2020 Dems avoid this year's AIPAC conference

Democrats running for their party’s presidential nomination in 2020 are staying away from next week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, in what progressive groups see as a sign of a shifting political tide.

Candidates’ announcements about not going to this year’s conference come after liberal group MoveOn called on 2020 Democrats to skip the gathering, which typically attracts a who’s who in politics and foreign policy and has hosted presidential candidates in the past.

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“The influx of progressive candidates confirming they will not attend — even those who have gone in years past — shows how the momentum is shifting,” Iram Ali, campaign director at MoveOn, said in a statement Wednesday. “AIPAC is clearly a partisan lobbying group that has undermined diplomatic efforts, and progressives want no part in it.”

As of Thursday evening, aides for at least eight candidates told The Hill or other news outlets they would not attend this year’s conference: Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Calif.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (I-Vt.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandLobbying world 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE (N.Y.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (D-Mass.); former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.



A ninth candidate, former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the October showdown MORE (Md.), a centrist who is considered a long shot, is also not attending, but a spokesman said it was due to a “scheduling conflict.”



“Congressman Delaney is very disappointed that we can't attend AIPAC this year due to a scheduling conflict,” press secretary Michael Starr Hopkins said in an email. “We have attended every year since he has been in Congress and we very much look forward to being back next year.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Minn.) told The Hill on Friday afternoon that she would not be attending AIPAC.



Other candidates did not respond to The Hill’s queries Thursday, but no one in the Democratic field for 2020 is listed as a scheduled speaker on AIPAC’s website.

The AIPAC conference has long been considered one of the top events of the political calendar, with politicians from both parties flocking to speak there.

This year’s conference again boasts headliners from both parties, including Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump isolated amid Syria furor | Pompeo, Pence to visit Turkey in push for ceasefire | Turkish troops advance in Syria | Graham throws support behind Trump's sanctions Graham: Erdoğan pledged to Trump to stay away from Kurdish territory in Syria Trump honors Stanley Cup champions, talks impeachment, Turkey MORE, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump again vetoes resolution blocking national emergency for border wall Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Democratic debate starts with immediate question on Trump impeachment White House, Pentagon, Giuliani reject House subpoenas MORE (D-Calif.).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also routinely come to the event and will do so again this year.

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The conference has traditionally been considered a must-stop on the presidential campaign trail. Both former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE spoke there in 2008, and Obama returned in 2012.

 Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE, who is widely expected to join the 2020 race but has not officially announced, spoke at the conference in 2016.

But this year’s event is kicking off amid a fraught political atmosphere, spawned partly by freshman Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarFive takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? Ocasio-Cortez to endorse Sanders for president MORE’s (D-Minn.) criticisms of AIPAC earlier this year, which were widely condemned as anti-Semitic.

“The attack on Ilhan Omar by AIPAC and their supporters thrust AIPAC into the intense heat of scrutiny,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in an email. “More people are now willing to compare them to the NRA, Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Pharma when it comes to big-money influence on our political system.”

“And more people are willing to call out their support for Netanyahu's corruption and right-wing inhumane policies,” he added. “Good for candidates for taking a stand, and we expect that to be a growing trend."

AIPAC has been at odds with Democratic positions in the past. The group lobbied hard against Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and some members of the audience booed Pelosi when she spoke at the conference in 2007 and criticized the Iraq War.

More recently, progressives see AIPAC as aligned with Trump and Netanyahu, whose policies they despise. Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, for example, has sparked outrage for moves seen as anti-Arab, including making a deal with a far-right political party.

It’s unclear whether any Democratic candidates were invited this year.

An AIPAC spokesman declined to comment on whether the organization invited any candidates, as well as what the organization thinks the pressure for candidates to skip means for Democratic policies on Israel going forward.

An official did note on background that “we have not had candidates in off years in the past."

Liberal groups, though, see the decision by some Democratic candidates not to attend as a significant development.

“Certainly, I think this is a notable change from previous years,” said Logan Bayroff, communications director for J Street, noting Obama's and Clinton’s appearances.

While this year’s event has several congressional Democrats scheduled to attend, “few if any” are considered to be the party’s rising stars, Bayroff said, adding that it “does send a pretty obvious message” about AIPAC’s place among the Democratic base.


J Street, a liberal advocacy group whose stated mission is to help end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, has not called on 2020 Democrats to avoid the conference, with Bayroff saying it’s “their choice to make." Instead, the group has urged those who do attend to denounce Netanyahu’s policies.



“There are two different ways to distance yourself” from Netanyahu, according to Bayroff: Speak out at the conference or skip it. “We’re seeing one of those outcomes play out right now.”

Updated 3:55 p.m.