In its first endorsement of the 2024 cycle, the progressive group responsible for helping to elect the Squad is backing an incumbent candidate whose early call for a ceasefire in Gaza and vocal support for Palestinian victims is likely to draw attacks from well-funded pro-Israel groups.
Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., is one of the few incumbents in Congress to win an endorsement from Justice Democrats without first having been backed in a primary or first being recruited by the group to run for office. The endorsement reflects a shifting strategy for the group, which has typically focused its resources on backing insurgent candidates in key primaries and, like other progressive groups, is operating in a strained fundraising environment and reduced staff after layoffs last year.
The choice to back Ramirez signals that Justice Democrats is doubling down its support for congressional progressives who won’t cave to the pro-Israel lobby, even as they face an onslaught of spending by groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
Recruiting progressive challengers to take on corporate Democratic incumbents and run for open seats is still important to the organization, said Usamah Andrabi, head of communications for Justice Democrats. “But also, there’s a lot of work to be done on the Hill itself,” he added. “This is just an expansion of our strategy to say there are members in Congress that we can organize around, too, that have already been elected so that despite the hundred-million-dollar threat that AIPAC and its super PAC, the United Democracy Project, is leveraging against a handful of Black and brown progressives, we are not going to ever stop ensuring that the Squad is growing.”
Ramirez was one of the first members of Congress to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and to co-sponsor a ceasefire resolution introduced by Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. Such calls have brought a rash of attacks and efforts to oust members of the Squad, including Bush and Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who were all elected with backing from Justice Democrats. Since Israel launched an unprecedented assault on Gaza in response to a surprise attack by Hamas, AIPAC has ramped up its targeting of members who have criticized the destruction and called for a ceasefire. The group plans to spend $100 million in Democratic primaries this cycle with a focus on ousting members of the Squad who have opposed the siege on Gaza and called to end U.S. military support for Israel.
In 2021, AIPAC launched a super PAC, the United Democracy Project, which spent millions against progressive candidates that cycle, including $3 million against the Justice Democrats-backed Rep. Summer Lee, D-Penn., who nonetheless won her election and took office last year. AIPAC has tried to recruit several challengers to run against Lee — at least two have declined, The Intercept reported last year.
Justice Democrats’ endorsement of Ramirez is part of its strategy to combat those forces, knowing that the group and its progressive network will likely always be outspent by its opponents.
“Now more than ever we have seen members of Congress be threatened and react to AIPAC’s far-right extremism and their million-dollar primary threats,” Andrabi said. “And it takes a lot of courage and moral clarity to stand up to a super PAC like that and stand up for the voices of innocent Palestinians and Israelis alike.”
Ramirez was first elected to Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District in 2022 following an open primary in which she overcame heavy spending by Chicago’s Democratic machine in support of her top opponent, a moderate City Council member. Ramirez also faced outside spending from Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel lobbying group with ties to AIPAC, and Mainstream Democrats PAC, a group funded by billionaire Reid Hoffman that is now considering targeting Squad members in 2024. Backed by Chicago unions, Planned Parenthood, and J Street, a lobbying group that has positioned itself as a liberal alternative to AIPAC, Ramirez campaigned on making the economy work for immigrants and working-class families.
Since taking office a year ago, Ramirez has sponsored legislation to strengthen tenants rights, support student veterans, and bolster funding for the consumer protection watchdog the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A month after taking office, she was selected by the Working Families Party, which backed her 2022 campaign, to deliver a response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.
She has also shown a willingness to dissent from the Washington orthodoxy on unconditionally supporting Israel, even before the ongoing war during which Israel has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians. In July, she was one of only two representatives who joined some members of the Squad in voting against a controversial resolution declaring that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state.
In October, after an Illinois man killed 6-year-old Wadee Alfayoumi in an alleged hate crime during the first week of Israel’s war on Gaza, Ramirez sponsored a resolution honoring the Palestinian American boy. (The resolution has three co-sponsors.) Ramirez was also one of 10 members to vote against a resolution supporting Israel in October.
As she continues to oppose the war in Gaza, Ramirez is focusing her 2024 campaign on support for tenants rights, Medicare for All, abortion rights, and creating a pathway to citizenship for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She is currently running unopposed in the March 19 Democratic primary, and the only current Republican candidate, attorney and former police officer John Booras, is running unopposed in the GOP primary.
“For too long, our government has worked overtime for corporate lobbies and Super PACs at the expense of working families—it’s time to put people over profits,” Ramirez said in a statement. “Together with Justice Democrats, we are ready to take on that fight and finally deliver on everything from comprehensive immigration reform to housing justice and healthcare for all.”
Justice Democrats has backed close to 100 candidates since it was founded in 2017. In 2018, the group endorsed nearly 80 candidates, but it has since opted to endorse a smaller number of candidates with better chances of winning. Seven of its candidates won election in 2018, including three incumbents and the four insurgents who went on to create the Squad. Three candidates backed by the group won office in 2020, and two more won the next cycle. Andrabi said the group has not decided how many candidates it will back this year.
While Republicans and Democrats funding pro-Israel lobbying groups have banded together to support efforts to oust progressives, elsewhere, Democratic and progressive efforts have been hampered by a fundraising slump. Layoffs last year hit several organizations across the Democratic political spectrum from EMILY’s List to the voter file firm NGP VAN to Justice Democrats, which laid off 12 of its 20 employees between June and August last year.