money matters

UDP renews opposition to Summer Lee as Pittsburgh House race appears to tighten

The new mailer, which was shared with JI on Monday by a spokesperson for UDP, accuses Lee of holding views that are 'too extreme' for Pennsylvania’s redrawn 12th Congressional District

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State Rep. Summer Lee talks to the press outside her polling station at the Paulson Recreation Center after voting with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on May 17, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, has reemerged in a Pittsburgh-area House race, recently spending about $80,000 on mailers targeting the Democratic nominee, state Rep. Summer Lee, after a bitterly contested primary during which the group invested millions in an effort to oppose her candidacy.

The new mailer, which was shared with Jewish Insider on Monday by a spokesperson for UDP, accuses Lee of holding views that are “too extreme” for Pennsylvania’s redrawn 12th Congressional District, displaying some of her past social media statements to suggest the progressive Democrat is in favor of defunding the police and abolishing prison, among other things.

“Why do politicians like Summer Lee have to take everything to the extreme?” the mailer reads. “Summer Lee is so extreme she wants to ‘totally dismantle’ the Democratic Party.”

The rhetoric is in many ways reminiscent of ads UDP ran during the May primary, when the group dropped nearly $3 million into the district while backing Lee’s opponent, Steve Irwin, a moderate Jewish Democrat who had gained support from a number of pro-Israel groups in addition to UDP. In a close finish, Lee prevailed by just under a percentage point.

Even as UDP had sought to cast Lee as hostile to policy objectives espoused by the Biden administration, the group is now devoting resources to clear a path for the Republican nominee, Mike Doyle, who shares a name with the retiring Democratic incumbent, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), sowing unexpected voter confusion in the final weeks before next Tuesday’s election.

While the party switch drew criticism from Lee as well as her supporters on Monday, Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for UDP, explained the about-face in the context of what he characterized as an effort “to build the broadest bipartisan pro-Israel coalition in Congress possible.”

UDP was launched by AIPAC, a bipartisan pro-Israel lobbying group, earlier this year, marking its first foray into campaign politics. The super PAC spent millions during the primaries in a number of high-profile Democratic races. Until now, it had foregone engagement in races pitting a Republican against a Democrat.

In an interview with JI, Dorton claimed that Lee’s Middle East policy views “are out of the mainstream for Democrats in the district,” which is home to a sizable Jewish population. “This is a race with a clear contrast between a pro-Israel candidate and an anti-Israel candidate in Summer Lee, who clearly will be a critic of the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress,” Dorton alleged.

A spokesperson for Lee’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. 

Lee defended her approach to Israel during the primary, declaring that she “absolutely” believes in Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The Pittsburgh lawmaker has expressed support for conditioning U.S. military assistance to Israel, whose government she has also denounced for its treatment of Palestinians.

In social media comments on Friday, Doyle suggested that Lee’s approach has alienated “pro-Israel constituents” within the district, while tying his opponent to past statements in which some of her most prominent supporters, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), have endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, among other things. Lee has said she opposes BDS.

The congresswomen were among a group of Squad members who hosted a fundraiser for Lee on Sunday, according to a flyer shared with JI.

Doyle, for his part, does not appear to have publicly outlined his own views on Israel, and a spokesperson for his campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Monday.

Until a couple of days ago, UDP had only invested in one other general election matchup, spending more than $500,000 to boost Kevin Mullin, a state assemblyman who is competing against a fellow Democrat, David Canepa, in California’s redrawn 15th Congressional District.

But UDP recently determined it was worth revisiting the Pittsburgh contest, five months after the primary, when it commissioned a poll and found “a very competitive race,” according to Dorton.

Though he declined to share the poll with JI or characterize its results on the record, Dorton claimed that UDP had “closely monitored a number of contests in the general election” and would not have entered the race if it did not believe it could make an impact. “We don’t get involved in races where we don’t think we can make a difference,” he said. 

He also declined to share whether UDP would invest additional resources in the race. The media-tracking firm AdImpact revealed on Monday evening, however, that UDP had “just placed” a $627,000 “broadcast buy” opposing Lee. 

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee is planning to spend six figures in the Pittsburgh race, according to Axios

Even as Democrats have long performed well in the district, the race appears to have tightened in recent weeks, due in part to a redrawn House map as well as some apparent uncertainty with the overlap between Doyle’s name and the outgoing congressman he hopes to succeed, among other factors.

Last week, Lee, who would be Pennsylvania’s first Black congresswoman, released an ad reminding voters that “Democrat Mike Doyle is not on the ballot,” writing on Twitter that she is “running against an extreme anti-choice, pro-NRA Republican who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare” who shares a name with” the “retiring congressman.”

In response to UDP’s recent expenditure, Lee claimed on Twitter that “AIPAC is funding my extreme GOP opponent,” before invoking a criticism from the primary, when she and her supporters accused an AIPAC-affiliated political action committee of endorsing more than 100 Republican incumbents who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results. 

“AIPAC has repeatedly shown us that democracy has never been as important as keeping progressives out,” Lee said on Monday. 

Her view was soon echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has endorsed Lee’s campaign. “Shamefully, AIPAC is working for Republican control of Congress and further destabilization of US democracy,” the congresswoman said on social media, exhorting her followers to “rally for” Lee “with a volunteer shift or donation today.”

A spokesperson for AIPAC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from JI on Monday evening.