© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Congresswoman Summer Lee
Rep. Summer Lee defeated Bhavini Patel in the Democratic primary.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

Summer Lee Just Won a Tough Primary. Other Progressives May Use Her Playbook.

The Pennsylvania progressive pulled off a primary win against an opponent who bashed her for being insufficiently loyal to President Joe Biden.

Rep. Summer Lee won her first Democratic congressional primary by less than one point. This time around, the race wasn’t close.

Lee defeated primary challenger Bhavini Patel, who made Lee’s criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza central to the campaign.

The Tuesday primary was the first test this cycle for progressive members who make up the “squad,” some of whom are facing formidable challenges from more moderate Democrats. Her victory could serve as a guide for others hoping to keep their seats this time around.

Lee’s primary came down to “turnout, turnout, turnout,” said Leeann Younger, chair of the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee.

Lee took a 10-point lead over Patel in mail ballot results, including in Westmoreland County, the most conservative and rural part of the district Patel was looking to capitalize on. The race was called within an hour and a half of polls closing, with Lee ahead by 18 points.

“Our victory is a rejection of right-wing interests and Republican billionaires using corporate Super PACs to target Black and brown Democrats in our primaries,” Lee said in a statement after the win.

“Western PA is the blueprint for the future all of America deserves,” she added.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the importance of Lee’s race when she campaigned for her in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

“When you all send Summer Lee back by double digits, you’re going to send a message that says Westchester’s not going to be for sale, either. St. Louis won’t be for sale, either,” she said at a rally. “The Bronx and Queens is never for sale. Minnesota is not for sale, Detroit is not for sale, and it starts in Pittsburgh.”

Organizers, local committee members and volunteers who spoke to NOTUS all echoed the message that a strong showing for Lee would reverberate well beyond Pittsburgh. New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar all have competitive primaries in the coming months.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Lee often straddles the progressive and establishment wings of her party. Lee voted for Biden Tuesday morning in the state’s presidential primary, whereas some progressive colleagues have declined to do so. Lee has brought administration officials to her district and defended Biden on the campaign trail, and was repaid with a shout-out during his trip to Pittsburgh last week.

“She’s been vocal about the fact that we need President Biden to win, and I think that’s going to help people vote for him in November,” Younger said.

She also called for Biden to support a cease-fire in Israel and has criticized him from the left, and Patel often accused Lee of undermining Biden during the campaign.

Lee’s allies argued that her support for Biden was strong. “I know for a fact that a little critique or a little push does not phase someone as intelligent, as competent as President Biden,” she told NOTUS last month.

“Like I always say, the only way to agree 100% of the time with an elected official is to be that elected official, and sometimes I even disagree with myself,” said Jessica Benham, a state representative of Pittsburgh and former colleague of Lee’s.

Benham said Lee’s commitment to her district also helped her win. Lee has touted the $1.2 billion in federal dollars she’s brought back to the district in her first term. Benham said that funding, more than any other factor, played a part in Lee’s win.

The district ranges from wards that voted for Trump in 2020 to ones that consistently vote for progressives.

“It is an interesting mix of communities and voters, and what I’m hearing from folks is people like that Summer Lee shows up,” she said. “So I tell them, ‘Look, this is somebody that I call when there’s an issue that we are facing that requires more resources than we can supply on a state level, and she’s someone who takes my call every single time.’”

The most obvious difference between Lee’s razor-thin primary win two years ago and this one is that outside pro-Israel groups have largely stayed out of it. AIPAC put $1 million in ads in the district in the last month of the 2022 primary; this cycle, neither it nor the Democratic Majority for Israel put money toward Lee’s opponent.

Thanks to her earmarks and alliance, even if critical, with Biden, Lee successfully courted party establishment groups that didn’t back her statehouse races or freshman bid for Congress, notably Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO and the Allegheny County Democratic Party.

“There were many people in the establishment who did not believe that she would be able to effectively do this job and continue to bring resources back to our community,” Benham said. “Fast-forward a year, she’s running for reelection, and these are people who are now with her as supporters.”

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.