Overcoming an Onslaught of Dark Money Attacks, Progressive Summer Lee Wins a Historic Victory

The Pennsylvania representative faced down millions of dollars in negative ads from pro-Israel groups and took on the Democratic establishment by running on a bold left agenda.

Nick Vachon

(Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Update: On May 20, the Associated Press officially declared Summer Lee the winner of the Democratic primary for U.S. House in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. 

On Tuesday night, Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee declared victory in her hard-fought primary election for the state’s 12th congressional district. Lee, who had built a comfortable lead early in the race as an outspoken progressive leader with a record of local organizing, saw her frontrunner status evaporate by election day amid an onslaught of deceptive out-of-state attack ads funded by a variety of pro-Israel groups.

If she wins the general election in the deep-blue district, Lee, who In These Times interviewed in 2018 after she won the Democratic nomination for the 34th Pennsylvania state house district, would become the first Black woman and the first democratic socialist to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. She is running on a platform of enacting policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and carceral reform while calling for ending the filibuster in the Senate, expanding the number of Supreme Court justices and ending cash bail. 

They can’t say Black women can’t win,” Lee said to supporters on Tuesday night. When we come together, we can’t be stopped.” In a statement released after declaring victory, she said: We built a movement in Western Pennsylvania that took on corporate power, stood up for working families, and beat back a multimillion-dollar smear campaign. This was never about one candidate — it was about the people of this district who have been left behind by corporations who put their profits over our lives.”

Polling from early April showed Lee with a 25-point lead over the second-place candidate, millionaire Pittsburgh lawyer Steve Irwin. But by the end of the month, according to reporting from Jewish Insider, private polling found that the aggressive negative campaign waged against Lee had been successful — Irwin had erased her lead, leaving the two candidates in a statistical dead heat. As of Wednesday evening, Lee was leading Irwin 41.7 percent to 41.3 percent, with 99 percent of the vote reported. 

In total, pro-Israel groups spent at least $2.5 million on the race, almost all of it attacking Lee. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s political wing, the United Democracy Project (UDP), spent more than $2 million running attack ads and a direct mail campaign. Despite being funded by a pro-Israel group, none of the UDP’s ads or mailers mentioned Middle Eastern politics, Israel or Palestine. Instead, the ads questioned Lee’s Democratic Party credentials, highlighted her 2020 criticism of then-candidate Joe Biden, and cast her as a threat to the party.

For her part, Lee has objected to claims that she’s anti-Israel, while also voicing criticism of U.S. politicians who haven’t spoken out against attacks on Palestinians. Lee has said she believes aid to Israel, as well as all American allies, should be conditional on their adherence to human rights.

Local Democratic leaders who supported Lee’s campaign, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and state House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, penned an open letter to the UDP condemning the advertisements and noting that AIPAC endorsed over 100+ pro-insurrectionist Republicans.”

The UDP’s lines of attack were very similar to those used against Nina Turner, the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign co-chair and former Ohio state senator who saw her commanding lead in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District primary vanish last year after Democratic Majority for Israel spent nearly $2 million on ads attacking her. She lost her rematch race earlier this month to incumbent Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), who benefitted from the attacks on Turner. 

Lee, too, was the beneficiary of outside money. Progressive groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party and the Congressional Progressive Caucus spent $1.7 million supporting her campaign, viewing the 12th district as a prime pick-up opportunity for progressives.

Lee was endorsed by high-profile national progressives, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as well as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), and 14 state legislators. The local branches of national Jewish progressive groups Bend the Arc and J Street also endorsed her.

Only three active state legislators endorsed Irwin, but he won the support of the retiring incumbent, 14-term Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.). Irwin was also endorsed by a number of local unions, despite previously leading the labor and employment division of Leech Tishman, a self-declared predominantly management-side” law firm that offers union avoidance” services. However, the local AFL-CIO, which previously opposed Lee over her anti-fracking stance, declined to endorse Irwin after his union-busting work came to public attention.

The newly-drawn, heavily Democratic 12th district covers Pittsburgh and the city’s southeastern suburbs. It is widely expected that the Democratic nominee will easily win the general election against likely Republican candidate, Mike Doyle, who is unrelated to the retiring Democrat. 

Lee’s apparent victory would be a blow for DMFI, which was formed in 2019 in part to quash the growth of pro-Palestinian sentiment among Democratic lawmakers, and which spent $400,000 supporting Irwin’s campaign.

Progressive Greg Casar, who won his March primary in Texas’ deep-blue 35th congressional district, repudiated the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and said he supported military aid to Israel in a letter he wrote to a local rabbi that was published by Jewish Insider. While Casar lost the support of the Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America chapter, he also avoided the financial firepower the pro-Israel lobby has deployed on similar candidates and cruised to a comfortable victory.

A spokesperson for Casar’s campaign says, Similar to many progressive Democrats running this cycle, Casar’s position is to restrict U.S. aid from being used in a manner that violates human rights in any country, including but not limited to Israel.” 

Meanwhile, Jessica Cisneros, who is currently in a runoff election against nine-term incumbent conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in a district just south of Casar’s, has had to contend with the United Democracy Project’s $1.2 million dollar spend against her after expressing support for Palestinians.

The massive amounts of money being funneled from pro-Israel groups to defeat progressive candidates has caught the eye of political observers. As J-Street spokesperson Logan Bayroff recently told the Guardian, AIPAC are taking all this money from Republican donors, and they’re obfuscating the fact that they’re a very Republican-aligned organization while trying to persuade Democratic voters who they should support.”

And Justice Democrats candidate communications manager Usamah Andrabi said to the Intercept of Summer Lee’s race, Almost $3 million was spent trying to stop Pennsylvanians from electing their first Black Congresswoman — imagine if that money was instead being used to protect Democrats’ majority in November.”

After declaring victory, Lee posted to Twitter: Our victory shows that we can overcome the billionaire class that wants to divide and conquer us all with fear and lies-for-profit, if only we come together across our differences for a positive vision of multiracial democracy. We can have nice things, if we fight.”

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Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York. 

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