Progressive Summer Lee wins hard-fought Pa. Democratic House primary

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·Senior Writer
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Summer Lee speaks into a microphone. A sign behind her reads: Summer Lee for Congress.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh on May 12. (Rebecca Droke/AP)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Progressives are celebrating a major win in Pennsylvania, where state Rep. Summer Lee overcame a deluge of outside money to win a Democratic House primary.

The Associated Press called the win in the state’s 12th Congressional District late Friday after a delay in vote counting, meaning Lee will replace retiring Rep. Mike Doyle in a safe Democratic seat covering the south of Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs. Lee, 34, was in a tight race with Steve Irwin, an attorney who had the backing of Doyle and establishment Democrats and seven figures in spending from pro-Israel lobbying groups. If Lee wins in November as expected, she will be the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress.

“They hit us with everything they had, and we clawed and we ran, and we got the power of the people. We’re out here in western Pennsylvania fighting for the future of the whole country,” Lee said early Wednesday morning at her election night event. “They say a Black woman can’t win. Well, we came together. We can’t be stopped. We have a lot of work ahead of us. When we set out to do this, we believed a better world was possible; now we have to go do it.”

A crowd cheers in support of Summer Lee. Many people hold up signs reading: Summer Lee for Congress.
Supporters at a campaign event where Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Summer Lee. (Rebecca Droke/AP)

Lee, a lawyer and labor activist, was elected to the state legislature in 2018 after successfully primarying a two-decade incumbent whose family is a Pittsburgh political dynasty. She was one of three young women — along with Sara Innamorato and Elizabeth Fiedler, who both won primaries Tuesday — backed by the Democratic Socialists of America to win state legislature seats that cycle. She helped found Unite, an organization boosting progressive candidates, in coalition with service unions. She had earned the endorsement of Justice Democrats, the same organization that helped “Squad” members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib get elected to Congress.

Lee ran for office on a platform that includes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and criminal justice reform, which means she will be in the left flank of the current Democratic House caucus. She had the support of a number of local unions, including multiple SEIU chapters and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the current Squad members and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Irwin also had the support of a number of establishment Democrats, including former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, former Gov. Ed Rendell and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Lee had established a comfortable lead in early polling, before being hit with millions in outside money attacking her and supporting Irwin with television ads and mailers, part of a trend of attacks on progressive candidates. While the funding came from pro-Israel super-PACs that have supported a number of Republicans, they did not attack Lee for her position on international relations but instead questioned her loyalty as a Democrat who would support President Biden’s agenda. The ads were criticized by a number of Lee backers, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who toppled Peduto, a moderate Democratic incumbent, in last year’s primary. Gainey is the city’s first Black mayor.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Summer Lee stand together with linked arms raised.
Sen. Bernie Sanders endorses Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee on May 12. (Rebecca Droke/AP)

“While I do think the ads did work in areas where Rep. Lee wasn’t as well known, they were easily refuted given Summer’s record of expanding the Democratic electorate, supporting President Biden along with Bernie Sanders in his race against Trump, and serving the people of her statehouse district,” Innamorato, who campaigned for Lee, told Yahoo News. “The messaging was disingenuous.

“While I was knocking doors, I also found the ads working against their original intent,” she continued. “After seeing the ads or reading the mailer, many people were motivated to go out and vote for Summer, because they too are frustrated with the Democratic Party and believe that it does need to be rebuilt to be more diverse, inclusive and rooted in progressive values.”

Lee got a late boost in fundraising from Justice Democrats while Sanders held a rally in downtown Pittsburgh supporting her. The Vermont senator also wrote a letter to Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison calling on him to condemn super-PACs participating in Democratic primaries, saying he had “not heard any criticism from Democratic leaders about the many millions of dollars in dark money being spent by super PACs that are now attempting to buy Democratic primaries.”

“The goal of this billionaire funded effort is to crush the candidacies of a number of progressive women of color who are running for Congress,” wrote Sanders.

Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who lives in the 12th District, said she received so many mailers in support of Irwin or against Lee that she could have wallpapered a room of her house with them, including receiving four on Election Day. Putnam, who studies labor and activism, said Lee’s coalition shows how union power is moving from blue-collar white men to service jobs in industries like health care, where women of color are more prominent.

Steve Irwin stands at a microphone.
Steve Irwin, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, at a campaign event on May 14 in Pittsburgh. (Rebecca Droke/AP)

“The underlying story here is a shift of political weight away from the unions that represent people who build hospitals, towards the unions that are seeking to represent people who labor in them,” Putnam told Yahoo News.

“Unions and their members are not a monolith,” Innamorato said. “As we saw with Summer’s campaign, she did receive a handful of union endorsements from organizations that tend to serve lower-wage retail and service workers, teachers and industrial workers, while Irwin’s campaign received the endorsement of the building trades locals, whose endorsements tend to be more in line with the establishment candidate.

“I’m curious to watch how union leadership shifts as more lower-wage, service-based, as well as emerging industries where workers tend to skew younger and more progressive join in unionization efforts,” Innamorato continued. “This will not only provide needed energy to the union movement, but also may shift the type of candidates they help elect. Adding new industries and growing membership is a great thing for the entire labor movement.”

However, Putnam also noted that Irwin coming this close to victory mainly on the back of outside spending shows the effect big money can have on races like this, as it did Tuesday night in North Carolina with a progressive candidate falling. Other tests of the outside influence come next week in Texas with challenger Jessica Cisneros and then in August with Rep. Andy Levin in Michigan, who have both been targeted.

Most political observers expect the GOP to retake the House in November and force Democrats into the minority. But that diminished Democratic caucus will likely be more progressive, as moderates in swing districts will likely bear the brunt of Republican victories this fall.

A Republican-controlled House would curtail Democrats’ ability to push through legislation to Biden’s desk. But with much of the president’s agenda already stymied by centrist Democrats in the Senate, a House with a larger and more robust progressive caucus might have a lasting impact on their party’s ideological trajectory.

In general, Tuesday was a good night for progressives in Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who had twice endorsed Sanders in his presidential runs, easily won the contest to be the party’s nominee in the Senate race, defeating a more moderate opponent in Rep. Conor Lamb, who had racked up dozens of endorsements.

“While Mayor Gainey and myself have been endorsed by the party, Summer Lee was not, as well as two other progressive women incumbents in the statehouse,” Innamorato told Yahoo News. “Over the past few elected cycles that endorsement from our local Democratic Party has not shown to bolster exciting, people-powered campaigns. The results Tuesday night showed us again.”

Innamorato noted that those two candidates — Jessica Benham and Emily Kinkead — easily won their primaries this week without support from the party.