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 will come in a series of races this coming week, 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.
Earlier this week, before Sanders went to Pittsburgh to rally for Lee, Doyle took aim at the senator and other leading progressives on Capitol Hill, saying during a call with reporters, “You don’t get anything done if you are with Bernie Sanders and The Squad.”
For his part, ahead of the Pittsburgh visit Sanders denounced the massive amounts of outside spending against progressive candidates.
“Why are these corporate Democratic interests spending so much to defeat these women? Because they know that in Congress, Summer Lee, Jessica Cisneros and Nida Allam will fight for an agenda that represents the needs of workers and not large corporations and billionaires,” Sanders said. Cisneros is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’ 28th Congressional District. Allam, the Durham County commissioner, is running in a crowded field for the open seat in North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District. Both Cuellar and state Sen. Valerie Foushee have benefited from significant outside support.
United Democracy Project rejected Sanders’ charge, noting its support for Brown in the Ohio House race against Turner, and said its involvement in races for the Pennsylvania seat and a pair of open seats in North Carolina, including the 1st Congressional District, was driven by a variety of concerns.
“High rates of retirements, escalating costs of campaigns, and hyper-partisanship, including a small group of members of Congress who’ve been elected in the last few cycles who are out of the mainstream of the Democratic Party on the issue of US-Israel” drew United Democracy Project into the races, spokesman Patrick Dorton told CNN. “We are looking at races where there is a clear contrast between a pro-Israel candidate and a candidate who would undermine the US-Israel relationship in Congress.”
Allam, in a video call with supporters on Thursday night, appealed for help on the ground ahead and small-dollar donations to boost her television presence ahead of Tuesday’s election, saying, “We’re getting flooded in TV ads by these super PACs.”
“This is a seat to replace Congressman David Price, who is a champion for getting money out of politics, for reforming our campaign finance rules,” Allam added. “And to have this happening in this seat, to fill his legacy, is quite disappointing.”
To many on the left, the collective efforts of the outside groups across this coming round of contested races point to a broader agenda: not only defeating this round of progressive candidates, but also deterring the next one and brushing back those already in office.
“It has nothing to do with anything else other than an opportunity to purge progressives from the Democratic caucus,” said Maurice Mitchell, the Working Families Party national director.
The Working Families Party’s campaign arm has, in a joint effort with Justice Democrats, spent about $1.5 million backing Lee. They are also supporting Allam, former state Sen. Erica Smith — who is running in North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District — and Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader in Oregon’s redrawn 5th Congressional District.
McLeod-Skinner has been endorsed by a barrage of local leaders but has felt significant pushback from Democratic leadership in Washington. That includes the White House: Biden made Schrader his first endorsement of the cycle. The move, which caught some progressives by surprise, followed a revolt by county party leaders, who, in support of McLeod-Skinner, sent a letter to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee demanding that the party’s national House campaign arm “immediately stop campaigning for Schrader in the primary election.”
The new Mainstream Democrats PAC, backed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, has piled nearly $800,000 into the race in support of Schrader. Like Lee in Pennsylvania, McLeod-Skinner said she was “not surprised at all” by the influx of outside money into the race.
“This is a very competitive race and we’ve got folks on the ground,” she said. “Kurt has got support from outside the state.”