Four major Democratic firms worked with a Super PAC that is now spending $1 million to defeat one of their party’s congressional candidates.
The Super PAC for the country’s largest pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, put close to $3 million into the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District — spending that turned into contracts for two of the Democratic consultants to go after a progressive in their own party, state Rep. Summer Lee.
Lee, however, prevailed and now the PAC, United Democracy Project, is spending more than $1 million against her in the general election, backing her Republican opponent Mike Doyle.
UDP paid the two Democratic firms to run ads against Lee and to conduct polling and research on its behalf during the primary. The firms include giants in the Democratic consulting industry like Waterfront Strategies, a cut-out of GMMB, and SKDK, whose partners include veteran Democratic strategists.
National Democratic groups are now scrambling to boost Lee’s campaign as UDP has poured more than $1.2 million into mail and broadcast ads attacking her within the last week.
As pro-Israel politics in the U.S. become more polarized and Israel itself lurches to the right, Israel’s most staunch supporters are increasingly Republicans. AIPAC has taken heat for what its critics say is its own increasing Republican bent — and its willingness to go along with extreme GOP politics. As of April, AIPAC has endorsed more than 100 Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“Democratic consulting firms should not be working with organizations actively supporting insurrectionists and threatening our majority.”
The spending by AIPAC against progressives like Lee is seen as part of that trend, and critics are concerned that Democratic groups are participating in and even profiting from the attacks.
“Democratic consulting firms should not be working with organizations actively supporting insurrectionists and threatening our majority,” said Connor Farrell, the founder and CEO of Left Rising, a consultancy that has worked with Lee’s campaign. “Firms that do need to be held accountable by party leadership.”
The salvos against Lee were UDP’s first attack ads in any general election since its launch in January. UDP decided to run the ads after conducting private polling that showed the race tightening quickly. In a midterm cycle already expected to be brutal for Democrats, some of the party’s top firms have worked closely with a group that could cost a seat they’ve held for more than two decades.
Both MVAR and Waterfront Strategies are currently working for UDP to run ads supporting Democratic congressional candidate Kevin Mullin in California’s 15th Congressional District. Spokespeople for MVAR and SKDK did not respond to requests for comment. “GMMB has not and will not work against Democratic candidates in general elections,” Eric Conrad, a vice president at GMMB, Waterfront Strategies’ parent company, said in a statement made after publication.
Between late April and the May 17 primary, UDP paid more than $1.3 million to Waterfront Strategies and $24,000 to SKDK to run ads against Lee. Both firms represent some of the biggest names in Democratic politics and are run by veteran strategists on campaigns for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The parent company for Waterfront Strategies, GMMB, was founded by Jim Margolis, who advised both Obama’s and Clinton’s presidential campaigns and was a senior adviser when Clinton was secretary of state. The firm’s clients have included national Democratic groups like Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC.
SKDK’s founders include Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser and former communications director in the Obama White House, and Doug Thornell, who was previously the lead media strategist for the Democratic National Committee and was an official at both the party’s Capitol Hill fundraising organs, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Other major Democratic firms worked with AIPAC on unspecified races. UDP paid Impact Research, a firm started by Joe Biden’s campaign pollster, just under $100,000 between March 15 and April 12. Impact Research did not respond to a request for comment. MVAR, a firm founded by the DCCC’s former executive director, Jon Vogel, took AIPAC contracts to run ads in several other Democratic primaries, opposing progressives Nina Turner in her race and Jessica Cisneros in her primary against Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, as well as to back Valerie Foushee over progressive candidate Nida Allam in North Carolina. MVAR also worked for UDP on other unspecified races.
With national Republican groups pouring money into ads attacking Lee, the race in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, which covers solidly blue Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs, has tightened to within 4 points in recent weeks, according to private polls. The National Republican Congressional Committee had already spent several million dollars on ads against a candidate in a neighboring district that demonized Lee — ads that overlapped with her race’s media market.
Last week, The Intercept reported that the DCCC committed to spending six figures on behalf of Lee’s campaign, in part to fight against the attacks from the GOP House campaign arm. DCCC also commissioned a poll, released Tuesday, showing Lee ahead by 14 points. During the Republican primary, the DCCC had also tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge Doyle’s signatures to stop him from appearing on the ballot. A judge threw out the challenge.
When AIPAC ran ads earlier this year against former Maryland Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards during her primary in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, House Speaker Nancy issued a rare rebuke of the group and recorded a video dismissing the ad’s claims. In Lee’s case, Pelosi has given $2,000 to her campaign but has not commented on the latest spending by UDP. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
At least two other members of Democratic leadership with close ties to the AIPAC lobby have contributed to Lee’s campaign. The leadership PAC for House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., gave the maximum contribution on October 14, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., shuffled $5,000 to the campaign in September. A spokesperson for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., did not respond to requests for comment on the spending by UDP.
Jeffries’s spokesperson Christie Stephenson pointed to his contribution to Lee’s campaign and said that last month, the member of Congress had expressed concern about how close the race was getting. “In early October, he also communicated his concern to several unions and progressive organizations about the tightening nature of the race,” Stephenson said in a statement to The Intercept.
“His clear-throated support for keeping this seat in Democratic hands speaks for itself.”
Correction: November 4, 2022
This article has been updated to include information about a donation to Summer Lee’s campaign by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s leadership PAC.
Update: November 8, 2022
This story has been updated to include a statement made after publication from an official with the consultancy GMMB, the parent company of Waterfront Strategies.