Image: Lorie Shaull (Flickr)
Ahead of today’s Pennsylvania primary elections, billionaires from around the country have been spending big to support candidates in the PA Governor’s race, the open Senate seat, and PA District 12’s open congressional seat. In recent elections billionaires and influential elites have been spending more than ever to win elections by pouring their money into super PACs and dark money groups. In this election cycle in Pennsylvania, many of these big donors share a common goal: to maintain the US’s support of Israel without conditions.
Pennsylvania is only one of many states that has seen this influx of cash from out-of-state billionaires and supporters of the right wing in Israel. Democratic Majority for Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) new super PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP), have also recently been active in races in Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas. Following continued attacks on Gaza and the killing of reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, some progressive lawmakers have questioned the US’s support of Israel. AIPAC has responded to this growing criticism by forming the UDP to deepen their influence in key primary races and defeat these progressive candidates.
As reported in the Intercept, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC and the UDP have both been spending money on ads to support lawyer Steve Irwin. Irwin is running against current State Representative Summer Lee for the open congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, which includes Pittsburgh and some surrounding suburbs. UDP is targeting PA’s 12th district as part of their efforts to influence races where they claim “there is a clear difference between a candidate who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship” and “a candidate who will seek to undermine that relationship,” according to a review of their involvement in Ohio – and now Pennsylvania – by Jewish Insider. Lee has previously stated that she would join other progressive lawmakers in efforts to attach humanitarian conditions to any future aid to Israel.
The UDP’s spending on the 12th congressional district race – and in other Democratic primaries where progressives are on the ballot – has been channeled through firms that have close ties to the Democratic Party establishment, and that in some cases are simultaneously working for corporations seeking to undermine the party’s agenda. UDP has spent $1.9 million in opposition to Summer Lee and in support of Steve Irwin with Waterfront Strategies, which is, as noted in The Lever, “an affiliate of the Democratic media buying firm GMMB that works with the super PACs for both House and Senate Democrats.” The Super PAC has also spent more than $52,000 since April 22, 2022 with SKDKnickerbocker, a public relations and lobbying firm led by senior Joe Biden advisor Anita Dunn. As we have written in the past, SKDKnickerbocker has run front groups for gig work companies seeking to undermine labor conditions, for wealthy landlords lobbying against protections for tenants, and for fossil fuel companies working to undercut climate legislation.
According to Open Secrets, the United Democracy Project has spent $2.4 million to support Irwin and attack Lee. Democratic Majority for Israel, the PAC that spent $1.6 million to defeat Nina Turner in Ohio, has spent $403,452 to support Irwin. Both of these PACs have been largely financed by a handful of billionaires in the oil and gas and finance industries. Some donors gave to both PACs and to the candidate directly, while others spent the maximum amount on individual contributions to Steve Irwin’s campaign directly.
- Stacy Schusterman is the Chair of Oklahoma-based Samson Energy. She’s the top contributor to DMFI this election cycle, with $2.905 million donated to the group. She previously served on AIPAC’s National Council and her family’s foundation claims to “invest broadly in efforts to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement” in the United States. Her and her mother, Lynn Schusterman, who is worth an estimated $3.5 billion, also gave $5,800 directly to Steve Irwin’s campaign.
- Haim Saban, of Saban Capital Group, is a well-known private investor in the entertainment industry. With a $3.1 billion net worth, he was the largest individual donor to UPD this cycle, giving $1 million to the new super PAC. Saban gave another $50,000 to DMFI.
- Gary Lauder, of the family that owns Estée Lauder, is the Managing Director of venture capital firm Lauder Partners. He is estimated to be worth $1.3 billion and gave $500,000 to DMFI. His wife, Laura Lauder, serves on AIPAC’s Northwest Regional Board. Estée Lauder also owns the skincare company, Rodan & Fields. Amnon Rodan, former chairman of Rodan & Fields and also a previous board member at AIPAC, has donated $500,000 to UPD and $290,000 to DMFI this cycle.
- Robert Kraft is the owner of the New England Patriots and Chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group. Estimated to be worth $8.3 billion, he and his son Josh Kraft donated a total of $300,000 to DMFI. Kraft was the recipient of Israel’s Genesis Prize for his commitment to Jewish values. He donated his award to fight the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
- Daniel Loeb is the CEO of Third Point, a New York based hedge fund, and is estimated to be worth $4.2 million. He donated $125,000 to DMFI and both he and his wife Margaret each gave $5,800 to Steve Irwin’s campaign directly. In 2019, the Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation gave grants to the Birthright Israel Foundation, Passages America Israel Inc., and Friends of Israel Defense Forces.
Other pro-Israel billionaires who have directly donated to Steve Irwin include Michael and Iris Smith. Michael is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Freeport LNG, a natural gas liquefaction and export company. Michael and his wife, who also run the Kaitar Foundation, donated $5,000 to Irwin’s campaign. Michael Smith also donated $95,000 to DMFI in the 2020 election cycle. Mara Talpins, who is married to Jeffrey Talpins,CEO of New York-based hedge fund Element Capital, donated $5,000. Talpin’s foundation aims to “support the long-term prosperity for Israel.” As reported by Ryan Grim at the Intercept, Talpin has also used his wealth to influence legislators in Washington.
Andrew Shechtel of TGS Management, a California based hedge fund, and his wife Raquel Shechtel, also donated $5,800. The Schectels are no longer billionaires after giving the majority of their wealth away. They are now worth about $125 million. Andrew and Raquel Schectel have both also donated to pro-Israel group NORPAC, World Alliance for Israel PAC, To Protect Our Heritage PAC, and Pro Israel America PAC.
The map below shows how several donors are connected to AIPAC.
The largest contribution from a billionaire in Pennsylvania came from the state’s richest resident, Jeffrey Yass. In this cycle, Yass has funneled about $13 million through the Students First PAC, the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund PAC, and the Commonwealth Leaders Fund to support gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain. Following recent poll numbers showing McSwain behind in polls, Yass switched his support to Lou Barletta. Yass and his wife Janine are proponents of charter schools and have given tens of millions of dollars to “school choice” candidates. While publicly, Yass has focused on targeting public schools, he has also been called out by activists against the Israeli occupation for his funding of the Kohelet Policy Forum, an influential right wing think tank in Israel that has supported efforts to build illegal settlements in Palestinian territories.
AIPAC and DMFI have historically been successful in contributing to making uncritical US support for Israel the mainstream position for both the Republican and Democratic parties. Their success can be attributed to the financial backing of billionaires and wealthy elites with an interest in not only supporting Israel, but also of maintaining the status quo in US energy and economic policy as well.