Lack of big-name Democratic candidates at pro-Israel conference confirms for some voters the party has changed

Not long ago, if any U.S. presidential hopeful was mounting a serious bid for the Oval Office, the candidate attended the AIPAC policy conference, the largest U.S. gathering of the pro-Israel lobby. This year, it seems, not so much.

Some AIPAC attendees say the Democrats have moved 'way too far left'

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Not long ago, if a U.S. presidential hopeful from either party was mounting a serious bid for the Oval Office, the candidate would seek a spot on the main stage at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, the largest U.S. gathering of the pro-Israel lobby.

This year, it seems, not so much.

While the 2019 speakers list was stacked with officials from President Donald Trump's administration and Republican Party grandees, most major Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 were missing from the conference altogether.

The three-day event, which ended Tuesday, included speeches from Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy.

Nine of the biggest names in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination skipped the conference this year, and not one Democratic candidate was on the speakers list. 

Jewish Americans have long aligned themselves with liberal causes. About 75 per cent of Jews voted Democratic in the 2018 midterms. But some delegates at this year's conference noted with dismay recent comments by freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar that they felt trafficked in stereotypes about Jewish political influence and money. 

Recent polling suggests there is more willingness among younger progressive voters to criticize Israel. 

Some AIPAC attendees who spoke with CBC News wondered whether the party has shifted too far to the left. Here's what some of them said.

Michael Goldberg, 49, Democrat from New York:

Michael Goldberg is waiting for a more 'centrist' Democrat to get in the race. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"It used to be that Democrats and Republicans had to fight to get a spot on the stage," Goldberg said. 

  Noting the lack of 2020 candidates on the speakers' list, he asked, "Who's here that's running for the presidency for the Democrats?"

The attorney and father of three admitted that he feels "a bit politically lost."

He supported Barack Obama during his two terms in office. He and his wife have been "lifelong Democrats," and are still registered with the party. But they voted for Trump in 2016 and may do so again in 2020, unless a Democrat they consider "more centrist" decides to run.

Asked about talk of an "Exodus" or "Jexodus" — a movement begun by conservatives to woo Jewish-Americans away from the Democrats to the Republicans — Goldberg gave a knowing nod.

"It's me and my wife. That's what happened," he said. "The Democrats were friends of the Jewish people. They were friends of Israel. But it's a different party now."

Vicki Fishman, 47, Independent from Washington, D.C.:

Vicki Fishman is an Independent who lives in Washington. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"The American Jewish community stands for social justice, and the Democratic Party has positioned itself as being the party of social justice," Fishman said. 

She's aware the eventual Democratic nominee often addresses AIPAC in an election year, as has been the case in the past three presidential election cycles, and that the upcoming election is still 19 months away.

"This is an off-year," she said.

Indeed, AIPAC's policy is to invite presidential candidates to speak only in election years. Even so, Hillary Clinton addressed AIPAC in 2016 as well as the off-year in 2015. Obama spoke there before the 2008 election, as well as in 2011 and again in the lead-up to his re-election in 2012. In 2007, a non-election year, both Clinton and Obama competed for Jewish voters, holding big events at AIPAC.

Rep. Ilhan Omar's tweets have "complicated" the public discourse for the Democratic Party, Fishman said. But she considers it to be a distraction.

"We're living in a polarized country right now, and that's just adding to the general polarization, and maybe that's taking up within the party." 

Katie Draisen, 20, Democrat from Boston:

Katie Draisen supports Elizabeth Warren's bid to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"There are so many conservative politicians here. It's really concerning to me as someone who is pro-Israel, Jewish-American because it feels to me like Jewish-Americans are being used by Republicans to gain voters," said Draisen, a self-described liberal Democrat.

"Knowing that Mitch McConnell is here, that makes me want to throw up."

Draisen, a student at Boston University, supports Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren's bid for the Democratic nomination, though she declined to attend the conference. 

Trump's closeness with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has aroused skepticism among her Gen Z progressive friends "who see Israel and pro-Israel Americans as villains," Draisen said.

Netanyahu was listed as a speaker, but skipped AIPAC after a Gaza rocket attack. Netanyahu sent in a video address from Israel on Tuesday. A few months earlier, he reportedly told an aide, "We don't need AIPAC anymore," reasoning he had enough support from American evangelicals and Trump.

Dismayed as she was that major Democratic 2020 hopefuls didn't attend, Draisen also said she saw political risk for them had they showed up at AIPAC. Doing so, she said, would be "a big turnoff to most liberal Democrats." 

"It's unfortunate because I think most people don't understand the importance of supporting Israel, supporting a two-state solution, and learning."

Marcia Jacobs, 86, Republican from Los Angeles:

Marcia Jacobs says she likes many of U.S. President Donald Trump's policies. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Trump wasn't Jacobs's first choice to be president, but she has come to see the commander-in-chief as a staunch ally of Israel. Among the actions that convinced her was the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, as well as its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the embassy there.

"He supports it so strongly, and [Democrats] are so anti-Trump that they're letting it affect any other issue," she said. 

Jacobs was appalled by reports that the liberal non-profit had urged Democratic candidates not to attend AIPAC

"That's absolutely horrific," she said.

She also praised Trump for his tweet last week reversing more than 50 years of U.S. foreign policy on the Golan Heights by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the strategically important strip of rocky highlands located where the borders meet between northern Israel, southern Lebanon and Syria.

Manny Srulowitz, 18, Independent from Long Island, N.Y.:

Manny Srulowitz says he's noticed a new wave of Democrats who are critical of Israel. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Srulowitz, a moderate, said he was receiving emails last week from a pro-Israel organization informing him about the latest Democrats to pull out of AIPAC. He comes from a Republican household that voted for Trump in 2016.

"I wouldn't have enough knowledge to give you a confident answer about why the Democrats are all leaving," he said, "but it's very evident the Democrats are not here."

The high school senior from Long Island will be 20 years old in 2020, but doesn't see a Democratic candidate yet who would capture his vote.

"I have noticed there is a new wave of young and critical Democrats, usually the younger ones," he said of what he sees as declining support for Israel among people of his generation. "I am not one of them. I am a big fan of the state of Israel."

Ira and Susan Kapinow, 78 and 76, Independents from Potomac, Md.:

Susan and Ira Kapinow say they can't see themselves voting for Trump in 2020, but they don't like some of the things they see going on in the Democratic Party. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

As "middle-of-the-roaders" who try to avoid extremes in their politics, this is a fraught time for Ira and Susan Kapinow, married retirees and strong supporters of Israel.

Susan was troubled by support among at least two Democratic newcomers in Congress for the so-called BDS movement — a campaign calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

"I find it offensive. Israel is a strong ally and a strong friend," Susan said.

The Kapinows can't see themselves happily voting for Trump in 2020. But when they look at the growing divide over Israel within the Democratic Party, they have concerns about how the progressive candidates are breaking with what they viewed as conventional pro-Israel policy.

"It's certainly a new phenomenon and it seems to be generational," Ira said. "The older Democrats were more supportive of Israel, the more traditional way. The younger Democrats are moving more and more to the left on Israel. Way too far left."

Stewart Eisenberg, 64, Democrat from Philadelphia:

Stewart Eisenberg says he wasn't concerned about the lack of big-name Democratic presidential hopefuls at the conference this year. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

A liberal Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016, Eisenberg has attended AIPAC's annual policy conference more than 20 times. 

"You would like to see some presidential candidates from both sides, but we don't have the presidential candidate from the Republican side, either," he said.

He wasn't concerned about the lack of big-name Democratic presidential hopefuls this year, noting that top Democrats in Congress such as Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave speeches, as well as House majority leader Steny Hoyer.

Eisenberg balked at the idea of a "Jexodus."

"I think it's overblown," he said. "You have certain people on the right and certain people on the left that have different views about Israel. Both parties have taken a turn to the radical side on both extremes, but in the general majority of the party on both sides, there has always been bipartisan support for Israel. That continues."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong