Capitol Report: Here’s how the pro-Israel lobby — just criticized by Ilhan Omar — stacks up against other Washington influencers

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Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar sparked an outcry after the Minnesota Democrat said Sunday that support for Israel on Capitol Hill is driven by campaign contributions. She apologized on Monday, but continued to say that one prominent pro-Israel group’s role in U.S. politics was “problematic.”

The pro-Israel lobby is a significant player in terms of political donations, contributing $14.9 million in the 2018 election cycle, according to data from OpenSecrets.org, a website tracking money in politics that’s run by a nonpartisan research group, the Center for Responsive Politics.

The center ranks this lobby as the 50th-biggest spender in the last cycle — well behind the securities and investment industry at No. 1 with its $399 million, as well as lagging the electronics industry at No. 19 with its $57 million.

Pro-Israel interest groups have definite clout, according to Ben Freeman, author of “The Foreign Policy Auction” and director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, a think tank. “It would be hard to say that the Israel lobby is not one of the most influential lobbies in D.C.,” Freeman told MarketWatch. “I don’t think anybody would disagree with that, whether they think it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

The pro-Israel lobby tends to donate more to Democrats than Republicans, having shown higher levels of giving to Democrats In every election cycle since 1990. That’s shown in the center’s chart above. Republicans had been getting a rising share of the contributions in this decade, scoring as much as 47% of pro-Israel interest groups’ money in the 2016 election cycle vs. Democrats’ 53% — up from only 28% for the GOP in 2002. But that trend abated in the 2018 cycle, with Republicans getting just 36% of the outlays.

In addition to the spending by pro-Israel interest groups in the U.S., OpenSecrets.org data based on Foreign Agents Registration Act filings show Israel’s government spent $15.8 million on lobbying-related efforts in 2018, while the nonprofit Jewish Agency for Israel spent $8.3 million.

On Sunday, Omar tweeted about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent promise to take action against her and fellow Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib for their criticisms of Israel, saying his pledge was “all about the Benjamins.” Critics, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, blasted Oman’s tweet as anti-Semitism.

See: Omar ignites new anti-Semitism controversy with AIPAC comments

When asked to explain where the money she was referring to originated, Omar said “AIPAC” in a follow-up Twitter post on Sunday, in a reference to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent lobbying group. AIPAC does not donate directly to candidates, though a Politico report says it does push a pro-Israel message in Washington, and its members donate to pro-Israel lawmakers and candidates.

Related: Khashoggi outcry may spur Saudis to step up their already-powerful lobbying

Getty Images

Rep. Ilhan Omar takes part in a news conference in January.

The biggest spender among pro-Israel interest groups in the 2018 election cycle was JStreetPAC, which paid out $4.1 million, with 98% of that going to Democrats. JStreet has often clashed with the Israeli government on issues including Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Jewish Coalition — whose leaders include top GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, CEO of casino operator Las Vegas Sands Corp. LVS, +1.00%  — spent $563,000 in the last cycle, with 99% of that going to Republicans, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Related: Trump told Japan’s Abe to consider donor Adelson’s casino bid, report says

Other top pro-Israel spenders aren’t as one-sided in their giving, with the Desert Caucus, a political action committee based in Arizona, dividing its $135,000 in recent contributions fairly equally, with 48% to Democrats and 52% to Republicans.

Pro-Israel lobbyists typically target politicians in both parties, Freeman said.

“If you’re a foreign country looking to change U.S. policy, you’re going to target those people who can change the policy. They might be Democrats one year, and they might be Republicans the next year,” he told MarketWatch. “It doesn’t really matter, as long as they can get done what you want to get done.”

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