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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Joan E Greve

Summer Lee wins Pennsylvania primary in victory for progressives

Summer Lee speaks to reporters at a polling location after voting in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, on 23 April 2024.
Summer Lee speaks to reporters at a polling location after voting in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday. Photograph: Quinn Glabicki/Reuters

Summer Lee, a Pennsylvania congresswoman, easily beat back a primary challenge on Tuesday, delivering progressives one of their most significant victories yet of this election cycle as they brace for a wave of pro-Israel funding targeting pro-ceasefire candidates.

The Associated Press called the 12th district Democratic primary at 9.21pm, roughly an hour and an half after Pennsylvania polls closed at 8pm ET.

Lee defeated local council member Bhavini Patel, who had criticized the progressive “Squad” member over her calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. Patel had pitched herself as a “pro-Biden Democrat”, suggesting she would better support the president’s agenda in Congress.

But Lee waved off that criticism, and she often pointed to the $1.2bn in government funding she delivered for her Pittsburgh-based district over her first term as evidence of her legislative effectiveness.

“I am so humbled and proud to win my first primary re-election to be the congresswoman for this incredible district I’ve spent my life fighting for,” Lee said in a statement celebrating her victory.

“Our campaign was built on a record of delivering for our democracy, defending our most fundamental rights, and expanding our vision for what is politically possible for our region’s most marginalized communities.”

That argument appeared to sway many of Lee’s constituents as well as local Democratic leaders. In February, the Allegheny county Democratic party formally endorsed Lee for the first time, after the group backed her rival in the 2022 primary.

Lee’s 2022 primary made national headlines because of the involvement of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). According to OpenSecrets, the Super Pac United Democracy Project, which is affiliated with Aipac, spent a total of $3.3m against Lee in 2022. She ultimately defeated her opponent, the Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin, by less than 1,000 votes, or 0.9 points.

This year, progressives largely expected pro-Israel groups like UDP to again invest heavily in attack ads against Lee. But surprisingly, they chose to stay out of Lee’s primary, a choice the congresswoman’s allies credited to her popularity and legislative record.

Despite the absence of the pro-Israel lobby, one Super Pac did get involved in Lee’s primary to boost Patel’s campaign. The Moderate Pac, which aims to support centrist Democrats and is largely funded by the Republican mega-donor Jeffrey Yass, spent more than $600,000 supporting Patel. Lee and her allies turned Yass’s involvement in the race into a campaign issue, lambasting the billionaire’s Super Pac contributions.

“We’re going to send them a message that, whether it’s Jeffrey Yass or Jeffrey Bezos, their billion dollars aren’t welcome here,” Lee said at a rally in Pittsburgh on Sunday. “There is no room for people who would use our communities against each other for their own political ambition.”

Lee herself proved to be a more successful fundraiser than Patel, bringing in roughly four times as much money as her opponent. According to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, Lee raised more than $2.4m before the Tuesday primary while Patel received roughly $650,000 in campaign contributions.

Although UDP opted to stay out of Lee’s race, progressive leaders believe her successful campaign strategy could still be instructive for other pro-ceasefire lawmakers expected to be targeted by pro-Israel groups in their primaries. Aipac and its political affiliates reportedly plan to spend $100m this election cycle, after pouring nearly $50m in to the 2022 midterms.

At least two other “Squad” members, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri, have attracted primary challengers, and Aipac has endorsed their opponents. Lee alluded to Bowman and Bush on Sunday, telling supporters that her victory would reverberate around the country.

“We’re going to send a message to every dark-money billionaire, whoever they are: that your influence is no longer welcome in our democracy,” Lee said. “And they’re not going to be able to bother our friends in New York. They’re not going to be able to bother our friends in St Louis or anywhere else, and we will be free to do the work of building solidarity.”

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