Summer Lee’s Pennsylvania primary could be a referendum on Democrats’ attitudes on Israel

Lee was the first Squad member to face a 2024 primary challenge. It could send a strong message about progressive power.

Summer Lee smiling outside beside a sign that reads “Summer Lee for Congress.”

Rep. Summer Lee, a progressive and member of the Squad, is running for reelection in Pennsylvania. Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg via Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA), the first member of the progressive group of House Democrats known as the Squad to be up for a 2024 primary challenge, won her race Tuesday.

Her contest could be a preview of how Democratic divides over Israel may play out this year. Lee, one of the earliest lawmakers to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and to condemn Israel’s airstrikes, has fielded critiques from some Jewish leaders and members of her constituency for taking these positions. Her moderate challenger, Edgewood City Council member Bhavini Patel, was vocal about her support for Israel and focused her attacks on Lee on the Israel-Hamas conflict, as did outside groups.

Their race reflects the intense focus there’s been on the conflict in the wake of Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack and Israel’s devastating bombings of Gaza. Democrats have been divided in their stance on the ongoing war, with many progressives on the Hill calling for a ceasefire and more moderate lawmakers arguing for military aid to Israel.

As congressional primary season unfolds, many anti-war progressives — particularly those in the Squad, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — are facing primaries against challengers supported by pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Though Lee’s race isn’t a perfect analog for those of her Squad colleagues, it sends an early signal about just how serious a threat the primaries pose to those progressives facing challengers.

“What it can tell you if someone wins with [Lee’s] position is that it may not be a vulnerability,” says Berwood Yost, the head of the Franklin and Marshall College poll in Pennsylvania. “But of course, it will depend on the candidates who are running and what they’re emphasizing.”

Summer Lee’s primary, briefly explained

Lee, a former community organizer and state representative, is a first-term lawmaker who represents Pennsylvania’s 12th district. The district — which is in the western part of the state and includes Pittsburgh — is solidly Democratic, but more moderate than some of the other districts that progressives hold around the country. Lee has said that she strives to “be a representative” for everyone in her district.

Lee has long backed progressive policies like Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal. During the race, she emphasized how much federal funding has flowed to her district during her term, including $1.2 billion dedicated to everything from replacing lead water pipes and building out passenger rail in the region. (Much of this funding is tied to the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed before Lee took office, but she could have still had a role in its distribution.)

When it comes to Israel-related policy, she has condemned Hamas, called for a ceasefire, voted against a resolution establishing that Congress stands with Israel, and voted against sending a recent aid package to Israel. These positions build on past statements Lee has made in support of Palestinian rights and calling for the conditioning of US aid based on humanitarian requirements.

Lee’s position on Israel’s war in Gaza has been scrutinized and, at times, criticized by some of her constituency, which includes a large Jewish American population. Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh and part of Lee’s district, was the site of a devastating antisemitic mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. “We call on Rep. Lee to exercise better leadership and join her colleagues in upholding the moral obligation for Israel to protect its citizens against Hamas,” a group of Jewish leaders in the region wrote in a letter last November. Some Jewish constituents who’ve expressed concerns about Israel’s attacks on Gaza have, however, supported Lee’s stances.

Patel, meanwhile, is an entrepreneur and city council member. Some of her key policy positions include backing labor unions, supporting policing, and lowering prescription drug costs. Across a broad array of issues, including criminal justice reform, health care, and environmental policy, her stances are to Lee’s right.

Patel has a more moderate position on Israel’s offensive and has expressed support for the country. She claimed, too, that Lee’s position is not a reflection of where her constituents stand and condemned Lee’s backing of voters who choose “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary instead of supporting President Joe Biden. “She’s clearly picked a side in this situation and completely disregards her entire district,” Patel told the Washington Post. “I think it’s important that any call for a cease-fire should acknowledge that hostages are still being held.”

As the Post noted, however, Lee’s support for a ceasefire in Gaza reflects where many Democrats stand on this issue as well. A February 2024 Data for Progress poll found that 63 percent of Democrats support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

“There has been increasing criticism of this war, even among those who were horrified by the October 7 attacks and believe Israel has the right to defend itself,” says Dan Mallinson, a political scientist at Penn State University. “If this was January, or maybe November of last year, and she was in this position, it may [be] slightly different politically than it does now.”

Lee built up an impressive arsenal of fundraising and endorsements that far outpaced Patel, including backing from Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman — an indication of the strength of her candidacy.

Such support put Lee in a solid position going into primary day, despite the disagreement some constituents have expressed about her stances. This strength may have been a reason why AIPAC, a pro-Israel group that’s vowed to send $100 million to unseat progressive candidates, did not invest in this particular primary. Other outside groups — including the Moderate PAC, which draws much of its funding from a pro-Israel Republican donor — backed Patel.

Fundraising strength, incumbency, endorsements, and the state of public opinion helped Lee come out victorious against her moderate challenger. Her success will now likely send a positive signal to her fellow progressives who are also under threat of primary challenges, including some that could be heavily supported by pro-Israel groups like AIPAC.

Democratic divides are set to play a role in the election

Lee’s race is far from the only one in which lawmakers’ stances on Israel are expected to be a flash point.

AIPAC has already said it intends to spend its sizable war chest — as much as $100 million — on taking out certain progressive members, though that spending has yet to manifest, and groups including the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC (DMFI) have said the same. In 2022, AIPAC saw successes in six of eight Democratic primary races that it invested in, including Rep. Haley Stevens’s win over Rep. Andy Levin in Michigan.

Some of the members that AIPAC and DMFI intend to target include other members of the Squad like Reps. Jamaal Bowman (NY), Cori Bush (MO), Ilhan Omar (MN), and Rashida Tlaib (MI), all of whom will be up for primaries later this year.

“We’re not interested in defeating people who are pro-Palestinian, we’re interested in defeating people who are anti-Israel and I think it’s fair to say that Bowman, Bush, and some of these other members are decidedly anti-Israel,” Mark Mellman, the head of the DMFI, told the Hill.

Experts note that AIPAC and DMFI may have passed on investing in Lee’s race in favor of putting their dollars in primaries in which lawmakers are perceived to be more vulnerable. Bowman and Bush are two of the lawmakers who could well see more difficult races because they’re navigating other issues that could affect their candidacies, including Bowman’s past blog posts regarding September 11 conspiracy theories and a DOJ investigation of Bush’s use of campaign security funds.

“I think with Bowman and Bush, in particular, they both have controversies surrounding them that have nothing to do with the Israel issue but have made them uniquely vulnerable,” Erin Covey, a House analyst for Cook Political Report, tells Vox.

Beyond Democratic primaries, there’s also an open question on the impact that intraparty fissures on Israel will have on support for Biden in November. Already, a fraction of Democratic voters have expressed their opposition to his willingness to continue backing the country’s military as more than 30,000 Gazans have been killed. In Michigan, for example, more than 100,000 people cast their vote for “uncommitted” in order to register their opposition to Biden.

“We’re anticipating [the presidential race] to be close again. So anything that’s going to depress your turnout or people not being excited about you is potentially problematic,” says Mallinson.

Update, April 23, 10:07 pm ET: This story, originally published earlier on April 23, has been updated to reflect Lee’s primary victory.


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