand, has the benefit of a famous last name and even if voters don’t know anything about him, they may have a positive association with the Levin family.
One interesting fact Grebner pointed out is that out of the total amount of likely Democratic primary voters, 92% have voted absentee in the last four years—meaning that it’s highly likely people’s choice will be made well in advance of the Aug. 1 primaries.
‘A lot of politics is transactional’
J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Professor Larry Sabato’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which has been a barometer of national politics for decades, said that with Michigan losing seats in Congress for several decades, incumbents running against other incumbents is not uncommon in the state.
While Stevens’s old district makes up the largest share of the new 11th Congressional District, the Levin brand is very strong, he said.
According to Coleman, the district’s voters are 68% white, 15% black, 10% Asian and 5% Hispanic. Voters from Stevens’s old district make up 36% of Democratic voters in the new district, compared to 30% of Levin’s and 33% of Lawrence’s.
Coleman said Lawrence’s former constituents look like they will be the swing block in the district, and it appears that during Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lawrence was introducing Stevens at talks.
“It comes back to how a lot of politics is transactional. The Levins—I know at least Sander Levin, who is Andy’s father—he endorsed against Lawrence in the 2016 race. So if Lawrence endorses Stevens now, is that payback?” posed Coleman.
The majority of Levin’s district is now in the new 10th Congressional District, where even though Levin could easily win the Democratic primary, the seat will be marginal in the general election, according to Coleman.
“I would just guess that it would be the kind of calculation of the primary versus the general election,” he said. “Yeah, it’s maybe a tough primary in District 11, but District 10 voted for Trump,” while also voting for Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
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