By Abigail Tracy for Vanity Fair
Around seven weeks before Pennsylvania’s primary elections, Summer Lee commanded a lead of 25 points over rival Steve Irwin in the race for Pennsylvania’s 12th District, a blue stronghold encompassing Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs. It appeared that Lee, 34, a Black woman and progressive activist who currently serves as a Pennsylvania state representative, would make history. Then came the outside money. By election day, Democratic groups had dumped more than $2 million into the primary race to defeat Lee—dwarfing the outside money spent attacking Irwin, a mere $2,400. Specifically, the United Democracy Project (UDP)—a political action committee for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—spent $2,025,297 against Lee and $660,317 in support of Irwin, 62, a Pittsburgh lawyer and county Democratic Party organizer. The ads painted Lee as anti-Israel and claimed she was “not a real Democrat,” following a playbook that moderate groups have run against other progressives nationwide, including against Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman.
Lee declared victory on election night, at 12:30 a.m.; as of midday Wednesday, news outlets still hadn’t called an official winner—the race was too tight. Progressive groups and lawmakers including Senator Bernie Sanders congratulated her on the win. Lee declared, “This is the mightiest movement in the land!” Much of Pennsylvania’s Democratic establishment, including the retiring representative Mike Doyle, whose seat Lee and Irwin are after, had thrown their support behind Irwin. “They say a Black woman can’t win. Well, we came together. We can’t be stopped. We have a lot of work ahead of us. When we set out to do this, we believed a better world was possible; now we have to go do it,” Lee said in her remarks early Wednesday morning.
But the efforts to stop Lee are part of a broader trend in Democratic politics, as super PACs with big budgets have sought to prevent progressives—often women of color—from winning races across the country. “It’s really concerning to see the huge influx of outside money flowing into this race and the disingenuous effort to paint a progressive woman of color and the only sitting elected official in the race as an opponent of the Democratic Party,” a senior progressive official in the House told me.
If Lee goes on to win the general election—which a Democrat is likely to do in this district—she will be the state’s first Black congresswoman. She’s also already been named a potential new member of the so-called “Squad”—the diverse group of young progressive lawmakers that includes representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar. Endorsed by Sanders, Lee’s platform is rooted in key progressive policies such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and expanding the Supreme Court. Lee has supported setting conditions on U.S. aid to Israel and condemned Israel’s actions against Palestinians. Irwin, conversely, adopted a more moderate platform, stressing bipartisanship and building broad coalitions. Irwin, who is Jewish, said in an interview with Jewish Insider that statements from Lee, “do not indicate a strong conviction that Israel has a right to exist.” (Lee dismissed this claim, saying she “absolutely” believes in Israel’s right to be an independent Jewish state and, “What’s more is that I also understand and really, truly believe the need that we have for Jewish folks globally to have a safe haven.”)
The groups that poured money into the 12th District race to defeat Lee targeted a number of other progressive women, including Nida Allam and Erica Smith in North Carolina and Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon and Jessica Cisneros in Texas. McLeod-Skinner won her primary race, beating incumbent representative Kurt Schrader, and Cisneros is headed to a runoff against incumbent representative Henry Cuellar, but both Allam and Smith lost to their challengers. Groups like the United Democracy Project and Democratic Majority for Israel, another group that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to beat Lee, also spent money to defeat notable progressives in primary races in Florida, California, and Ohio.
“We’re coming off as having our first [Black woman] Supreme Court justice, which is a win and it’s celebratory…[but] it’s sad for the times that we’re in to see the attack ads that are coming in,” Kadida Kenner, the executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, which works to expand the electorate, said of Lee’s campaign.
“We have all this talk about how woke Democrats are. I think that Democratic Party officials out in Allegheny [County] need to wake up,” Kenner said. “It’s a shame. It’s a shame.”
Lee supporters knew her race would be a close one. “It took an unexpected turn,” Hannah Fertig, the independent expenditure manager for Justice Democrats, which endorsed Lee, told me Tuesday. “It’s pretty despicable…. As progressives, we are usually running at a monetary disadvantage. This race is no exception. Even though Summer has a broad coalition, we’ve really been having to deal with that surge of money from a group that didn’t exist a few months ago.” All said, nearly $4.8 million was poured into the race—a staggering figure for a primary. “I think at the end of the day, this is a district with a lot of very consistent voters who have been very tuned in to the race, and they know what’s true and know what’s not true,” Fertig added.
But Lee backers are hailing her results as evidence that sometimes money isn’t everything. “It’s high time that diversity is reflected in our elected leaders. And Summer Lee has shown that she is able to run the race that she wants to run without the backing in full support of a machine,” a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist told me. “I think that that also just speaks to [that] you can be against the status quo without having to be like a MAGA Republican to make change.”