Voices: In Pennsylvania, a Black female progressive and the super PAC trying to stop her

Pennsylvania Democratic Congressional candidate and State Representative Summer Lee talks to the press on 17 May 2022 in  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Pennsylvania Democratic Congressional candidate and State Representative Summer Lee talks to the press on 17 May 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

One Day More! As you read this, your reporter is on an Amtrak train back from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after watching both former president Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders speak in Steel City this weekend. (Time and travel constraints kept me away from Donald Trump’s rally in Latrobe).

While much of the focus in this crucial state has been on the marquee Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, Obama made it a point to shout out Summer Lee, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s 12th district. Meanwhile, before holding a larger event, Senator Bernie Sanders made his way to a door-knocking event at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union hall Sunday morning.

On the surface, the district should be an easy pickup for Democrats. Representative Mike Doyle has represented the Pittsburgh area since 1995 and is finally retiring. After redistricting, 59.26 per cent of the registered voters in the 12th are registered Democrats, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Democratic”.

But many Democrats are now fighting harder than they expected even in notionally safe districts, worrying their defense might fall apart just as badly as the Steelers’. Republicans have gone all-in on depicting cities as riddled with crime, hitting Fetterman hard on the issue (just as they’re pummeled Wisconsin Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes).

But at the rally where she warmed up the crowd for Obama and at the union hall, both Lee and her campaign manager talked about how to refute Republican talking points about crime with the counter-allegation that Republicans oppose combating gun violence and rebuilding communities.

“I think it’s so important that we do not yield the narrative, yield ground to Republicans to frame this conversation,” Lee told your reporter. “Crime is a topic that Republicans can always weaponize, right? They can always use and kind of revert to that racialized fear... So it’s so important that Democrats use their bully pulpit to fight back against that in an election cycle.”

Lee is part of a progressive wing of the party. That wing took the brunt of internecine criticism after Democrats shed large parts of their majority in 2020, despite winning the White House. It was a setback that many in the party’s centrist wing blamed on left-wing rhetoric about defunding the police. And even aside from crime, the fight for the 12th is just another front in the feud within the Democratic Party. Ultimately, the race is a test of whether a progressive can win at a time when progressive power within the party is diminished.

In Texas this year, anti-abortion Democrat Henry Cuellar beat back a progressive-backed challenger in Jessica Cisneros largely because Democratic leadership worried a left-wing Democrat could alienate Latinos. Progressives also lost out in New York’s 17th district this summer when Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney decided to run, muscling out Representative Mondaire Jones.

Jones then tried running in New York’s 10th district, but in the end he likely split the vote in a crowded progressive primary field, meaning the more moderate Daniel Goldman ended up winning the primary. (Though in poetic justice, Maloney in the 17th is now left facing a tougher-than-expected race).

Meanwhile, Lee, a progressive supported by members of the Squad, narrowly won her primary in May after pro-Israel groups spent more than $3 million campaigning against her. Now, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s super PAC is spending big money against her in the general election; this is likely their first money drop in a Republican versus Democrat race. In turn, a sizable number of people at the Pittsburgh union hall donned “Jews for Summer Lee” shirts.

“You know, there I think there have been a lot of unfair allegations thrown at Summer,” Jonathan Mayo, who lives in the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, told The Independent. “You know, the thing that is amazing to me is that [the super PAC] came in to the primary, poured in millions of dollars, to say that she wasn’t enough of a Democrat. Right. And now here they are coming in to support the Republicans.”

For his part, Sanders criticized the “billionaire-funded super PACs putting in over a million dollars trying to defeat Summer.” And Lee took her turn, too, deriding outside money as an “exclusive tactic” that makes politics “inaccessible” to Black female candidates.

Because there’s always an election angle, Taylor Swift is from Reading, Pennsylvania, which is as Red as loving him. Don’t be an anti-hero and sign up for Inside Washington here. If not, you’re on your own kid on Election Night.