Summer Lee Is Coming to Congress — and to The Squad

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Summer-Lee - Credit: (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Summer-Lee - Credit: (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Summer Lee, a progressive Pennsylvania state house member, won Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. Her primary victory in the deep-blue Pittsburgh district all but guarantees she’s headed to Congress next year to join fellow left-wing lawmakers  — and, very likely, the Squad.

34-year-old Lee first won her statehouse seat in 2018 as part of a wave of progressive, diverse, younger candidates who unseated longtime incumbents, winning in the same fashion as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) did at the federal level. Lee supports the typical slate of left-wing priorities, such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and packing the Supreme Court. Her coalition draws upon the working class voters of Pittsburgh, who have left the city’s traditional manufacturing jobs for its growing hospital and care sector, says Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies grassroots politics.

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Lee defeated two other candidates, including attorney Steve Irwin, who received endorsements from much of the Democratic establishment, as well as retiring Rep. Matt Doyle (D-Penn.), the current seat holder. Lee edged out Irwin by roughly 750 votes.

Lee’s victory is the second major win for the left as it seeks to broaden its congressional footprint this cycle. Austin City Council member Greg Casar, another Justice Democrats-backed candidate, won his March primary for Texas’ 35th congressional district, a narrow strip that runs from Austin to San Antonio. Both candidates succeeded in primaries for open seats in deeply Democratic districts, political conditions most fertile for left-wing gains.Progressive challengers to Democratic incumbents, meanwhile, have struggled to topple their opponents. Nina Turner, a former Bernie Sanders campaign chair, lost her rematch to Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) in Ohio’s primaries earlier this month.

The only potential exception of the cycle, so far, may come from Oregon’s 5th congressional district, where progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner holds a small lead on Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). Schrader, a business-friendly Democrat, drew renewed ire from the left in his efforts to kill affordable prescription drug legislation during the party’s negotiations over Build Back Better, President Joe Biden’s now-defunct social spending agenda. A remaining test arrives next week when immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros faces her runoff against Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in the House. Cisneros failed to win a majority of votes against Cuellar during Texas’ March primary.

The president’s party often loses seats during an administration’s first midterm election, and Democrats are bracing for potentially losing control of one or both chambers of Congress. Regardless of whether they do, a higher count of progressive lawmakers would give Congress’s left flank greater power over the party’s legislative agenda. The possibility has drawn ample attention from the left’s centrist and corporate detractors, which have poured millions of dollars into defeating progressive candidates. Tuesday’s House primaries in five states have drawn more super PAC spending than all of the 2020 House Democratic primaries combined, according to an analysis from OpenSecrets, a campaign finance watchdog organization.

The pro-Israel wing of the party has been a particularly big spender this cycle, intent on punishing progressive candidates who support Palestine and insufficiently supportive of Israel. Lee, like many of her progressive allies, has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and advocates placing conditions of U.S. aid to Israel. In the primary’s final stretch, she faced a $2 million attack campaign from the United Democracy Project, a PAC tied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as well as $400,000 in negative spending from the Democratic Majority for Israel.

“If I were someone in the Democratic party establishment, I’d be at Summer’s feet trying to dissect her strategy,” says Maurice Mitchell, the president of the progressive Working Families Party, which endorsed Lee. “Instead many have tried to purge her from the party.”

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