As Democratic House members began planning their exits last year ahead of an expected midterms backlash, progressive outsiders were organizing, targeting soon-to-be open seats in traditionally blue districts.
The goal, as leading progressives have articulated over the last year or so, is to shift the center of gravity in the House Democratic caucus toward the left. Even if the party loses its majority in November, they reason, progressives would be well-positioned — with stronger negotiating hands — when the pendulum swings back in the coming years.
But as the primary season shifts into high gear, that project has been walloped by a late blitz of spending from outside organizations in support of its moderate, establishment-friendly opponents. Those interventions may prove consequential in close races in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oregon and, a week from Tuesday, a key runoff in Texas.
The outside groups are following a blueprint — called “The Ohio Model” by the progressive American Prospect — primed during the 2021 Ohio special election that helped Shontel Brown, now the representative from the state’s 11th Congressional District, overtake progressive Nina Turner, a former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign co-chair and vocal critic of the Democratic establishment. Earlier this month, Brown, again with significant outside support, won renomination over Turner by an even greater margin.
The next test of the aggressive new tactic will come in a series of races Tuesday, with a particular focus on Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, which includes parts of Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, including Pittsburgh, which has become a prime battleground. Progressive Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee is believed to be running neck and neck with moderate Steve Irwin, an attorney endorsed by retiring Rep. Mike Doyle, in a five-person race.
The primary has emerged as one of the most expensive and contentious of the cycle for Democrats, with United Democracy Project, the group aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, pouring more than $2 million — the vast majority of it aimed at damaging Lee — into an already heated intra-party ideological proxy fight.
Lee, who was endorsed by Sen. Sanders, a Vermont independent, and recruited by Justice Democrats, told CNN she was prepared for an onslaught of outside opposition but that the remarkable volume of spending has taken her aback.
“I don’t know that I could have conceptualized what $3 million looks like in three weeks. I think that sort of spending is obscene; it’s intentional,” Lee said, and designed “to send a very specific message: not just that we’re trying to win an election, but we’re trying to destroy you, we’re trying to depress voter turnout and we’re trying to discourage voters.”
One particular line of attack from United Democracy Project, which used Lee’s criticism of then-candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to accuse her of being disloyal to the party, triggered a backlash from a slew of local officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who sent an open letter of condemnation to Irwin’s campaign.
“As Democrats from across the commonwealth, we find it shameful that you would team up with a corporate super PAC that has endorsed over 100+ pro-insurrectionist Republicans to attack and smear our Democratic colleague, state Rep. Summer Lee, as not a Democrat,” the Lee supporters wrote.
Irwin’s campaign, which could not be reached for comment, defended the ad to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the time, and United Democracy Project has been unapologetic — while also seizing on more recent comments in which Lee declined to say whether she would have voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House.
Progressives in Washington ultimately supported the legislation but were angry over Democratic leadership’s decision to go back on its plan to move it in tandem with President Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better plan, which subsequently — as they had warned — died in the Senate.
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