Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive former presidential candidate who rose to prominence in part by denouncing the influence of wealthy interests in politics, has a new target: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its affiliated super political action committee, which is spending heavily in Democratic primaries for the first time this year.

After Sanders traveled last week to Pittsburgh to campaign for Summer Lee, a liberal state legislator whose House campaign was opposed by millions of dollars in such spending, he is now headed to Texas. There, he is aiming to lift up another progressive congressional candidate, Jessica Cisneros, whose left-wing challenge of a moderate incumbent has been met with significant spending from the pro-Israel super PAC.

“This is a war,” Sanders said in an interview, “for the future of the Democratic Party.”

AIPAC has long been a bipartisan organization, and its entry this year into direct political spending has included giving to both Democrats and Republicans. That has earned the ire of Sanders and other progressives because the group’s super PAC also ran ads attacking Lee as an insufficiently loyal Democrat.

“Why would an organization go around criticizing someone like Summer Lee for not being a strong enough Democrat when they themselves have endorsed extreme right-wing Republicans?” Sanders said. “In my view, their goal is to create a two-party system, Democrats and Republicans, in which both parties are responsive to the needs of corporate America and the billionaire class.”

Sanders specifically called out the committee for donating to congressional Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 election, while its super PAC, the United Democracy Project, has framed itself as a pro-democracy group.

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“That just exposes the hypocrisy,” Sanders said.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, said in response to Sanders, who is Jewish, that the group “will not be intimidated in our efforts to elect pro-Israel candidates — including scores of pro-Israel progressives.”

“It is very revealing that some who don’t take issue with super PAC support for anti-Israel candidates get indignant when pro-Israel activists use the same tools,” Wittmann said.

The three candidates that Sanders has been most personally invested in backing so far have also had all super PAC support, though two were heavily outspent.

Despite more than $3 million in opposition spending from pro-Israel groups, Lee is narrowly ahead in her primary against Steve Irwin, a lawyer; The Associated Press has not yet called the race.

In North Carolina, Nida Allam, the Sanders-backed candidate, lost to Valerie Foushee, a state legislator, in an open congressional race. Foushee’s campaign was supported by nearly $3.5 million in spending from two pro-Israel groups and a super PAC linked to a cryptocurrency billionaire. Super PAC spending for Allam was $370,000.

Maya Handa, Allam’s campaign manager, said Sanders’ megaphone — he did robocalls, sent a fundraising email to his giant list and held a virtual event — brought invaluable attention to the outside money flooding in the race.

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The message broke through to some voters. In Hillsborough, Elese Stutts, 44, a bookseller, had been planning to vote for Foushee. However, on Election Day, Stutts said, she was turned off after learning about the origin of the super PAC money that had helped Foushee’s campaign.

Foushee ultimately won the Democratic primary for a district that includes several major universities, including Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and where Sanders registered 83% favorability among Democratic primary voters in the Allam campaign’s polling.

Sanders has sparred with pro-Israel groups over the years, including during his 2020 presidential run, when a group called the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent money to attack him when he emerged as a front-runner early in the primary season.

And when one of Sanders’ national co-chairs, Nina Turner, ran for Congress in a special election in 2021 and again in 2022, that group and the AIPAC-aligned super PAC both spent heavily to defeat her.

“I understand Sen. Sanders’ grudge against us,” said Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. “We helped prevent him from winning Iowa and the presidential nomination. Then we helped stop his campaign chair from winning a House race in Cleveland. Honestly, I wouldn’t be happy with us either, if I were him.”

Sanders said that his battle with AIPAC was not personal and that he did not even see it as being about Israel.

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“They are doing everything they can to destroy the progressive movement in this country,” he said.

Sanders’ next clash with AIPAC is the May 24 runoff in Texas between Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar. The contest has included more than $6 million in super PAC spending, of which less than one-third, or $1.8 million, has come from the United Democracy Project.

There are likely to be more clashes to come; the United Democracy Project is evaluating 10 to 15 more races. “Our goal is to build the broadest pro-Israel bipartisan coalition possible in Congress,” said Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for the super PAC.

Sanders knows he will not win each confrontation. The goal of speaking out, he said, was twofold: to create some political cost for the super PACs that engage and “for people to understand when they see these ads on television and why they’re being played.”

Sanders also railed against the “crypto-billionaires” who are pouring money into Democratic primaries, including more than $11 million into a single House seat in Oregon. “Outrageous,” he said.

In a letter this week to Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, Sanders urged the party to reject super PAC spending more broadly, at least in primaries. “What we have to do is not just talk the talk, we’ve got to walk the walk,” he said.

The two men spoke after the letter this week, though little is expected to come of the issue.