pittsburgh push

In Pittsburgh House race, Jewish Democrats torn on backing Summer Lee

After a recent incursion from United Democracy Project, some voters weigh concerns about GOP’s direction over support for Israel

Mark Dixon

Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee

Just days before the midterms, a pro-Israel group is ramping up an 11th-hour ad offensive to thwart a staunch progressive who narrowly withstood its attacks during a bruising primary election nearly six months ago.

The race for an open House seat covering Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs had, until recently, kept a modest profile on the national stage, even as it had been among the most fiercely contested battle sites of the primary season. Now, a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, United Democracy Project, has plunged back into the fight, culminating in another high-stakes showdown with state Rep. Summer Lee, the Democratic nominee.

But the recent investment of more than $1 million in ads and direct mailers opposing Lee has also intensified a predicament for some moderate Jewish Democrats in Pennsylvania’s redrawn 12th Congressional District, who have been forced to weigh concerns with the direction of the Republican Party over their staunch support for Israel.

During the May primary, UDP supported a moderate Jewish Democrat, spending nearly $3 million on behalf of Steve Irwin, an attorney and political activist in Pittsburgh who had notched endorsements from a range of pro-Israel groups. But UDP, which is bipartisan, has since thrown its weight behind the Republican candidate, Mike Doyle, in a reverse maneuver that could pay off amid favorable GOP headwinds.

In recent interviews with Jewish Insider, a few voters for whom Israel is usually a top issue explained that their continued reservations over Lee’s approach to Middle East policy have now been outweighed by the prospect of a Republican victory on Tuesday, particularly amid a resurgence of right-wing radicalism that has intersected with antisemitism.

“While Israel is a big motivating force for me right now, I’m thinking about election deniers,” said a Democratic activist in Pittsburgh, who had previously backed Irwin but is now supporting Lee. “The more important thing for me right now is to hold the House if we can. If this country is going to be ruined, it’s going to be really bad for Israel.”

It was not a decision the activist was particularly eager to announce. In a phone conversation last Wednesday, he hesitated before reluctantly admitting that he had already voted for Lee by mail, but requested anonymity because he did not want his name attached to the statement. “Most of the people I know would just assume that we’ll have to deal with this for the next two years,” he said, imagining Lee’s possible future tenure in Congress. “I don’t know how much damage she can do in two years.”

His comments underscore a dynamic that has created some unusual bedfellows, in a race that had previously run along more predictable lines. Even Irwin himself put his differences aside in a Saturday tweet, pledging to vote for Lee just a day after speaking at an event in the heavily Jewish Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill at which a number of Jewish leaders expressed solidarity with her campaign.

“I’m supporting the Democratic ticket up and down because, in Pennsylvania, we really have a problem with extremism,” Irwin said in an interview with JI on Friday, referring in large part to Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor, who has pushed election-related conspiracy theories while promoting Christian nationalism and espousing antisemitic tropes, among other things.

But Irwin said his concerns are hardly limited to state-level candidates. “If the House goes Republican,” he added, “I’m afraid that the Congress is going to be focused on impeaching the president.”

For the moment, at least, Irwin suggested that he was prioritizing a widely shared anxiety with rising GOP radicalism over Lee’s views on Israel, which had previously led him to question whether she supported the existence of a Jewish homeland. “It’s an issue, but it’s not the only issue,” he explained. “I didn’t disagree with everything Summer said about human rights and some things she raised,” he said of her past statements assessing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was her approach.”

Still, Irwin insisted that he was by no means letting his former opponent off the hook on fundamental policy disagreements over Israel, for which he has long been an outspoken advocate. “If Summer Lee is successful,” he vowed, “we’re going to lobby the hell out of her to make sure that she fully understands every vote she makes as it relates to Israel and the Middle East.”

He refrained from directly criticizing UDP’s involvement in the race. “I understand what they’re doing,” he said diplomatically. “I want the Democratic nominee to win, and what they’re doing is not helping the Democratic nominee.” 

More broadly, Irwin elaborated, UDP’s latest foray had reawakened what he described as “painful” memories of the primary, when the national spotlight fueled tensions among Jewish Democrats in Pittsburgh who found themselves navigating a bitter proxy war between the party’s activist and mainstream wings. 

“What I don’t like to see is the involvement dividing the Jewish community, and it had that impact in Squirrel Hill, to a degree,” he said of the May election. “It was a heart-wrenching experience within the Jewish community itself.”

Even as some Jewish activists have differed with UDP, a small but unique subset of more independent-minded Jewish Democrats who spoke with JI admitted that they agreed with the group’s approach and are pulling the lever for Doyle instead, based on the simple reason that they can’t bring themselves to support Lee over her positions on Israel and connections to the far left.

“I fully intend to vote for the new Mike Doyle,” said Lou Weiss, a registered Democrat in Pittsburgh who is involved in pro-Israel activism. “Frankly, he’s not Summer Lee.”

“As a Jewish Democrat, I’m voting for Doyle,” Charles Saul, a Pittsburgh attorney who helped lead a grassroots coalition to rally Jewish voters behind Irwin during the primary, revealed in an email to JI last week. “I would hope that any Jewish Democrat would vote for Doyle rather than someone supported by the antisemitic Squad,” he argued, alluding to some representatives who have expressed controversial views about Israel. “Just like I’m not supporting Mastriano because of his support from antisemites, so, too, am I not supporting Lee.”

In a phone interview, Saul said he was unconcerned that Doyle had recently declined to denounce Mastriano for his close association with Gab — a far-right social media platform viewed as a haven for antisemites and other extremists — while speaking with the Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle, where Saul is a board member. “That was probably a smart move on his part, just as a politician, not to comment on that,” he reasoned.

A pro-Israel advocate in Pittsburgh, who is a registered Democrat but has already voted for Doyle, a Plum Borough councilman and insurance executive who shares a name with the outgoing Democratic incumbent, expressed mild disappointment over Doyle’s recent comments. “It was not as strong as I’d have liked,” the activist, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the discussion, said of Doyle’s response to Mastriano. “But at least he didn’t support him.”

“I don’t think Mike Doyle is a perfect candidate by any stretch of the imagination,” the activist added. “But the alternative is worse.”

Meanwhile, the cash infusion from UDP — whose ads have cast Lee as a “radical” who is “too extreme” for the district — has drawn backlash from some Democratic activists, elected officials and Jewish leaders in Pennsylvania and beyond. 

On social media, Lee has joined forces with some of her most high-profile supporters, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), to accuse UDP of hypocrisy, “corporate greed” and precipitating the “destabilization of U.S. democracy,” among other charges.

“This is the same super PAC that attacked me during the primary for not being ‘sufficiently Democrat,’” Lee wrote on Twitter last week. “Now they’re trying to elect the Republican.”

In the final days of the general election, UDP’s first and only expenditure on behalf of a Republican candidate this cycle has in some ways exacerbated old divisions, while also contributing to new fault lines.

Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for UDP, defended the move as ultimately motivated by an effort “to build the broadest bipartisan pro-Israel coalition in Congress possible,” reiterating an argument he has frequently invoked to explain the group’s involvement in previous races. Even as UDP’s ads have made no mention of Middle East policy, Dorton argued in a recent interview with JI that Lee’s approach to Israel is “out of the mainstream for Democrats in the district.”

“I believe AIPAC has no place to speak,” countered Jill Zipin, the founder and chair of Democratic Jewish Outreach of Pennsylvania, which has endorsed Lee’s campaign and counts Irwin as a board member. “Fights within the Jewish community over Israel take a back seat to protecting democracy.”

Last week, Zipin was one of more than 240 Jewish leaders in Pennsylvania who signed a joint letter condemning UDP for its decision “to cast Democrats like Lee as extremists,” while noting that an AIPAC-affiliated political action committee has “continued to endorse” more than 100 Republican incumbents who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results.

Zipin, who described herself as a “progressive Zionist,” said it was laughable to suggest that Lee is an extremist, citing her positions on abortion access and voting rights in addition to Middle East policy. “She came out multiple times and said she does not support BDS and would support aid to Israel,” Zipin argued in a recent interview with JI. “Summer Lee reflects both Jewish and Democratic values.”

In a statement, Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, objected to such characterizations. “We have strongly opposed Summer Lee because she has a record of supporting proposals that would endanger and condition assistance for Israel,” he said. “In clear contrast to the 148 pro-Israel Democrats we have supported in this election cycle, she is a detractor of America’s alliance with the Jewish state.”

Ritchie Tabachnick, a Jewish activist in Pittsburgh who serves as the local political director of the liberal advocacy group J Street — which has endorsed Lee — acknowledged that “there are those who are put off by” what he called “her nuanced approach to the Israel-Palestinian issue,” as well as her affiliation with the Squad, whose members are among the most outspoken critics of Israel in the House. 

But he said their concerns were unwarranted. “Lee, because of her lived experiences being part of a marginalized community, has been a fighter for economic, social and racial justice,” he said of the Pittsburgh-area lawmaker, who would be the first Black congresswoman from Pennsylvania. “That is why she is supported by other progressive populists. Trying to read more into that support has no basis in fact.”

In the meeting with Jewish leaders on Friday morning, Lee, 34, exhorted her supporters to “dig deep and recognize those connections we have to each other, our shared struggles, our shared humanity.” 

“We know that if we are going to be serious about solving our crime, whether it be our public safety or the rising tide of racism and white supremacy and antisemitism, that our fates are going to be linked together, that our communities are going to have to stand together,” she said in Squirrel Hill, where four years ago, a lone gunman carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history at the Tree of Life Synagogue. “And right now there are people that would wish to divide us, that they would wish to distract us to make us feel that we are farther apart than we are when, in reality, we are standing right here together. We have to push back on every message that we hear.”

While Lee is in favor of conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel, citing human rights violations, she has also criticized the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians, drawing a parallel with fatal shootings of unarmed Black Americans such as Trayvon Martin. 

Her approach is a non-starter for UDP, which spent millions during the primaries to oppose several candidates on the left who had promoted similar views. “This is a race,” Dorton claimed, “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.”

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

For his part, Doyle had not publicly outlined his own views on Middle East policy, it appears, until last week, when Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle published an interview in which he expressed support for unconditional U.S. aid to Israel and pledged to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with “our biggest ally” in the region.

His views are broadly in line with the GOP’s support for Israel. But even if Doyle’s approach is acceptable to UDP, the first-time congressional candidate suggested that he remains unschooled on some of the finer policy distinctions surrounding issues like the Iran nuclear deal, which Republicans have vehemently opposed. “I’m not that well versed on it, quite frankly,” he acknowledged in the interview.

Doyle’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

Last Tuesday, the Chronicle ran an accompanying story detailing its repeated and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to arrange an interview with Lee over the course of about five months. While her campaign provided written responses to a range of broad interview topics, the paper said it had made the decision not to run them because it was “only interested in live interviews with the candidates,” among other reasons.

In the article, the paper wrote that it had “hoped to have Lee clarify” some of the statements she made in April during an hour-long discussion with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, when she was pressed on a range of topics, including Israel and the Middle East. The paper noted that Lee had said she was unsure if Israel is an apartheid state and, in a tense exchange, elaborated on a tweet in which she had criticized American politicians who “use the refrain ‘Israel has the right to defend itself,’” amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

In the final months of the primary, Lee’s rhetoric had drawn particular scrutiny from Jewish Democrats, who represent a sizable minority of politically active voters in a district that includes the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. Irwin, for his part, had even suggested that Lee’s past remarks “do not indicate a strong conviction that Israel has a right to exist.”

Lee rejected such accusations, emphasizing that she “absolutely” believes in Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which is backed by at least two of her most prominent supporters in the Squad, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). 

Her reassurances were unsatisfactory to many Jewish voters who supported Irwin during the May contest, which he lost by just under a percentage point. But the general election has, in some ways, been animated by a different sort of cost-benefit analysis among Jewish Democrats for whom Israel is a top issue.

According to a politically connected Jewish community source in Pittsburgh, some Jewish Democrats who are opposed to Lee but won’t support a Republican have decided that they won’t be voting at all, if they haven’t already written in a random name or left the ballot blank altogether. The source claimed to have heard from five people who had acted along those lines, but declined to connect them with JI. “Others,” the source told JI, “are biting the proverbial bullet.”

Even as some voters have resisted supporting Lee’s campaign, their reservations do not appear to represent any significant groundswell of opposition that would meaningfully affect the outcome of the election. 

In a district where registered Democrats heavily outweigh Republican voters, Doyle remains an underdog, local observers contend. Though election forecasters have speculated he may stand a chance to flip the seat amid an election cycle in which Republicans are expected to retake the House in force.

That Doyle has the same name as the Democratic incumbent, who is retiring after 27 years, has sown some voter confusion ahead of Tuesday’s election. While it remains to be seen how many voters could accidentally choose the wrong candidate, Lee’s campaign has indicated that such concerns are not unwarranted, releasing instructional ads to remind constituents that “Democrat Mike Doyle is not on the ballot.”

In conversations with JI, Jewish community activists from both parties predicted that Lee is likely to prevail on Tuesday, notwithstanding recent surveys that suggest a closer race than expected. According to a UDP source, the group conducted polling that showed a “neck-and-neck” contest, which motivated its decision to jump back into the matchup. The source declined to share specific numbers with JI, and another poll has shown Lee with a 14-point lead over her GOP rival.

Still, to counter the hefty expenditure from UDP, which has come in conjunction with Republican attacks, the House Democratic campaign arm has recently invested six figures on Lee’s behalf. On Friday, the progressive group Justice Democrats joined the push, spending $150,000 on an ad buy to boost Lee’s candidacy, according to new filings from the Federal Election Commission

Jon Tucker, a pro-Israel advocate in Pittsburgh and a registered Republican who supported Irwin in the primary, said he intends to vote for Doyle but is not optimistic about his prospects. “If Mike Doyle pulls it off,” he told JI, “it would be a miracle because it’s just a heavily Democratic-leaning registration.”

There are some early signs, however, that the next primary could prove equally if not more divisive, even with Lee as an incumbent: Pro-Israel activists in Pittsburgh have begun a tentative search to help recruit a potential Democratic challenger whose approach to the Middle East aligns more closely with their own, according to a source with knowledge of the plans who asked to remain anonymous. 

Without naming names, the source said that “there are already” some candidates “who are looking at getting into a race two years from now.”