The flagship pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC is intervening in a race for a House seat that’s growing uncomfortably close for Democrats in deep-blue Pittsburgh. And, with its super PAC’s first attack ads of the 2022 general election, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is going after a familiar target: Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee, a would-be member of the growing progressive Squad in Congress.
After spending close to $3 million and failing to defeat Lee during Pittsburgh’s Democratic congressional primary in May, the United Democracy Project, the political action committee for AIPAC, is again trying its hand at defeating Lee’s insurgent campaign. On Saturday, UDP dropped just under $80,000 on new mail ads against Lee’s campaign, and more than $600,000 of new television ads were announced on Monday.
UDP made the ad purchase after conducting an independent internal poll that showed a tight race, spokesperson Patrick Dorton told The Intercept. He declined to share the poll but said it showed a “very competitive race.”
“Eight days before Election Day, they are spending thousands to elect an extremist anti-choice, insurrectionist-aligned Republican.”
AIPAC’s direct entry into electoral politics — it has long had clout in Washington, but its super PAC only launched in January — has engendered criticism that the famously bipartisan Israel lobby was increasingly siding with Republicans to go after progressives who stand up for Palestinian human rights.
In the newly redrawn 12th District of Pennsylvania, AIPAC appeared to be launching a one-two punch with the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC is running ads in a nearby district that attempt to tie the Democratic candidate there to Lee. National Republicans have spent millions on the neighboring race so far and have pledged to spend six figures to defeat Lee’s campaign. “Like in the primaries, we are focused on races where we can have an impact,” Dorton said.
“AIPAC’s Super PACs spent millions of dollars in the Democratic primary attacking Summer Lee, falsely suggesting she wasn’t a real Democrat,” Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, which recruited Lee to run for Congress, said in a statement Monday. “Now, eight days before Election Day, they are spending thousands to elect an extremist anti-choice, insurrectionist-aligned Republican.” Rojas called on Democratic Party leadership to denounce “AIPAC’s active tole in campaigning for and funding a Republican Majority in Congress.”
At least one of Lee’s potential colleagues in the Squad criticized the new spending on Monday. In a tweet, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., slammed AIPAC for “working for Republican control of Congress and further destabilization of US democracy.”
Shamefully, AIPAC is working for Republican control of Congress and further destabilization of US democracy.
Let’s rally for @SummerForPA. Help her out with a volunteer shift or donation today: https://t.co/1nmtjs8lo6 https://t.co/oA88VUoUSv
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) October 31, 2022
Another, separate private poll obtained by The Intercept shows Lee with a slim 4-point lead over Republican Michael Doyle — who, in a movie-like twist, shares a name with the retiring Democratic incumbent who was first elected to Congress in 1994. The poll showed 16 percent of voters still undecided. “It’s definitely closer than it should be,” said one strategist close to the campaign, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Doyle, the Republican, said he supports a federal abortion ban with certain exceptions.
Until this month, House Democrats’ campaign arm had not planned to spend any money on the race. A spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the NRCC’s counterpart, confirmed that the group is planning to spend six figures of its own in paid communications on Lee’s behalf.
Lee’s campaign had sought financial help from the DCCC when the attack ads against a Democrat in a neighboring district showed up. The ads, which were part of a multimillion-dollar spending spree by the NRCC against Democratic congressional candidate Chris Deluzio in Pennsylvania’s 17th District, mentioned Lee by name and reached her district’s media market. Released last week, the latest NRCC ad tries to link Deluzio to Lee and Ocasio-Cortez, and claims that the three are “delusional” on crime, “defunding our police, abolishing prisons, making us less safe.” The ad claims that Deluzio is “so delusional he donated money to radicals like Lee and AOC.”
UDP’s ad took up the same themes. “Why do politicians like Summer Lee have to take everything to the extreme?” it reads. The mailer sent to voters in the 12th District features a picture of Lee standing in front of screenshots of her tweets calling for prison abolition and defunding the police.
“This is a race where there is clear pro-Israel candidate and an anti-Israel candidate in Summer Lee,” said Dorton, the UDP spokesperson. Asked about the optics of its first attack ad, Dorton said UDP is a “single-issue” organization and supported several pro-Israel progressive candidates of color in Democratic primaries.
Lee, a rising Democratic star, has not said much about Israel in her short political career. Virtually all the criticisms of her from pro-Israel figures stem from a single tweet thread where she compared Palestinians and Black Lives Matter protesters, decrying the justifications offered for the indignities suffered by marginalized groups. In an interview following the tweets, Lee said aid to Israel should be conditioned on progress toward a peace deal with the Palestinians. Asked why UDP was attacking Lee, Dorton cited comments in the tweet thread and the interview — as well as Lee’s relationship with the Squad in Congress.
UDP ads that ran during the primary claimed that Lee wasn’t really a Democrat and had attacked President Joe Biden. The group also endorsed more than 100 Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Earlier this month, UDP spent just under $1 million on an ad boosting a moderate Democratic state assembly member in the race for California’s 15th District.
“8 days from making history in PA—where Black women have never had federal representation—AIPAC is funding my extreme GOP opponent,” Lee wrote in a tweet on Monday, which her campaign pointed The Intercept to. “Since endorsing 100+ insurrectionists, AIPAC has repeatedly shown us that democracy has never been as important as keeping progressives out.”
Lee put a finer point on it in an earlier interview with The Intercept. “This is a way to chill and to keep the progressive movement from growing as a whole,” she said. “This is a way to temper a movement that centers, particularly Black and brown women who are progressive, and stops them from building power right here.”
Lee has drawn ire from the Democratic establishment by taking unabashedly progressive positions like backing Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and criminal justice reforms. Along with two other insurgent progressives backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Lee was first elected to the state House in 2018, when she ousted a moderate incumbent who had been in office for a decade. If elected, Lee would be the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.
Update: October 31, 2022, 9:38 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to include a $600,000 television ad buy from UDP that was disclosed Monday after publication.