When Summer Lee survived her Democratic primary for an open Pittsburgh-area House seat in May, her allies breathed a sigh of relief. Progressive candidates had been struggling to win Democratic primaries as the pro-Israel lobby bombarded them with millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads, eager to punish left-flank candidates for sympathizing with Palestine, Lee, who endured a more than $3 million blitz in her deep-blue district, suffered more than anyone. Her primary victory was supposed to put the stiff competition and dark money to bed — and deliver Lee to Congress.
Lee hadn’t been so sure. “I never doubted for a second that it would be a strange election cycle for me,” she says in between canvassing events in Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon. “We knew we were going to have to run through the tape.”
She was proven correct as late-breaking factors have complicated what was supposed to be a sure thing. Some are plain bad luck. Her GOP opponent, Mike Doyle, has the same name as the retiring 20-year Democratic incumbent who Lee ran to replace. Some are less so. Republicans have spent millions of dollars in a neighboring district to turn Lee, a Black woman with unapologetic stances on criminal justice reform, into a left-wing boogeyman in a manner often reserved for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). And, perhaps most significantly, seven-figure attacks from affiliates of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have resurfaced in her race’s final weeks.
Weak polling for Democrats across the country has the party bracing for a red wave, a prognosis so grim that major Democratic party organs are spending millions of dollars to defend candidates in places where Joe Biden won decisively only two years ago. The left, too, has seen a shift in its own ambition. In 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) victories in presidential primaries demanded Democrats absorb popular planks of his platform, while several left-flank Democratic primary challengers defeated incumbent Democrats they viewed as moderate, beholden to corporate interests, or insufficiently aggressive in their pursuit of a progressive agenda.
Several progressive candidates are expected to win next week — and, depending on the losses Democrats suffer broadly, they may even make up a greater percentage of the House Democratic caucus when Congress returns in January. But the party’s left flank is scrambling to shore up its candidates whose losses would not only be a victory for dark money, but a setback for their mission that the party rank-and-file would throw in its face.
“It means not taking this seat for granted and doing everything we can in the final days,” says Hannah Fertig, who leads independent expenditures for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that aided Lee in her primary.
For the last six years, progressives have undertaken an effort to transform the membership in Congress to more closely reflect its progressive vision, inspired by Sanders’ 2016 insurgent presidential run. The 2018 midterm delivered the so-called “Squad” to Congress, two of whom — Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) — entered Congress by unseating long-serving House Democrats. The movement saw additional success in 2020 as three more progressive candidates ousted Democratic incumbents, aided along by the racial justice uprising that followed George Floyd’s murder.
This cycle has seen fewer challenges to incumbents succeed. The only victory had been in Oregon, where Jamie McLeod-Skinner defeated Rep. Kurt Schaeder (D-Ore.), a top target for his efforts to impede drug pricing reform. The left saw more success in open seat primaries, where progressive Democrats like Lee and Michelle Vallejo, running in a south Texas seat to replace another retiring Democratic incumbent, defeated more centrist opponents. Unlike Lee, however, both McLeod-Skinner’s and Vallejo are running in seats that are less favored for Democrats to win. Oregon’s fifth congressional district had been redrawn this cycle to include more rural areas, while the Latino-heavy electorate in Vallejo’s South Texas district has shown a recent propensity for the GOP.
But Lee’s progressive allies grew alarmed in September when polling suggested the race was far closer than they’d anticipated. The coalition, led by Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, learned that voters were, in fact, conflating the retiring Democrat Mike Doyle with the GOP candidate running to replace him. But they also discovered another factor: In a neighboring congressional district, Republicans were running more than $2 million in ads tying Democrat Christopher Deluzio to Lee, whom the ads call “delusional” on crime and an advocate for “defunding our police, abolishing prisons, making us less safe.” The approach hit Lee in her own media market without having to spend more money in her race.
By October, another poll from progressive groups aiding Lee found she led her opponent by only 4 points, with 16 percent of voters undecided. United Democracy Project, AIPAC’s political arm, had also found Lee to be in a “very competitive race,” The Intercept reported. It has since flooded the race with more than $1.2 million in negative attacks.
Lee, a Pennsylvania state lawmaker, hadn’t taken a public stance on Israel in her congressional campaign; she had previously tweeted support for Palestinian during the 2021 war in Gaza, drawing a parallel between the Palestinians plight and the Black Lives Matter movement. But Israel-Palestine issues have seemed to take a backseat to pro-Israel group’s criticism of left-wing candidates. These ads portray Lee as “extreme” and “not a real Democrat” (even though, of course, the ads are in support of a Republican candidate). Lee’s race is the only instance of the group spending money against a Democrat in a general election, which a UDP spokesperson explained to Jewish Insider as an effort “to build the broadest bipartisan pro-Israel coalition in Congress possible.”
These attacks are effective against Lee, a Black woman who has been outspoken on criminal justice reform. “Unfortunately, Republicans know that divide-and-conquer fear-mongering is historically an effective political strategy especially when deployed against candidates of color,” says Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats. It does not, however, encourage Lee to back away from any of her positions. “What I would caution is that this is about the need for courage in the Democratic party to stand true to our values,” she says. “We cannot yield ground.”
A number of progressive groups have pulled together roughly $800,000 in the final days as a last-ditch effort to counter the influence. The money goes to digital, radio, mail, and television advertising; a new TV spot from Justice Democrats and Working Families Party emphasizes Lee’s economic populism and endorsements from popular Pennsylvania Democrats, such as Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.). Finding the money had been a scramble: The left had been stretched thin from several races that had seen millions in spending from pro-Israel groups, and none could drop the same single seven-figure buys UDP has been placing. “When we saw AIPAC spending in the general for a right wing Republican, we sprinted to put the coalition together again,” says Joe Dinkin, who lead independent expenditures for the Working Families Party.
Working Families Party, which aided Vallejo and McLeod-Skinner in their primaries, have spent roughly $650,000 and $300,000 in their races, respectively, in recent days. On Sunday, Sanders will hold a rally for Lee, one of the only candidates he’s publicly appearing alongside on his eight-state midterms swing. He also held one for Vallejo in South Texas last Sunday just as the Democrats’ congressional campaign arm dropped Vallejo from its list of neediest candidates. “Why would you turn your back on a solidly working-class group of people, the Latino community in South Texas?” he told Rolling Stone last month.
This isn’t to say major Democratic party organs haven’t helped at all. The Democratic majority, after all, runs through these districts too. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had paid $1.8 million for a television ad for McLeod-Skinner in September; Vallejo had been put on the DCCC’s target list after she won her primary, even though she hasn’t seen the same support as other vulnerable candidates.
The Democratic establishment has also come to Lee’s rescue. Her final week of campaigning has included appearances with First Lady Jill Biden and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro. She spoke at a rally in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning alongside U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman and former President Barack Obama, who lauded Lee as a Democrat with “a history of standing up for working people.” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who had been a chief adversary of the left in Democratic primaries this cycle, has been in touch with Lee’s progressive allies as the race tightened and encouraged labor and other Democratic groups to help. The House Democrats’ campaign arm has put six figures into the race’s final days — an insurance policy, since the DCCC’s the group’s internal polling shows Lee 14 points ahead of her GOP opponent. “We feel good,” says DCCC spokesperson Chris Taylor.
But the assist, while welcome, has nevertheless reopened intraparty wounds. Chief among them: The left’s ire over AIPAC “dropping a million dollars with no accountability from the Democratic establishment,” as Natalia Salgado, treasurer of the Working Families Party PAC, put it. Indeed, as Lee endures another seven-figure’s worth of attacks, only progressive stalwarts like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have chastised the pro-Israel group. “It’s not enough to support Summer — you need to disavow AIPAC as part of it,” Salgado says. “They need to know there are consequences for saying a progressive Black woman isn’t a real democrat in a primary and trying to get a MAGA republican into office.”
There’s also a frustration that the race never would have tightened if Democratic officials and major party organs had more openly embraced Lee sooner. Lee notes that when progressives lose primaries, “we must get behind the nominee, we must do it immediately,” Lee says. “That’s not what we saw here. We can pretend my race, my gender, and political ideology had nothing to do with that, but we know better.”
Adds Salgado, “if the party had been showing their support early on, I don’t know we’d be in this predicament.”