As a progressive Democrat running for an open congressional seat, Summer Lee faced down a brutal smear campaign that claimed she was not enough of a party loyalist to merit a place on its ballot line. And early Wednesday morning, as she pulled ahead of her opponent in the primary for Pennsylvania’s 12th district, Lee declared, “The people took on the corporations and the people won. We built a movement in Western Pennsylvania that took on corporate power, stood up for working families, and beat back a multimillion-dollar smear campaign.”
Lee acknowledged that “we’ve still got some precincts left” when she appeared before cheering supporters after a long night. But Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, a Lee supporter, explained to the victory party crowd that “we know that the votes [that are left to be counted] are ours.” As cheers went up from the room, Gainey declared, “We know we have won. Tonight is her victory for her, but tonight is our celebration.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, Lee had a 446-vote lead over lawyer and veteran Democratic insider Steve Irwin on Wednesday morning. Irwin, who hasn’t conceded, was the beneficiary of more than $3 million in spending by super PACs that flooded the Pittsburgh-area district with ads portraying Lee as an unsatisfactory Democrat because of the state representative’s efforts to move the party toward more progressive positions on economic, social, and racial justice issues, the climate crisis, and foreign policy.
Lee was not alone in declaring a victory for ideas and candidates that have rattled the party establishment. In the Democratic primary race for Pennsylvania’s open US Senate seat, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a high-profile backer of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, beat centrist US Representative Conor Lamb by a two-to-one margin, carrying all 67 of the state’s counties. A Harvard-educated, 6-foot-8, gym-shorts wearing rabble-rouser who talks about using art “to combat the dark side of capitalism,” Fetterman ran as an advocate for living wages, criminal justice reform, legalized marijuana, and Medicare for All. His primary day was spent in the hospital, where the candidate had what was described as a “successful procedure” to get a pacemaker and defibrillator after he suffered a stroke. Fetterman, who is expected to make a full recovery, announced Tuesday, “The fate of our Democratic majority all comes down to Pennsylvania—ranked by CNN as the #1 Most Likely to Flip US Senate seat.”
A 2020 Sanders delegate, union-backed civil rights lawyer Chris Delucio, won the race to replace Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 17th district. Like Lee and Fetterman, Delucio focused on taking on corporate power. During the campaign he declared, “For far too long, we have allowed corporations to gain unhealthy power over so much of society and our lives.”
Progressives did not win every primary contest on Tuesday; there were big disappointments in North Carolina, where heavy outside spending by super PACs derailed the congressional candidacies of former state senator Erica Smith, an outspoken advocate for abortion rights, and Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, who would have been the first Muslim woman elected to Congress from the South.
But as the votes were being counted nationwide, on the busiest primary night so far in 2022, there were striking breakthroughs for candidates who challenged corporate power and Republican hegemony.
In Kentucky, former state representative Charles Booker, who narrowly lost a 2020 US Senate primary, swept to victory in this year’s Senate primary, winning 73 percent of the vote. In an uphill race against incumbent Republican Rand Paul this fall, he will mount a progressive-populist “Hood to the Holler” campaign that seeks to build a multiracial coalition of urban and rural voters.
In Oregon, progressive challenger Jamie McLeod Skinner’s “addressing the climate crisis, and protecting our democracy” campaign was leading corporate-friendly incumbent Kurt Schrader by an almost two-to-one margin in the initial account. It will take time to get a final count in this contest, because Oregon’s system allows for the counting of ballots that are mailed on Election Day but arrive later in the week. Yet the early lead for Skinner—who had the backing of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Sierra Club, and the Working Families Party of Oregon, as well as a number of unions and local party organizations—suggests that she is well positioned to oust a Democrat incumbent who chairs the conservative Blue Dog PAC and has been described by activists as “Oregon’s Joe Manchin.”
In Oregon’s newly created 6th district, progressive state Representative Andrea Salinas won the race for the Democratic nod. This was a major victory for the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, the Working Families Party of Oregon, and reproductive rights groups, which enthusiastically supported Salinas in a race where her campaign was heavily outspent by outside super PACS that backed a more centrist contender, Carrick Flynn . In all, the super PACs, including one linked to cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, spent more than $12 million stopping Salinas. But she was beating her rival by a more than two-to-one margin.
The result that drew a particular note Wednesday morning was Lee’s win in Pennsylvania, where Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell said, “Corporate power tried to buy this election; the people had other ideas. Summer Lee’s win is a reminder for all of us that a people-centered, progressive visions, passionately articulated, can win out over million-dollar lies repeated over and over.”
The Pennsylvania contest saw the United Democracy Project spend more than $2 million to attack Lee and another $660,000 to prop up Irwin’s bid, according to Open Secrets. A second outside group, Democratic Majority for Israel, spent more than $400,000 promoting Irwin. Yet Lee prevailed. Senator Sanderswho traveled to Pittsburgh to campaign with the candidate, said, “She defeated millions of dollars of right-wing super PAC money, as well as the Democratic establishment.”
Jessica Cisneros, a Sanders-backed progressive who faces similar hurdles in her May 24 primary runoff challenge to conservative US Representative Henry Cuellar, celebrated the Pennsylvania result as an encouraging sign for her race. She posted Lee’s victory speech on social media with the message, “#PA12 is proof that people power can overcome anything that comes its way.”
Lee, herself, took a similar view, explaining wednesday morning, “Our victory shows that we can overcome the billionaire class that wants to divide and conquer us all with fear and lies-for-profit, if only we come together across our differences for a positive vision of multiracial democracy. We can have nice things, if we fight.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism