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A nasty primary highlights split over Israel and direction of the Democratic Party

Reps. Haley Stevens and Andy Levin, once allies, are locked in a redistricting-spurred survival match in Michigan.
Reps. Haley Stevens and Andy Levin are locked in an increasingly bitter fight because the state’s loss of a congressional district following the 2020 census forced incumbents to play musical chairs.
Reps. Haley Stevens and Andy Levin are locked in an increasingly bitter fight because the state’s loss of a congressional district following the 2020 census forced incumbents to play musical chairs.NBC News / U.S. Congress

PONTIAC, Mich. — A proxy war over Israel policy and other ideological differences is drawing attention to a rare, divisive Democratic primary between House incumbents in Michigan’s 11th District.

Reps. Haley Stevens and Andy Levin are running against each other because the state's incumbents were forced to play musical chairs when Michigan lost a district following the 2020 census. The new 11th District, which leans heavily Democratic, was created by merging chunks of Oakland County in their existing districts and the Black-majority district now represented by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, also a Democrat.

The real X factor, political insiders here say, is whether one of the candidates can outperform the other with nonwhite voters, many of whom were not previously represented by either candidate. Black voters could account for 20 percent or more of the electorate in the Aug. 2 primary.

“There’s a lot of diversity in Oakland County,” Stevens said during a 45-minute interview at the Alley Cat Cafe in Pontiac on Monday. “That’s another piece of the pie that hasn’t been written about.”

That’s because it’s an angle that has been overshadowed by a flood of money from donors determined to help determine the direction of the Democratic Party.

Though the two lawmakers have had nearly identical voting records in their four years in Congress, Levin is a vocal advocate for the progressive wing of the party while Stevens is more moderate in tone and tactics.

He is quick to point out where they differ ideologically: for example, he backs the Medicare for All and Green New Deal proposals that have gained little traction in Congress even with a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both chambers. And, Levin notes, he endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign — she has endorsed him in return — while Stevens sided with Michael Bloomberg.

“It’s not personal,” Levin, 61, said in a telephone interview. “I’m running on my record. That’s my record.”

Stevens, 38, portrays herself as a more practical lawmaker, noting that she helped pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement — backed by some major labor organizations — while Levin voted against it.

Levin, who succeeded his father, Sander Levin, in the House, has also been a consistent opponent of the annual Pentagon policy bill, which his uncle, former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., used to write as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says the U.S. spends too much money on the military, while Stevens has said the legislation "strengthens our national defense."

Though Stevens says she believes Democrats can hold their majority in the House, she argues her experience representing a district more closely contested between the parties has prepared her to operate effectively no matter which party controls the chamber.

One labor leader in the state whose union has not made an endorsement said the fight between the two Democrats is going to get nasty.

Some would say it already is.

And there will be a lot of money spent to keep it that way: Stevens has raised $3.6 million, and Levin $2 million. In the quarter that ended March 31, the first when it was clear they would be running against each other, Stevens pocketed $1.1 million and Levin collected a little more than $750,000.

The money, much of it coming from outside the state, reflects the degree to which interest groups see a key battleground for ideological warfare. That’s been particularly true for groups primarily concerned with U.S. policy toward Israel.

The hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s political action arm raised nearly $300,000 in contributions for Stevens in the first three months of the year, according to a Friday filing with the Federal Election Commission. The more progressive Jewish group J Street says it has routed nearly $200,000 to Levin.

In January, one of Stevens’s top fundraisers, former AIPAC president David Victor, sent a solicitation to friends accusing Levin, who is Jewish, of being “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

In the email to friends, Victor contends that Levin has been too critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and that the fact that Levin is Jewish gives cover to other lawmakers to call themselves pro-Israel while delivering similar rebukes. That has put Victor and AIPAC in the position of backing Stevens, who is not Jewish.

But many American Jews are critical of Israel’s handling of its relationship with the Palestinians, and J Street is collecting contributions to defend Levin.

He is “a leader in making clear that you can be a very proud Jew and a very proud supporter of Israel and a proud member of the Democratic Party and support pushback on harmful Israeli government policies,” said J Street spokesman Logan Bayroff. 

The district, which takes in about three-fifths of Oakland County — from wealthy enclaves like Royal Oak and Bloomfield Hills to poorer, more heavily minority areas like Pontiac — includes a significant Jewish community. But neither campaign sees Jewish voters as its key to victory.

Polls conducted for both campaigns — in late January for Stevens and in early March for Levin — underscore the importance of voters of color, particularly Black voters. Overall, according to data from the state’s redistricting commission, about 29 percent of the voting-age population is nonwhite, with Black voters accounting for the largest share at 13 percent.

The Stevens poll, conducted by Impact Research, showed Stevens with a modest seven-point lead, including a 14-point edge with Black voters.

Levin’s poll found that the two lawmakers were tied at 36 percent apiece, with 28 percent of voters undecided. “Black voters are disproportionately undecided,” Lake Research Partners wrote in a memo accompanying the survey, which showed Levin’s favorability among Black voters to be higher than Stevens’s. Both Levin’s district and the new district include Troy, a city of more than 80,000 people with a sizable Indian American population.

In addition to the groups focused on Israel, a raft of elected leaders and national organizations have lined up behind each lawmaker.

Stevens’s endorsement list includes Lawrence; Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Emily’s List, which supports women candidates who back abortion rights; and several local unions.

Levin claims backing from several national unions — including the Service Employees International Union, the Communication Workers of America and Unite Here — as well as the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Despite breaking with some unions on the USMCA, Levin has been a prominent supporter of labor rights.

In interviews Monday, it was not clear that voters here have begun to focus on the two candidates as much as national interest groups have.

Ashley McBride, 33, said she hasn’t made up her mind. A Bloomfield Hills resident, she listed a long roster of topics that matter to her, including jobs, taxes and education.

“I’m always looking at Black issues, as well,” she said in an interview in Pontiac, “whether they are helping our Black community fiscally.”

But Irma Hayes, chair of the Pontiac arts commission, said she has become a Stevens supporter since meeting the congresswoman a few months ago.

Hayes, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and who is married to a Black man, is concerned about funding for the arts, education, mental health care, inflation and the war in Ukraine.

"She's all about the arts, she's about equality, she's about women's rights," Hayes said of Stevens. "I can't pinpoint a specific subject. It's just a feeling I get from her."

Both lawmakers suggested showing up and introducing themselves to voters is more than half the battle.

“It’s a primary in an off-year election,” said Levin, who vowed to have a robust field operation.

Stevens said her lunch stop in Pontiac on Monday was her 20th or 21st visit to the city during the campaign.

“I’m not drinking my own bullcrap,” she said. “I’m just working my ass off. That’s all you can do.”