Progressive Summer Lee wins Democratic House primary in Pennsylvania, overcoming tsunami of outside attacks

By Thursday morning, when most of the votes were tallied, Lee’s lead over Irwin was less than a percentage point.

The Pittsburgh-area race to succeed retiring Democrat Mike Doyle, who backed Irwin, has been one of the costliest house primaries in the nation to date. Two pro-Israel groups have spent more than $3 million to oppose Lee, who is vying to become the first black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.

Lee, a Labor Party and Democratic Party organizer before running for office for the first time in 2018, has previously defied the odds. She unseated a long-time incumbent to win her Statehouse seat in 2018 and was recruited by the progressive group Justice Democrats to run for the seat Doyle is vacating. Lee was backed by the Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, but her allies – who spent about $1.4 million on her – were lobbied by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s new super-PAC, the United Democracy Project and the Democratic Majority for Israel, surpassed.

But in the end, Lee, supported by a host of local groups, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, and progressive leaders like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, secured a narrow victory.

“They hit us with everything they had, we clawed and we fled, and we got people power,” Lee said on election night earlier this month. “We’re out here in western Pennsylvania fighting for the future of the whole country.”

Their success gives an adrenaline rush to the progressive movement, which has seen two of its allies lose open-seat races in North Carolina after facing a similar surge in outside spending.

In Pittsburgh, however, the backlash to the attacks on Lee was particularly fierce. In an interview days before the primary, Lee called the level of spending against her “obscene” and said it intended “to send a very specific message: not just that we’re trying to win an election, but that we’re trying.” destroy it, we’re trying to depress turnout and we’re trying to discourage voters.”

Attacks paid for by outside groups targeting Lee’s alleged disloyalty to the Democratic Party prompted a joint response from local officials, including Gainey, who sent an open letter to Irwin’s campaign asking him to condemn the attacks .

“As Democrats from across the Commonwealth, we find it shameful that you are aligning with a corporate super PAC that has backed over 100 pro-insurgency Republicans to attack our fellow Democrat, State Assemblyman Summer Lee, for not being a Democrat slander,” the Lee supporters wrote.

Irwin’s campaign defended the content of the ads and the group that created them, with a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review saying at the time, “Irwin is proud to stand up for the Jewish State of Israel and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”

On election night, with Lee in the lead and her allies confident that she would win, Justice Democrat Executive Director Alexandra Rojas did a lap of honor.

“This is a resounding defeat to the Republican-funded Super PACs and the pro-corporate establishment,” she said in a statement. “Democratic voters don’t want to be sold as corporate millionaire candidates, they want progressive working-class leaders building a people-led movement for all.”

Senior officials from the groups that spent the most to defeat Lee, United Democracy Project and Democratic Majority for Israel said their efforts had been successful in keeping the race close, citing Lee’s standing in the district before they turn out to be the deciding factor involved in the race.

“Summer Lee is an exceptional candidate and has already been an elected official who has generated millions of dollars from Super PACs and individuals,” DMFI PAC President Mark Mellman told CNN. “Their defeat, which pollster EMILY’s List described as a ‘commanding’ 25-point lead, sends a message about their politics that is perhaps clearer than their long-predicted victory.”

Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for the United Democracy Project, said Lee’s narrow victory was evidence that her views “didn’t resonate with a large segment of the Democratic Party,” adding that the AIPAC-sponsored group “10 to 15 other races assessed,” involving candidates she considers a threat to US-Israel relations.

Notably, however, neither group made the domestic debate over Israel policy a focus of their publicity campaign against Lee. J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group that has denounced AIPAC’s support for Republican lawmakers who voted against confirming President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, called Lee a “principled progressive” and cautioned against similar efforts, influence democratic campaigns.

“This kind of overwhelming external spending — driven by a hawkish, right-wing foreign policy agenda that is completely detached from most Democratic voters — deeply challenges the very foundations of the American political system,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in one Opinion.

This story has been updated with additional details about the race.

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