by Eli Clifton
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was the first Senate Democrat to publicly oppose the Obama administration’s deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Schumer announced he would vote against the agreement on August 6, less than three weeks after the White House presented the nuclear agreement to Congress. The New York Times proclaimed that Schumer’s opposition was “shaking [the] Democratic firewall.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the deal’s most influential Washington opponents, issued a statement welcoming Schumer’s stance and, in a hint that they expected Schumer to deliver the votes of fellow Democrats, said, “We agree that we need a better deal as bipartisan opposition grows and public support for this bad deal is eroding.”
Schumer only managed to bring along three more Senate Democrats—Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—but his decision to break ranks and take sides against the Obama administration’s signature second-term foreign policy initiative coincided with a generous infusion of campaign contributions from NORPAC, a PAC affiliated with AIPAC.
AIPAC’s leadership has been known to funnel their campaign contributions through NORPAC, which bills itself as the “the largest pro-Israel PAC.” NORPAC contributed $90,000 to Schumer’s campaign committee between the time of the announcement of his opposition to the Iran deal and the September Senate vote, according to the group’s recent FEC disclosures.
Schumer’s is widely seen as a safe seat, but he could still use the cash. His opposition to the deal quickly made him a target for progressive activists, who highlighted his vote in favor of the Iraq war and challenged whether the New York senator was qualified to be the next leader of the Democratic caucus. CREDO Action issued a statement blasting Schumer, saying, “Sen. Schumer is rallying Senate Democrats to the warmonger caucus by joining Republicans in a rush to yet another war of choice in the Middle East.”
MoveOn, an anti-war group, announced that 17,636 members had committed to withhold $8.3 million in campaign contributions to Schumer and any other Democrats if they succeeded in sabotaging the nuclear deal.
The NORPAC donation to Schumer make him the biggest recipient of the group’s campaign contributions in the 2016 election cycle, marking a significant uptick in the pro-Israel PAC’s support of the New York Democrat. In 2010, his last election year, Schumer received only $25,700 from NORPAC. Before that, in the 2004 cycle, he got $3,000—despite consistently taking the hawkish, pro-Israel positions that define NORPAC’s giving.
NORPAC denies engaging in quid-pro-quo deals in exchange for campaign funds. But it has touted its focus on Iran—sometimes in hysterical, apocalyptic terms. The group’s president, Ben Chouake, told National Journal last year that NORPAC’s support of new Iran sanctions was a response to an “existential threat to the world.” He added:
What’s on the table is the prospect of nuclear genocide. They want to do to the Jews in 12 minutes what Hitler did in 12 years. You just can’t let crazy people get nuclear weapons. There’s nowhere to hide.
NORPAC went even further as the Iran deal vote loomed. In September, the PAC emailed its members, urging them to “please take the time to attend” demonstrations organized by hawkish Islamophobic groups, including the Center for Security Policy. Frank Gaffney, who heads up CSP, is a leading proponent of conspiracy theories about Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the U.S. government and the foreign-born status of President Obama.
Despite the alliance against the Iran deal with radical Republican Islamophobes like Gaffney, NORPAC has always maintained close ties to those Democrats in Congress who take hawkish positions on the Middle East. With Schumer, they’ll have a man in the leadership: the New York senator is widely expected to take up the minority leader slot when Harry Reid (D-NV) retires next year. For his part, Schumer can tout the donation as a sign of his fundraising prowess as a potential Democratic leader. The only losers, it seems, are progressives, whose positions Schumer seems sure to cast aside so long as he can keep banking on right-wing donors to fill the breach.