How progressive ceasefire advocate Summer Lee defanged the opposition ahead of her primary in Pennsylvania

Summer Lee is getting used to this.

The freshman congresswoman from Western Pennsylvania ousted regional political royalty on her way to the state House in 2018, then overcame millions in outside spending, nearly all of it from pro-Israel groups, to win the Democratic nomination and her seat in Congress two years ago. This time out, in her first House reelection bid, Republican megadonor Jeffrey Yass is bankrolling a super PAC attacking Lee and boosting her primary challenger, Edgewood Councilmember Bhavini Patel.

In an interview, Lee told CNN she had been “bracing for this moment” since her last run and trusted that her consistency, as a candidate and on the major issues, would see her through to another term.

“I put out there who I am because I am a very honest politician,” Lee said. “I’m not obfuscating, I’m not obscuring parts of me. I’m not hiding one hand when I campaign. I’m telling people precisely what my values are.”

Lee is, indeed, widely considered the prohibitive favorite in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. In addition to left-wing groups and leaders, such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will campaign with her this weekend, Lee has the support of both commonwealth senators, Bob Casey, who’s also up for reelection this year, and John Fetterman. Her top local allies include Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, a friend who, like Lee, won her first race in 2018 for the state legislature against a well-known incumbent. The first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania, Lee has also cultivated a working relationship with the White House – President Joe Biden made a point of shouting her out last week during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh.

But the race for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania’s 12th District is as notable for the people and groups that are largely sitting it out as those more deeply involved.

In 2022, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its affiliated super PAC, United Democracy Project, along with Democratic Majority for Israel, spent remarkable sums – for a primary in a safe blue district – attempting to block Lee’s path to what was an open seat. This time around, despite AIPAC and DMFI both promising to invest heavily in defeating candidates they deem insufficiently pro-Israel, the groups have been absent from the district’s airwaves.

Their decision to effectively skip the contest, which many progressives expected to be a priority for pro-Israel groups, has frustrated some moderates upset by Lee’s position on Israel’s war in Gaza. (She called early on for a ceasefire and supports conditioning US military aid to Israel.) But pro-Israel political groups, according to multiple sources familiar with their thinking, ultimately backed off over concerns about Patel’s low profile and Lee’s strong polling. Lee’s support for most of Biden’s domestic agenda and willingness to occasionally work across party lines also played a role, they said, along with a grudging acknowledgement that she has proven sensitive to some of their concerns.

“She’s been forced to make some compromises. Certainly not as many as we would like, but some compromises with the pro-Israel community,” one pro-Israel strategist told CNN, noting Lee canceled an appearance at a fundraiser for the Council on American-Islamic Relations amid criticism of other scheduled speakers.

Asked about their decision to stay on the sidelines in Pennsylvania, AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann did not specifically address the campaign in the 12th, though he promised robust involvement in other races. A United Democracy Project spokesperson declined to comment.

“We are already involved in several races, and we will be engaged in additional campaigns where we can have the greatest impact,” Wittmann said. “By the end of this election year, the voice of the pro-Israel movement will definitely be heard.”

The issue has particular resonance, though, in the Pittsburgh area, home to both a large Jewish community and the country’s deadliest antisemitic attack, when a gunman in 2018 killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. Those anxieties spiked again after Hamas’ brutal October 7 raid into Israel. Patel criticized Lee’s immediate response to the attack, accusing her opponent of going AWOL.

“You know what I would be doing after October 7? I would’ve come straight back home; I would’ve been present in my community,” Patel said. “There were rallies and visuals that were organized here at home. She was nowhere to be found.”

Lee called that claim an “intentional mischaracterization” of her work.

“There’s a difference between campaigning and being actually present. And the reality is that she’s campaigning right now,” Lee said of Patel. “The assertion that we weren’t present or that we did not do our due diligence to earnestly represent them is a mischaracterization. And she knows that we’ve done that.”

Mark Mellman, the founder of Democratic Majority for Israel, which spent big against Lee alongside AIPAC two years ago, doubled down on his past criticism, but also acknowledged Lee’s strength as a candidate.

“Summer Lee’s always been a very talented politician, but she has clearly demonstrated herself to be opposed to a strong US-Israel relationship,” Mellman told CNN. “There’s no question about that either.”

Despite some of the usual suspects choosing not to spend, Patel’s campaign, which kicked off days before Hamas’ October 7 attack, has not struggled for cash. She raised more than $300,000 in the last quarter of 2023 – a decent figure for such a little-known candidate. Lee pulled in roughly $1 million over the same period and nearly $2.3 million for the cycle. Patel’s overall reported haul is about $600,000, though she entered the race with a shorter runway.

Both candidates are also enjoying significant air cover from outside groups – though the sources of those funds are very different. A coalition of progressive groups – led by the Working Families Party, along with Emgage PAC and Justice Democrats – have put more than $600,000 into the race on Lee’s behalf. Patel’s outside support has largely come from one very rich and, in most Democratic circles, unpopular individual: Yass, the GOP billionaire with close ties to former and potentially future President Donald Trump.

The Pennsylvania-based co-founder of Susquehanna International Group, Yass has already spent millions this election cycle. But his support for a Democrat, Patel, has garnered the most attention – at least for now – in large part because he effectively uses Moderate PAC, which has invested more than $600,000 in opposing Lee, to press his interests.

“This being a ‘D +8 district,’ we saw the potential for a Republican to come steal the seat,” Moderate PAC President Ty Strong told CNN. “So our calculus was trying to get a more moderate Democrat, that represents the district, in that seat before we lose the seat. And before she does any more things that go against the wishes and the outlook of the people she represents.”

Patel has denounced Yass and Trump. In an interview with CNN, she insisted she has never sought Yass’ support and, ultimately, believes it has benefited Lee.

“I have zero control over outside spending in this race,” Patel said. “And I think any sort of conversation that takes away from my opponent’s voting record and her inability to actually represent the values of this region, I think, again, is just deflecting.”

Patel’s campaign enjoys a decent amount of local Democratic support, though none with the ability to make headlines – or provoke liberal anger – like Yass, whose involvement also soured some pro-Israel groups on the race.

“To go in as a well-known, right-wing Republican billionaire with a personal PAC and try and affect this race, frankly, taints everybody who might be interested in helping Patel and defeating Summer Lee,” the pro-Israel strategist said.

Asked why he thought the pro-Israel groups were not joining his cause, Strong, the Moderate PAC leader, said Patel’s lack of name recognition and internal polling numbers “scared a lot of people away,” particularly those who “did not want to give (Lee) another feather in the cap.”

“If someone had more name recognition or was a staffer in the White House or had a little bit more of a history in the Democratic Party, if there was a picture of Patel standing next to Joe Biden, I think she would’ve gotten a lot farther,” Strong said of the challenger, adding that the PAC was still able to “move the needle” by criticizing Lee’s record and offering an alternative.

Lee and her supporters view the story differently – and often argue that, even without spending big, the specter of AIPAC’s involvement can change the fundamentals of a campaign.

“Whether or not AIPAC or someone like them gets in your race, it’s destabilizing,” Lee said. “It makes candidates think differently about how they’re going to run and who they’re serving, whose values they’re going to represent.”

In the final days of the race, Lee’s campaign and its allies are trying to steer the focus to her performance on Capitol Hill, most notably the significant federal funds she’s helped bring to the district.

“Progressives are often accused of having these lofty values that they can’t actualize. And I think Summer, along with the rest of ‘The Squad,’ has proven in this first race that they can do exactly that,” said Justice Democrats spokesperson Usamah Andrabi. “A billion dollars in (to the district) in one Congress is an insane amount of money, and it’s actually being delivered to the people and communities who need it.”

Progressive leaders and other Lee allies are also keen to argue that, come November, it is Lee supporters Biden needs to turn out in big numbers to defeat Trump in this crucial, potentially decisive, battleground state.

“President Biden needs to win Summer Lee voters. He needs to win progressives,” Andrabi said. “And Western Pennsylvania is a progressive stronghold now.”

Patel, for her part, argues that Lee is poised to be a drag on Biden in the general election. She pointed to what she described as Lee’s “performative obstructionism” in the House, where Lee has occasionally bucked Democratic leadership, and the congresswoman’s support for an “uncommitted” primary write-in campaign led by progressives critical of the administration’s handling of Israel’s war in Gaza – hoping to send a message to Biden that their votes should not be taken for granted.

“When you look at the bigger picture and the alternative is Donald Trump, that’s incredibly dangerous because our basic freedoms depend on getting President Biden reelected,” Patel said of Lee’s alliance with the “uncommitted” movement. “If you claim to care about reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, labor rights, then that means that you have to unequivocally be behind Biden because there is no other alternative to that.”

Moderate PAC echoed those criticisms in a recent television ad, which claimed that Lee “is opposing President Biden” and, in a reprise of the 2022 campaign, highlighted a years-old tweet criticizing then-candidate Biden.

For her part, Lee insists she is confident the attacks will fall flat.

“We’re hearing (in the ads) from a very vocal minority,” she said, “and we are representing a very resolute majority.”

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