WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, a political newcomer named Alex Beinstein picked up enough delegates to pose a credible primary challenge to three-term congressman Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.).
That means voters in Colorado’s 3rd district will have a new name to consider when they gather on June 28 to choose their Republican standard-bearer — along with a lot of new ideas.
Beinstein, a 28-year-old libertarian, wants to use the district’s House seat to place Saudi Arabia on the list of state sponsors of terror. He believes the longtime U.S. partner is responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the growth of violent extremist groups, including the self-described Islamic State, in Syria.
The only reason Saudi leaders haven’t been held accountable yet, Beinstein says, is because Saudi money has corrupted everyone from President Barack Obama and CNN’s Anderson Cooper to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Fox News leadership. He told The Huffington Post that Bill Gates, Apple Inc., The Plaza Hotel in New York and the Four Seasons hotel chain are among other alleged lackeys of the kingdom. (Let’s not even get started on Hillary Clinton.)
The benefits of U.S.-Saudi ties — including intelligence-sharing that has prevented terror attacks on American planes, synagogues and other targets, as well as the value of having a Muslim partner in the war on Islamist terror — are all “a mirage,” according to Beinstein.
Even the Saudis’ tacit tolerance of Israel, a product of the two countries’ shared anxiety about Iran, can be sacrificed, he argues. “I don’t think anyone in Israel really trusts Saudi Arabia … [and while] America is Israel’s godfather, it doesn’t mean Israel does everything right.”
There would be a cost to cutting economic ties with the kingdom, Beinstein acknowledges. But he says history proves that business relationships shouldn’t supersede the imperative to do what’s right — after all, American businesses once worked with Nazi Germany, and that didn’t stop the U.S. from ultimately moving against Hitler.
“Eventually, the right thing has to prevail,” Beinstein said. “There’s something in the Scriptures that says you can serve God and you can serve money, but you can’t serve both masters at the same time.”
The young candidate says he will fund his own campaign with the donations he hopes to receive in the weeks ahead. His family has largely funded and staffed his effort so far.
Beinstein's success, particularly in beating the minimum threshold he needed to get on the primary ballot, is a striking example of how bashing U.S.-Saudi relations is becoming increasingly popular around the country.
This is happening as high-profile critiques of Saudi Arabia have become more common in Washington, despite the kingdom's investment in forging relationships here. Echoing Obama -- whose administration privately refers to Washington's Massachusetts Avenue, home to many foreign-funded research institutions, as "Arab-occupied territory" -- Beinstein spoke of "Saudi tentacles all around D.C." He is, of course, otherwise staunchly opposed to the president.
Beinstein believes the kingdom's alleged influence should be a top concern for the residents of his sprawling, mostly rural Colorado district. "Almost anyone here will take a flight, or go to the mall. ... or to a [Denver] Broncos game," he said. In those moments, he argues, Coloradans might become victims of international terror -- a threat he traces directly to Saudi Arabia.
He points specifically to theories about the "28 pages," a classified portion of a congressional inquiry into 9/11 that some say reveals ties between the attackers and the Saudi government. Beinstein also cites widely criticized articles by journalist Seymour Hersh alleging that the Saudis helped establish terror organizations in Syria and protect Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The Saudis have long retorted that they are strong U.S. partners against al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and would like to see the pages released to prove their innocence. Reached for comment Friday, the kingdom's representatives in the U.S. pointed to a recent statement by the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, who reiterated that they had found no evidence, including the 28 pages, linking the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials to al Qaeda.
There’s something in the Scriptures that says you can serve God and you can serve money, but you can’t serve both masters at the same time. Alex Beinstein
Beinstein, who can casually drop the names of top Saudi lobbyists in Washington -- DLA Piper, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) -- believes his opponent, Tipton, is one of the politicians compromised by ties to the kingdom. As evidence, he says the congressman has failed to publicly condemn Saudi Arabia and has ties to local oil, gas and coal companies.
"His defense is, 'I don't talk about Saudi Arabia because I'm not on committees' [relating to it]," Beinstein told HuffPost. "He felt compelled to weigh in on Syrian refugees. There's equal reason to comment on Saudi Arabia."
Tipton's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beinstein now compares his long odds to those faced by Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) in 2014. Brat, a political outsider, wrested the Republican nomination for his district from then-House Majority Leader and rising star Eric Cantor that year.
A University of Chicago graduate who studied history and interviewed big names in politics for years on his own radio show, Beinstein says voters are unlikely to know as much about the kingdom as he does. But he believes they'll readily agree with him that sitting lawmakers like Tipton are deceptive about their ties to the Saudis.
"I've met a lot of voters sick of both parties and entrenched interests ... they look at Obama and Paul Ryan having the same position on Saudi Arabia," he said. "You don't have a lot of lawmakers honest with their constituents about it."
There's "a notion that voters are stupid," the candidate continued. "Voters are generally aware. It would be disingenuous to say they know the details ... but they're generically aware that Saudi Arabia often acts adverse to our interests."
Beinstein traces his own fixation on the kingdom to May 2015, when he first read journalist Gerald Posner's Secrets of the Kingdom, an indictment of the U.S.-Saudi partnership that explores hundreds of alleged Saudi misdeeds, including ties to 9/11. That was before Beinstein even considered a political career.
Now, his "number one desire" if he makes it to Congress is to win a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He would use the perch to implement a three-pronged plan: add Saudi Arabia to the list of state sponsors of terror; subject it to sanctions that would help break economic ties between the kingdom and the U.S.; and freeze the assets of Saudis found to have any links to terror.
Beinstein says he expects bipartisan support for that policy. He pointed to Democrats like former Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) who have raised questions about Saudi Arabia's role in 9/11 and the broader War on Terror.
The libertarian Beinstein is not much of a party man in any case: A few years ago, he suggested he was becoming more liberal to a former college mentor. He said he's hoping that independents in his district, 34 percent of the population, will register to vote for him in the Republican primary in June.
Though he supports Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for the Republican presidential nomination, Beinstein says real estate developer Donald Trump has "come closest to calling out what [the Saudis] have done."
Trump has threatened to cut off U.S. purchases of oil from the Saudis until they pledge ground troops to battle ISIS militants and pay for U.S. military protection. He has also endorsed the idea that the Saudis are behind 9/11, aware that war-weary Americans are still questioning why Iraq was a target after the attacks.
Questions over U.S.-Saudi relations have gained steam in recent months, in part because of voters' and lawmakers' perception that the kingdom wants the U.S. to be more involved in the Middle East -- notably in Yemen, but also in Syria -- than most Americans would like to be.
But foreign policy experts warn that abandoning the kingdom would lead to a host of new regional challenges, and a former top advisor to Obama recently argued that even a critic of the Saudis like the president sees no alternative to some U.S.-Saudi cooperation.
Even the lawmakers who are most publicly skeptical of Saudi Arabia have limited proposals for how to change the relationship: A new bill from opponents of the Saudis' actions in Yemen asks for a short-term pause on arms transfers, but stops short of calling for any long-term shift.
It's an open question how much Beinstein would challenge this approach if he makes it to Congress. On many foreign policy issues, he is relatively orthodox. He is not keen to reduce the U.S.'s role abroad, and is unhappy with what he sees as Obama's plan to do so.
Instead, Beinstein would like to redirect foreign policy efforts by adding Saudi Arabia to the list of U.S. foes abroad, along with Iran, Russia and China. He would also like to increase military spending, particularly for the Navy.
To explain why, he referenced former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's analysis of Chinese ambitions and the ongoing tensions between China and U.S. allies in the South China Sea. It was one of many references to famous white men, including presidents Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W. Bush, that dotted his brief interview with HuffPost.
"We are defenders of freedom," Beinstein said. And in his view, partnering with Saudi Arabia is a betrayal of that American value. "I think we have to stand up for free countries around the world."