At the end of March, EMILY’s List, the Democratic organization that backs women candidates who support abortion rights, commissioned a poll to test the state of the U.S. House race in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. What they found heartened them: The group’s pick, state Rep. Summer Lee, enjoyed a commanding 25-point lead over her closest competitor, attorney Steve Irwin, drawing 38 to his 13 percent. When voters were presented with more information about the candidates, Lee drew 49 percent of respondents’ support to Irwin’s 21, and a third contender, University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson, got 15. The poll, conducted by GQR, also found Lee holding a comfortable +29 approval rating among likely primary voters.
For Irwin, a former Republican U.S. Senate staffer, it would take something of a miracle to turn numbers like that around in the six weeks that remained. But ahead of Tuesday’s contest, Irwin’s backers have attempted to close the gap with something else: a tsunami of outside spending, funneled through two major pro-Israel organizations that have made it their mission to undermine progressive Democrats in contested primaries.
In less than a month, the United Democracy Project — the political action committee for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC — poured more than $1 million into ads in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. The bulk of the messaging attacked Lee, though just over $100,000 went to materials supporting Irwin. In total, United Democracy Project has spent more than $2.3 million on the race so far.
Lee is one of several progressive House candidates who have come into the crosshairs of AIPAC and its counterpart Democratic Majority for Israel, which AIPAC’s operatives launched in 2019. The groups justify their spending with a hard-line stance opposing any criticism of the Israeli state — even as the Israel Defense Forces relentlessly attack Palestinian civilians, journalists, and mourners. In reality, this stance enables the pro-Israel lobby to attack progressives on any number of fronts.
“When you look at who DMFI has spent money attacking,” says a new video released Monday by Organize for Justice, a sister organization of Justice Democrats, which recruited Lee to run, “they [also] just so happen to want to hold Israel, the biggest recipient of U.S. aid, accountable for how they spend billions of American tax dollars.”
WATCH: Why have Republican-funded groups like DMFI and AIPAC spent millions of dollars to try to beat progressives like @SummerForPA, @JCisnerosTX, @BernieSanders, @ninaturner, and @JamaalBowmanNY in primaries? pic.twitter.com/pz9iIhaABt— Justice Democrats (@justicedems) May 16, 2022
Lee tweeted last May that the indiscriminate use of the phrase “Israel has the right to defend itself” is standard fare for the justification of atrocities committed against marginalized people. At the time, Israeli police had recently attacked worshippers at the Al Aqsa Mosque. “As we fight against injustice here in the mvmnt for Blk lives, we must stand against injustice everywhere,” Lee wrote. “Inhumanities against the Palestinian ppl cannot be tolerated or justified.”
When I hear American pols use the refrain "Israel has the right to defend itself" in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized pop, I can't help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate& disproportionate force &power on weakened & marginalized ppl— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) May 14, 2021
While the Jewish Chronicle questioned Irwin about his challenger’s tweets six months later, claiming that they had been “understood by some as anti-Zionist and antisemitic,” Pittsburgh’s WESA noted that the Chronicle did not identify anyone who had made that claim. “Even some Irwin supporters seem wary of accusing Lee of antisemitism,” the news station pointed out.
AIPAC’s United Democracy Project ran an April 22 ad that suggested that Lee isn’t really a Democrat. Two days prior, the group had released a slate of endorsements including more than 100 Republican candidates who voted to overturn the 2020 election results. “Groups like AIPAC and DMFI don’t have much name recognition even amongst Democratic primary voters, and even amongst high-level operatives and journalists,” Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid told The Intercept. “Some of the people at the highest levels of Democratic Party politics have no idea what these groups are, what their political goals are.”
Bipartisan criticism had been mounting for over a month, when some of the endorsements were released. In a March letter to its members, AIPAC defended its growing slate, writing: “This is no moment for the pro-Israel movement to become selective about its friends.”
Rep. Mike Doyle, the longtime Pennsylvania Democrat who Lee and Irwin are competing to replace, wasn’t shy to pick sides in the contest that quickly pitted progressives against the local party machine. Doyle and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., weighed in on the same day: While Doyle announced his support for Irwin, Sanders endorsed Lee.
“You don’t get anything done being Bernie Sanders or the Squad,” the congressman said last week.
Mike Doyle: “You don’t get anything done being Bernie Sanders or the Squad. If you point to anything they’ve done resulting in law, I would love to know what it is. That just hasn’t happened.”— Julian Routh (@julianrouth) May 12, 2022
Irwin, who led a division at his Pittsburgh law firm offering services in “union avoidance,” has been buoyed by almost $3 million in outside spending — most of it from political action committees associated with DMFI and AIPAC. Progressive groups including Justice Democrats, Working Families Party PAC, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC have spent just over $1.7 million to support Lee’s campaign. The PAC for J Street, a nonprofit that advocates for progressive foreign policy toward Israel, made a joint endorsement of Lee and Dickinson in April.
Last month, AIPAC sent a fundraising email with the subject line “Act Now: Anti-Israel Forces Want to Silence You” that attacked Lee and two other congressional candidates in North Carolina, Erica Smith and Nida Allam — both also progressive women of color — as “anti-Israel candidates.” Mark Mellman, the head of DMFI, claimed to The Intercept last month that criticism from the U.S. left emboldens the Israeli right. “The anti-Israel far left has propped up the Israeli right and done tremendous damage to the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.
After AIPAC’s United Democracy Project released its April ad scorning the notion that Lee “calls herself a Democrat,” several party members backing Lee’s campaign, including State House Democratic Minority Leader Joanna McClinton and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, condemned the messaging and called on Irwin to denounce it, Pittsburgh’s TribLive reported. “As Democrats from across the commonwealth, we find it shameful that you would team up with a corporate super PAC that has endorsed over 100+ pro-insurrectionist Republicans to attack and smear our Democratic colleague, state Rep. Summer Lee, as not a Democrat,” the group wrote. “When you are literally on the same side as insurrectionists, I guess the only way to defend yourself is to attack the lone Black woman in the race that has done more to expand and turn out our electorate for Democrats than anyone in this race.”
Irwin’s campaign told the outlet that while the candidate cannot control super PAC spending or messaging, the ads “appear to be true.” A spokesperson pointed to Lee’s criticism of Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential primary, including an observation of the then-candidate’s “casual racism,” and said, “In the scheme of things, Rep. Lee has far more explaining to do.” (Like many of the president’s left-leaning critics, Lee later went on to campaign for Biden.)
Irwin’s campaign did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
If she wins on Tuesday and again in November, Lee will be the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania. She has led efforts to end cash bail at the state level, and she is running for federal office on a platform that includes the Green New Deal, Medicare For All, and the promotion of labor unions. Beyond Sanders and Justice Democrats, she has earned endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; and the sitting members of the House Squad.
The idea of having “a Black woman as a congressperson, on its face, is very attractive,” Irwin said in March at a town hall held by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Though he “supported [Lee] when we first met,” Irwin said, “I know how she’s worked with other people in the community, I know how she’s worked with people in business, I know how she’s worked with people in the House and government, and I can tell you that it does not indicate that it would be as conducive to getting things done.”
Responding in a tweet, Lee said the comments were evidence of “misogynoir” facing “COUNTLESS qualified Blk women who threaten white male hegemony. And as we see it doesnt just come from Republicans.” Irwin’s campaign did not respond publicly to the criticism.
“Almost $3 million was spent trying to stop Pennsylvanians from electing their first Black Congresswoman — imagine if that money was instead being used to protect Democrats’ majority in November.”
“We are once again seeing what happens when Republican-backed corporate power is threatened by a working class Black woman fighting to bring people-powered leadership to her community,” Justice Democrats candidate communications manager Usamah Andrabi said in a statement to The Intercept. “Almost $3 million was spent trying to stop Pennsylvanians from electing their first Black Congresswoman — imagine if that money was instead being used to protect Democrats’ majority in November.”
Dickinson, meanwhile, has called on Irwin to drop out of the race for unrelated reasons: TribLive reported in March that one of the people who circulated petitions for his campaign forged several hundred signatures, though he likely would have qualified for the ballot anyway. Lee criticized the campaign for approving the forged petitions but did not call on him to drop out. The same month, the AFL-CIO declined to endorse his campaign after learning of his “labor avoidance” role, leaving union support split in the race.
The money, however, is with Irwin. Lee’s campaign has raised just over $700,000, Dickinson’s almost $700,000, and Irwin’s $1.2 million. The influx of outside spending from DMFI and AIPAC on Irwin’s side, and from Justice Democrats and WFP on Lee’s, comes on top of those reserves.
“Every single member of the Democratic leadership in Congress, as well as President Obama, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and 20 members of the House Progressive Caucus have been endorsed by AIPAC,” Irwin’s spokesperson reminded TribLive. “Steve Irwin is proud to stand up for the Jewish state of Israel and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”