A North Carolina Congressional race has become a surrogate battle for the future of the Democratic Party. One surprising front: the Middle East.
Nida Allam’s bid for the U.S. House of Representatives—and perhaps her bid to join “the Squad,” the small group of progressive Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives—got a boost April 17 when her opponent lost a key endorsement over Middle East politics.
Allam is running to succeed longtime Congressman David Price, the moderate progressive from North Carolina’s 4th District, who is retiring this year. There are eight candidates in the Democratic primary for Price’s seat, which is considered safely Democratic. The three frontrunners are Allam, 28, a first-term Durham County Commissioner; Valerie Foushee, 65, a state senator from Chapel Hill; and American Idol contestant Clay Aiken, 43.
Foushee is Allam’s leading opponent, and she had originally received an endorsement from the Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party. But several weeks ago, the caucus withdrew its endorsement when it learned that Foushee’s largest contributors for the previous quarter—more than 50 percent of the $317,000 she raised—were bundled donors associated with the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. (In the same quarter, Allam reported raising $366,000.) Locally, Jewish Israel supporters, some contacted by AIPAC, have been contributing generously to the Foushee campaign.
Why the rescindment? AIPAC has endorsed 37 Republicans who refused to certify Joe Biden’s election as president, the caucus explained. “No American candidate should be accepting funds from an organization that provides financial support for those seeking to destroy our democracy,” the caucus’s chairman, Ryan Jenkins, said in a statement. And, as he told The News and Observer, AIPAC’s “track record of Palestinian human rights is even more abhorrent to us.” Jenkins said the group did not anticipate endorsing any other candidate in the race.
In response, Foushee’s campaign told The Hill that she “has a track record of delivering for her constituents and the insinuation that she could be bought by any interest group or donor is outrageous and offensive.” Foushee, who also supports a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, told Indy Week, an influential alt-weekly, “It’s very painful to be painted as something I’m not.”
AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittman reaffirmed the group’s support of Foushee, telling The Hill that she “solidly supports the U.S.-Israel relationship in stark contrast to her opponent,” referring to Allam. “It is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with our democratic ally Israel.”
Price, who has held the seat since 1986 (except for a two-year absence) has yet to endorse a successor, but he has had his own uneven relationship with AIPAC. “It wasn’t that long ago in the Democratic caucus, including the leadership of the party, when if AIPAC said ‘jump,’ we’d say ‘How high?’” Price told Haaretz in 2021. Other members of Congress, he added, “came to be bothered by that.”
Allam, the daughter of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, is the first Muslim American woman elected to public office in North Carolina. Her campaign has attracted national attention, including a recent Teen Vogue interview with the headline, “Nida Allam Wants to Be a Young, Progressive Voice in Congress.”
She has been endorsed by several local and statewide progressive organizations, including the influential Durham People’s Alliance. Last week she was endorsed by Indy Week, which wrote that while both Allam and Foushee were excellent candidates, the paper was distressed by the AIPAC contributions: “Ultimately, Allam’s commitment to running a grassroots campaign, and the fact that she makes young people in her district excited about voting and gets them engaged with political issues—makes her the best choice to represent this progressive district.” On Monday, the Raleigh News and Observer, the district’s largest daily newspaper, also endorsed Allam: The AIPAC contributions are “clearly targeted at keeping Allam, a Muslim who has criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, out of Congress,” it wrote. And while some Democrats worry about Allam joining “the Squad,” it continued, “as a Durham commissioner, Allam has shown that she recognizes that compromise is a key to moving forward on issues.”
Allam has also been backed by two members of “the Squad,” Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, as well as Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. And on Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed Allam, who worked on his 2016 presidential campaign. Allam, Sanders tweeted, “understands the need for an agenda that benefits the working class.”
In her campaign literature, Allam always mentions that she was propelled into politics in 2015, when an Islamophobic neighbor murdered three of her Muslim friends at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Like the members of “the Squad,” Allam supports the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and a living wage. She is an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. She is a critic of Israeli policy in the occupied territories and a supporter of a two-state solution. Her campaign does not accept money from corporate PACs.
At the same time, late last year she penned an outspoken and heartfelt denunciation of antisemitism, in which she apologized for previous statements that invoked antisemitic tropes.
But the race is more than a referendum on Middle East politics, much less antisemitism. As in past Democratic primaries in the progressive Durham-Chapel Hill area, identity politics has emerged—if behind the scenes—as one of the race’s defining factors. Writ small, the contest is a microcosm of the Democratic Party’s progressive base, reflecting competing constituencies who may vote primarily on the basis of age, race, religion or sexual orientation. The result could be a bellwether for the party’s future. If Allam wins, she could be an avatar of a new generation of Democrats.
By population, the newly redrawn 4th District is 20-22 percent Black, but the Black vote in the Democratic primary is estimated at approximately 30 percent. Foushee, who is Black, has been endorsed by the influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. G.K. Butterfield, the congressman from North Carolina’s 1st District and former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, also endorsed her. Other Foushee supporters include the Democratic Majority for Israel’s PAC, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (who is Jewish), as well as both of Durham’s state senators and the mayor of Chapel Hill.
Aiken, who would become the first openly gay member of Congress elected from the South, has out-raised the other two frontrunners, with $444,000, most from out-of-state supporters.
If no Democrat wins more than 30 percent of the vote in the May 17 primary, a runoff between the top two candidates will be held in July.
There has been some grumbling, including some progressives speaking off the record, that Allam is too young and too inexperienced, and that it is time for the Congressional seat to go to a Black politician. “Every step of the road, I have been told I need to wait my turn,” Allam recently told Durham’s 9th Street Journal. “Waiting your turn continues to lead to the issues that are impacting me and impacting people in the community to be left unaddressed. And we can’t sit around and wait our turn. We need to step up and take action because our generation needs to be heard.”
Top photo: Nida Allam at National Night Out in 2021 (Credit: Kimberle Walker via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)