Democratic U.S. senate candidate Hill Harper said he rejected a $20 million offer in campaign contributions from a Michigan businessman to pull out of the senate race and run against U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) in 2024.
According to Harper, he declined the offer from the alleged donor, Linden Nelson, which would have split the campaign donation between $10 million in bundled contributions directly to Harper’s campaign and $10 million in independent expenditures.
Harper confirmed the offer on social media Wednesday after Politico reported the situation earlier that day based on a source with direct knowledge of a phone call between Harper, an actor, and businessman Linden Nelson.
Harper said he “didn’t intend for a private phone call to turn public”, but he confirmed a large donor to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) offered him $20 million to run against Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress.
“I said no. I won’t be bossed, bullied, or bought,” Harper said on X. “Yes, telling the truth here will put a target on my back. But if we ALL come together we can win.”
On Tuesday, November 7, Harper met with leaders from the Arab American community at The Arab American News offices in Dearborn. During the meeting, Harper told the group that he was offered $20 million from a large local donor to AIPAC to run against Tlaib instead of competing in the primary for senate against U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), an AIPAC-favored candidate. They are seeking to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
Harper said the offer was proof of a broken political system tilted toward the wealthy and evidence that “establishment donors” don’t believe Slotkin can defeat him.
“They see us as a threat,” he said. “And they’re right about that.”
But the offer illustrates the intensity of the blowback against Tlaib in response to her outspoken criticism of the Israeli government since its war on Gaza began. More than 20 Democrats joined Republicans in voting to censure Tlaib earlier this month after she invoked a pro-Palestinian slogan that’s wrongly interpreted as calling for the eradication of Jews in an effort to silence her, among other members of the House. It hasn’t been a secret that the pro-Israel Democrats are still searching for a candidate to challenge her in the primary.
Three of Tlaib’s fellow progressive critics of Israeli government policy towards Palestinians, Reps. Summer Lee (D-PA), Cori Bush (D-MO) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), are facing their own Democratic challengers, who are touting their more pro-Israel rhetoric and voting records. Harper, an actor and business owner, has also positioned himself as a progressive in the primary to succeed Stabenow, even though Slotkin leads in polling and fundraising with obvious support from AIPAC.
On November 10, three days after Harper’s meetings with Arab American leaders in Dearborn, he called for a “humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza, largely echoing the ceasefire support from a few dozen congressional Democratic progressives. He did so after he heard repeated requests from the Arab American leaders to call for a ceasefire. His call for a ceasefire in Gaza came well after the offer he received from Nelson, which was allegedly on October 16.
“The answers to ensure long-term peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians are neither simple nor pain-free, but one truth stands firm: Violence against defenseless children, trapped and frightened, is abhorrent, regardless of who is behind it,” Harper wrote in a statement calling for the ceasefire earlier this month.
It is worth noting that Harper’s Detroit residence is located in U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar’s (D-Detroit) district, not in Tlaib’s. She has represented her district, which includes Dearborn and Dearborn Heights with their large Arab American populations, since 2020. Despite facing multiple past Democratic challengers, she’s handily won her primary elections since then.
Nelson has a history of campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township); U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Birmingham) and Bill Huizenga (R-Holland) and former U.S. Reps. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) and Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), Federal Election Commission records show.
In 2020, Nelson donated to Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who then was challenging Tlaib to a rematch in the Democratic primary. Tlaib won a second term with 66 percent of the vote to Jones’ 34 percent.
AIPAC, which was reportedly trying to recently recruit a primary challenger against Tlaib, said Tuesday that it was “reviewing a number of races involving detractors of Israel”, according to the Detroit News.
“But we have made no decisions at this time,” said Marshall Wittman, a spokesperson for AIPAC.
It’s not clear if the alleged donation offer would have violated any campaign finance laws, had Harper accepted it. Saurav Ghosh, the director for federal reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said that any potential coordination between a candidate and a donor floating that amount of financing would be illegal.
“It would be illegal for a wealthy donor and a person planning to run for office to essentially coordinate and line up $20 million in financing to support that person’s candidacy,” Ghosh told Politico. “This would raise serious corruption concerns about the candidate being wholly within that one donor’s pocket.”
A promise to make a future donation boosting the candidate could count as a contribution under campaign finance laws and could thus qualify as an excessive contribution, Ghosh added, as the promised money would still end up directly benefiting the candidate even if it were routed through an outside group like a super PAC.
Nelson did not respond to a subsequent request by Politico for comment on the potential illegality of the alleged offer.
Harper, an actor known for his roles on CSI: NY and The Good Doctor, announced on Monday, July 10, that he is running for Michigan’s open U.S. Senate seat and challenging Slotkin for the Democratic nomination.
Harper is the sixth Democratic candidate to enter the race for Stabenow’s seat. She announced in January that she would not be seeking a fifth term in 2024 in the battleground state.
Born in Iowa, Harper owns a house in Detroit and bought a coffee shop, Roasting Plant Coffee, in the city in 2017. He attended Brown University and Harvard Law School before becoming an actor. He starred on the CBS show CSI: NY for nine seasons and currently appears on ABC’s The Good Doctor.
Harper was appointed to President Obama’s cancer panel in 2012 as a survivor of the disease himself.
The field of Democratic candidates has grown in recent months. State Board of Education member Pamela Pugh, former Detroit State Rep. Leslie Love, businessman Nasser Beydoun and attorney Zack Burns have all announced campaigns.
Michigan remains a must-win state for Democrats if they hope to maintain control of the Senate, with tough races expected in Ohio, West Virginia, Montana, Nevada and Pennsylvania. In 2020, Republican John James, now a U.S. representative, narrowly lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.