Echoes of OH-11 in heated Pittsburgh House race

‘I call him the Jewish Shontel Brown,' one supporter said of Steve Irwin, who is facing off against progressive state Rep. Summer Lee in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District

In a matter of weeks, the race for an open House seat in Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs has burst onto the front lines of a high-profile Democratic civil war that has figured prominently in several recent primary battles around the country, particularly where opposing approaches to Israel have fueled tensions between the party’s mainstream and activist wings.

With tomorrow’s primary looming, two leading candidates are now locked in fierce competition for the chance to succeed longtime Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), whose retirement has created a rare vacancy in Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 12th Congressional District.

The progressive frontrunner, state Rep. Summer Lee, has consolidated support from the activist left. Justice Democrats, the combative political group, is backing her campaign, as are the range of Squad members whose ranks she is likely to join in Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The outspoken Democratic Socialist has also notched an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who appeared in Pittsburgh last week to rally voters before Tuesday’s election. 

Lee, 34, has expressed agreement with such domestic policy proposals as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Like many of her allies in the House, she is in favor of placing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, whose government she has harshly criticized for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Her chief rival, Steve Irwin, an attorney and Democratic activist in Pittsburgh, stands on the opposing end of the party spectrum and casts himself as eager to build on the policy objectives of the Biden administration. Irwin, 62, has drawn overwhelming support from the Democratic establishment in Allegheny County, which makes up most of the district. Doyle, the outgoing dean of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, has blessed his bid. 

Irwin, who is Jewish, has also emphasized a personal commitment to countering antisemitic violence, a matter of longheld concern in the district, where nearly four years ago a lone gunman carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Irwin’s own experiences with antisemitism have contributed to what he describes as a deeply held belief in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland. He has earned support from a number of pro-Israel groups, including the political arms of Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America, a bipartisan organization that has listed the race as among its top priorities in the midterms. 

The United Democracy Project, a new super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, the bipartisan pro-Israel lobbying group, has invested most heavily in the race. For nearly the past month, UDP has unleashed a barrage of attack ads targeting Lee. The spots, which have drawn sharp rebukes from her supporters, have upended what had otherwise been a relatively staid primary, despite some simmering tensions — not least around Middle East foreign policy matters — that had already sown division at the local level.

Until recently, though, it seemed as if Irwin had been struggling to gain traction, even as he amassed a sizable war chest that allowed his campaign to establish an early presence on the airwaves weeks before every other candidate in the five-way race, which also includes constitutional law professor Jerry Dickinson, nonprofit administrator Jeff Woodard and businessman Will Parker. 

But while UDP has recently dominated the race, the three-week period during which Irwin was on TV alone, beginning in early April, seems to have been a crucial turning point in his campaign. And it is one among many dynamics that are similar to last year’s closely watched House primary in Cleveland, where Rep. Shontel Brown (D-OH) overcame a 35-point polling deficit in her come-from-behind victory over Nina Turner.

Irwin was looking at only somewhat more favorable odds by late March, when Lee had opened up a daunting lead over the entire field, according to the only publicly available polling on the race, which was conducted by an outside group supporting her campaign. Irwin, trailing in a distant second, was behind by 25 points and had little time remaining to close the gap. 

But now, the first-time candidate appears to be mounting a late comeback as the race has narrowed to a “neck-and-neck” sprint for the finish line, according to three people familiar with more recent polling who spoke with Jewish Insider last week. 

In one poll, Irwin had pulled ahead of Lee by a single point, with 30% of the vote. The survey — some details of which were shared with JI — was conducted by Democratic strategist Jake Dilemani of Mercury Public Affairs on behalf of an undisclosed organization monitoring the race. It polled 500 likely primary voters in late April. Two other polls, conducted on behalf of Irwin’s campaign in late April, also suggest the race has been tightening along similar lines, according to a campaign source as well a person close to UDP. Both sources, who asked to remain anonymous, declined to share the results of the surveys. There is no publicly available independent polling on the race.

While at least a few weeks have gone by since the three polls were conducted, the race has only become more heated amid an influx of advertising from outside groups. Most notably, UDP has spent more than $2 million in the primary, including a series of negative TV ads and direct mailers that have sought to cast Lee as hostile to the Democratic Party — and, consequently, Biden’s agenda. UDP launched its first ad in the district on April 22.

Lee, who says she anticipated such attacks, has aggressively pushed back on the messaging. Her campaign manager has described the ads as “full of misinformation and racist and sexist lies,” and her allies, including Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayor, Ed Gainey, condemned the UDP’s attacks in an open letter, noting that an AIPAC-affiliated political action committee had endorsed more than 100 Republican incumbents who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results. Last week, Justice Democrats released an attack ad hitting back at the Irwin campaign for his affiliation with UDP, among other things.

UDP, for its part, defended its efforts in a statement to JI. “Summer Lee, in her own words, on her own social media accounts, has repeatedly highlighted her plans to ‘dismantle’ the Democratic Party and criticized Joe Biden during his campaign against Donald Trump,” said Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for the group. “Lee also said she could not say how she would have voted on a key pillar of President Biden’s agenda, the historic infrastructure bill that is now bringing much-needed investment to communities across western Pennsylvania.”

The group, whose ads make no mention of Middle East foreign policy, has said it is targeting races where “there is a clear difference between a candidate who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship” and “a candidate who will seek to undermine that relationship.” UDP is also spending heavily in congressional races in North Carolina and Texas where moderate Democrats are facing off against progressives, including one candidate whose past statements on Israel have drawn scrutiny.

If such efforts seem familiar, it is likely because UDP and other like-minded groups are now borrowing from a playbook that was hashed out during last summer’s high-profile special House election for an open seat in the Cleveland area, where Brown pulled off an upset over Turner, a former state senator and Sanders presidential campaign surrogate who had notched endorsements from Justice Democrats and several prominent progressives.

Brown, a mainstream Democrat and protégé of the retiring incumbent, former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), garnered support from a range of leading House members as well as several pro-Israel groups, chief among them DMFI. Its political arm spent more than $2 million on the race, including a litany of attacks portraying Turner as a Biden critic who would actively oppose the advancement of Democratic policies. The ads, which drew condemnation from Turner’s campaign, appear to have had their intended effect: Brown prevailed by a six-point margin in the August primary last year.

To an almost uncanny degree, the Pittsburgh race has played out along the same lines, even as Tuesday’s outcome has yet to be decided. There are, of course, the attack ads that have echoed DMFI’s messaging, along with a bitter rivalry that has taken prominence on the national stage as a sort of proxy battle between warring Democratic factions. There have been differing approaches to Israel that have flown somewhat under the radar, even as Jewish voters in both races have noticed the contrasts. There is Irwin’s apparent late-stage surge, fueled in part by an early and lone TV presence that, similarly, had contributed to Brown’s success near the end of her race. 

Those parallels have not gone unnoticed by Jewish voters in the district, many of whom watched the Cleveland race with interest and now view Irwin’s candidacy as akin to Brown’s campaign.

“I call him the Jewish Shontel Brown,” Lou Weiss, a pro-Israel activist in Pittsburgh who is supporting Irwin’s campaign, quipped in a recent interview with JI. “Why? He’s a relative unknown who’s pro-Israel, coming from behind against someone who’s a future Squad member.”

Following a string of progressive defeats in special House primaries last cycle, including Cleveland,  Lee’s candidacy represents one of the best chances for the activist left to prove its mettle at the beginning of a long and potentially bruising election season. The two-term state legislator — who, if elected, would become Pennsylvania’s first Black congresswoman — has shown she is well-suited for the task. Known for her savvy grassroots mobilization efforts, Lee assumed office after unseating an entrenched Democratic incumbent in 2018 — part of a wave of progressive upsets that have recently disrupted the Democratic status quo in the Pittsburgh area.

But if the district has in some ways shifted left, it has also, like Cleveland, been particularly fertile ground for the sort of counteroffensive now being waged by UDP and other groups such as DFMI, which has spent more than $400,000. The Pittsburgh area shares a number of characteristics with Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which takes in Cleveland and the suburbs of Cuyahoga County. Like Cleveland, for instance, Pittsburgh is a heavily Democratic Rust Belt enclave with a large Black population and a sizable minority of politically active Jewish voters. 

In the Cleveland race last year, Brown, a former county councilwoman and party chair, built crucial inroads with the Jewish voters, particularly in the heavily Jewish eastern suburbs that saw some of the highest turnout in the race. The organized Jewish community had coalesced around Brown’s campaign, in large part, because of a perception that Turner would be less supportive of Israel. Turner, who has favored conditioning aid to Israel, had otherwise alienated a wide swath of Cleveland’s Jewish community after she endorsed a social media post likening Israel to an apartheid state during the conflict with Gaza last May.

In her concession speech, she criticized the “evil money” that had poured into the district from outside pro-Israel groups and other big spenders, drawing accusations of antisemitism that followed her into a recent rematch with Brown. That ended in another defeat for Turner earlier this month, despite an increased effort to engage in more direct outreach to Jewish voters. Brown, seeking her first full term in the House, clinched the nomination with a decisive two-thirds of the vote. DMFI — a spokesperson for which did not respond to a request for comment — returned to the district to play defense, spending more than $1 million on Brown’s behalf. UDP, which had not existed last cycle, also invested in the race.

In recent weeks, Turner has spoken out against the dynamics now roiling the Pittsburgh race. “This is what they do best,” she said in a recent tweet, responding to a fellow critic of UDP’s attack ads. “Did the same thing to me. These attacks against Black women are particularly vicious. It is anti-Blackness.”

Joe Corrigan, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia who is supporting Lee, echoed that view. “The similarities are that the Democratic establishment and its allies are once again spending heaps of money they could be spending in November against Republicans to try to keep a progressive Black woman out of Congress,” he argued. “I think that what the money has successfully done is it’s muddied up the waters.”

Others, however, have seen merit in the ads and dismiss such accusations. “They’re trying to create a narrative to inflame the situation against Steve,” Kenneth Huston, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, said in a recent interview with JI. “But it has to be more than that. You have to have a record that you stand on.”

“I think Steve is a better position than people think he is,” Huston added. “For one, I’m a Black man and I’m talking to other Black people who feel the same way I do.”

Among Jewish voters, Irwin — who now serves as a representative for the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest regional board and has long been involved in organized Jewish life in Pennsylvania — has benefited from built-in relationships that have contributed to what many voters have described as a strong level of support for his candidacy. “I think the majority of the Jewish community is behind Steve,” said Julie Paris, a pro-Israel advocate in Pittsburgh who has volunteered for Irwin’s campaign. “He understands foreign policy.”

By contrast, Paris expressed reservations over Lee’s approach to Israel, citing comments from a recent public discussion with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council in which she reiterated her support for conditioning aid. Lee also described the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as a “peaceful protest,” even as she emphasized that is “not a movement” she is “personally a part of.” Paris also took issue with social media comments in which Lee had criticized American politicians who “use the refrain ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized” population last May amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas.

In an interview with JI a couple of months ago, Irwin had also raised questions over the remarks, charging that her comments “do not indicate a strong conviction that Israel has a right to exist and is recognized as a valid Jewish homeland.” Her campaign has strongly rejected such accusations, noting that “Lee has always supported Israel’s right to exist.” 

Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee

During the hour-long federation interview, which was wide-ranging and occasionally tense, Lee said she “absolutely” believes in Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. “What’s more is that I also understand and really truly believe the need that we have for Jewish folks globally to have a safe haven,” she emphasized. “I think that our role has to be in how we are ensuring the safety of all folks over there right now.”

The talk was the last in a series of conversations with three candidates in the race. The Pittsburgh federation had contacted each candidate at the beginning of the year about sitting for discussions, but only Irwin and Dickinson’s campaigns had responded to the original inquiry, according to a federation source who helped organize the event. The federation was only able to schedule a talk with Lee until after the initial flyer for the event — featuring just Irwin and Dickinson — had been publicized, the source told JI.

Lee’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment from JI.

Nancy Bernstein, a Jewish community activist in Pittsburgh, said she believed that Lee’s conversation with the federation had been largely positive. “She’s learning about Israel and she’s very open to learning more,” Bernstein, who supports Lee’s campaign, told JI. “She’s listening to everyone, which is what a congresswoman should be doing.” 

In particular, Bernstein appreciated that Lee had affirmed her support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as “an end to the occupation,” among other things. Such views, Bernstein said, are consistent with J Street, where she is a sitting national board member. The liberal advocacy group hasn’t made an official endorsement in the race but has otherwise “primary approved” both Lee and Dickinson, who has also occupied a progressive lane in the race. J Street’s action fund has spent at least $50,000 supporting Lee’s campaign.

Lee has also earned an endorsement from the Pittsburgh branch of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group dedicated exclusively to domestic issues. 

Ritchie Tabachnik, who serves as the political director for J Street’s Pittsburgh chapter and is backing Lee, said he had initially been conflicted when Irwin entered the race. “I like him personally,” Tabachnik  told JI. “I think he’s a decent person and he’s deeply committed to community service.” Ultimately, however, he sided with Lee. “Broadly speaking, Summer Lee is one of those elected people who is willing to challenge the establishment and is willing to challenge the status quo,” he explained. “I admire her for that.”

In an interview, Tabachnik said he was comfortable with Lee’s Middle East foreign policy views, dismissing some critics who have raised doubts over her opposition to the BDS movement. “I have had specific conversations with Summer and she opposes it. She opposes it because she doesn’t believe it’s an effective way to achieve the goal of a two-state solution,” Tabachnik told JI. “This is not a contest between someone who is a friend to Israel and someone who isn’t. It’s been made into that.”

While Tabachnik took issue with the content of UDP’s ads, he also suggested that the attacks have ultimately been about more than just Israel. “I believe they are about protecting the status quo, just as they were in the case of Nina Turner in Ohio,” he said. 

Jeff Mendelsohn, the executive director of Pro-Israel America, offered a differing perspective. “Steve Irwin, like Shontel Brown, is facing a divisive opponent who has isolated constituents and made clear that she wants to ‘dismantle’ rather than unite her own party,” he said in a statement to JI. “Both of these races show that when voters hear more about candidates and their positions, they often reject the politics of division.”

The candidates’ approaches to Israel are likely to weigh on some voters in the district as they head to the polls tomorrow. Pittsburgh is home to a Jewish population of nearly 50,000, approximately three-fifths of whom have visited Israel, according to a 2017 study conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute. More broadly, a majority of voters are less likely to back a candidate who “opposes U.S. support for Israel,” including 54% of those over the age of 65, according to the poll conducted by Mercury late last month.

Paris, for her part, said she views the election with a particular sense of urgency now that Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who is among the most outspoken supporters of Israel in the House, has announced his retirement. The loss “cannnot be underestimated by the pro-Israel community,” she said of the Florida congressman. “I really see Steve as the next person in line to fill his shoes.”

She speculated that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community would play a “key role” in the race. “Could the Jewish vote be decisive?” Paris mused. “Yes.”

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