In W. Pa.’s 12th Congressional District, a hard-fought race, with historic consequences

Democrat Summer Lee could become the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania

By: - November 6, 2022 7:33 am

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District (Photo by Nate Smallwood).

(*A headline for this story was updated at 9:58 a.m. on Monday 11/7/22 to note that Summer Lee could be the first Black woman elected to Congress if she wins on Election Day.) 

On Nov. 8, Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District may elect the state’s first Black woman to Congress. 

Democrat Summer Lee, a current member of the state House, and Republican Mike Doyle, a councilman in suburban Plum Borough, are vying for the seat of retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, who has served western Pennsylvania on Capitol Hill since 1995.

The popular and moderate Doyle beat his Republican opponent Luke Negron handily in 2020 by 38 points. 

For months, media outlets reported concerns that the incumbent’s name recognition would advantage the Republican candidate in this race.

“For the most part it’s cleared up,” the Democratic Doyle said, though mailers continue to market the GOP candidate as a “trusted name.”

The race now comes down to persuading voters.

After Lee won the Democratic primary, the non-partisan Cook Political Report downgraded the 2022 race from a solid Democratic victory to likely Democratic, citing Lee’s progressive leanings in an economic climate that disfavors Democrats, according to Politico.

The once safely Democratic district may be up for grabs.

Here’s a look at the candidates, and the issues that are shaping the race. 

Doyle, the Republican, is an insurance executive with 34 years of experience in the industry. He’s been on the Plum Borough Council since 2005.

“What I found I support most about him is that he’s running as an independently-minded Republican,” such as U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, outside Philadelphia, or “like a corporate-type Republican that everyone sort of knows,” such as retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Ian Marks, of Elizabeth Township, told the Capital-Star.

“I don’t think that if he were to run as …  an ultra-MAGA Republican, he would do very well because, again, he is the underdog in this race, just because of the natural partisan lean of the district,” Marks, a 19-year-old college student, said.

However, Doyle isn’t hiding his conservative leanings.

“I am a very conservative Republican,” Doyle told Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV. “I’m strong on crime, I’m strong on the Second Amendment, I’m strong with business, and we need to get spending under control in Washington.”

Doyle is the conservative mirror image of his progressive opponent.

While Lee supports “ending fracking,” Doyle says doing so “will destroy our region,” adding only that “Energy Independence IS National Security.”

While Lee wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, cash bail, and life without parole, Doyle “will support our police and first responders protecting our communities.”

While Lee will “oppose all bans on abortion,” Doyle supports them if they include “exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother,” according to WESA-FM.

Pro-Israel group renews attack on Summer Lee days ahead of general election

Doyle is “a contrast to Summer Lee, who is seen as a very far-left progressive figure,” Marks noted, which “might help his margins in some parts of the district, but I’m not sure it’ll help him come over the finish line.”

Doyle’s best chance is to “hope for low turnout in inner-city Pittsburgh, but run up the margins in the south, the rural towns, and the Westmoreland portion of the district,” which was added to the district after the 2020 Census, Marks said.

An Economic Alternative … and Unknown

Gallup polling shows that the economy continues to be top of mind for voters, followed by abortion and crime. With inflation up and financial markets down under the Biden administration, voters are placing greater trust in Republicans than Democrats in handling the economy, inflation, and gas prices, according to an ABC News poll.

“The most important issue to me this midterm is economics because I’m a college student,” Marks said, while noting abortion may be “a top issue in our district with the college students who live in Pittsburgh.”

Going to college to become a secondary school teacher, Marks said he has worked a fast-food job to pay for tuition, gas, and groceries. “My parents will help where they can, but we’re not rich,” he said.

He fears Democrats will “continue on the road that they are on” and empower progressives such as  Lee to fight for the Green New Deal, whose policies would “lead to increased taxes and the cost of living to exorbitant amounts.”

Doyle, the outgoing Democratic representative, disagreed that the Biden administration’s deficit spending, which he voted for, caused the inflationary economy.

“That’s kind of a red herring,” he emphasized, pointing to supply-chain disruptions, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine as causing inflation in every free country that did not spend like the United States.

Democrats will “continue making investments in America, we’re gonna continue to bring down health care costs, we’re going to continue to onshore manufacturing that’s currently offshore,” he said.

“Everyone wants [these policies] to work instantly. But you know, the economy doesn’t work that way,” Doyle said.

Doyle turned the spotlight on Republicans. 

“None of them will tell you what they’re going to do,” he stressed. “They know how to criticize the spending, but they don’t tell you what they would do in the alternative.”

Democratic congressional candidate Summer Lee speaks during a gun violence roundtable, with U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, on Pittsburgh’s South Side on 10/29/22 (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).

Too Progressive?

Lee rose to fame by ousting a longtime Democratic state legislator in 2018 with 67 percent of the vote. A Mon Valley native, attorney, social justice activist, and self-described democratic socialist, she advocates for racial, environmental, and economic justice.

In the primary, Lee won by less than 1 percent against the regulatory lawyer, and moderate alternative, Steve Irwin who said he started the race with just 5 percent name recognition. His campaign benefited from $2.7 million in outside attack ads from the pro-Israel PAC United Democracy Project against Lee.

“Summer is going to win the seat,” the Democratic Doyle said, but “it’s not going to be the kind of slam dunk district that it once was.”

The district “now includes several communities in Westmoreland County, which tend to vote Republican. The lower Mon Valley is kind of Trumpy down there.”

Crime is just one area where Lee’s views might not resonate, even among her supporters.

On Oct. 29, Lee spoke at a gun safety roundtable in the South Side at a time when mass shootings are scarring Pittsburgh and cities across the country.

“What are we protecting in the Second Amendment?” she asked the room. 

Lee said the country was founded on “the massacre of one group and the enslavement of another, which means that once you have that sort of history, you’re now almost always living in fear that there will be some sort of retaliation,” she said.

“That’s a little bit bigger than I want to go,” the event’s host, Gina Fleitman, a sustainability professional, said after the guests had left her home. “The fear that we’re talking about is not racial fear,” she said.

An ardent opponent of fracking, Lee wants to implement the Green New Deal, which “centers frontline and marginalized communities facing the brunt of environmental racism – communities with poisoned water, high rates of asthma,” her website reads.

“Nobody can tell you what the Green New Deal is,” Squirrel Hill resident Gidon Blitstein, a Democrat, said. “You drive on the turnpike, and half the billboards there are Republican candidates campaigning” against it.

“Putting people in office like Summer Lee will help the Republicans garner more votes for their candidate,” he said, adding it would affect races beyond this one.

A Republican super PAC already has run an attack ad against Democrat candidate Chris Deluzio, who’s running in the neighboring 17th Congressional District, trying to tie him to Lee by calling him a “radical socialist professor.”

Another resident in Squirrel Hill disagreed with Blitstein.

James Faeder, a Summer Lee supporter, at his home in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Lee neighborhood (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).
James Faeder, a Summer Lee supporter, at his home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Lee neighborhood (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).

“For me, actually taking action on climate change is probably one of the most important things,” James Faeder, a professor and Democrat, said.

“There’s a sense among a lot of people who are on the more progressive side of the party that they wanted something more, and Summer Lee represents that being a Black woman,” he said.

She promotes economic issues of injustice and inequality, “things that are part of the Democratic agenda, but not the highest priority necessarily,” he added.

“She’s putting pressure on the party … to move the party more to the left,” he said, “which I support.”

Getting things done

Blitstein voted for Irwin in the primary not only because Lee was “just too far left,” but because Irwin was “less inflammatory and just more about actually getting things done, not just putting out bulletin board material,” he said.

His problem was Lee’s “brand of politics,” associating her with the Squad, a small group of U.S. House lawmakers comprised largely of younger progressive women of color.

“I feel like she’s gonna jump in and try to be a part of, you know, AOC,” he said referring to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has 13 million followers on Twitter and is a member of the group.

During the primary, United Democracy Project spent millions of dollars running attack ads that used Lee’s past remarks on social media about how President Joe Biden would take the country backwards, her refusal to support Biden’s infrastructure plan, and what they conveyed was her plan to “totally dismantle” the Democratic Party.

Lee stood by her social media presence.

“That’s where our voters hear from us. That’s how we are expanding the electorate and bringing new people in,” she told the Capital-Star.

“She has a gift … and should use it to bring people together,” Irwin told the Capital-Star, “that we as a party need to be brought together and that we as a people and as a community need to be brought together.”

The Democratic establishment lined up behind Irwin in opposition to Lee during the primary, including the outgoing Democratic Doyle who said, “You don’t get anything done being [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders or the Squad. If you point to anything they’ve done resulting in law, I would love to know what it is. That just hasn’t happened,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter live-tweeted during a press call in May.

Sanders, I-Vt., was campaigning with Lee when Doyle made these comments, though Doyle  and Irwin now fully support Lee as the Democratic candidate.

Members of the Squad have endorsed and fundraised for Lee, as they did on Oct. 30 over Zoom at “Summer with the Squad.”

Asked about her association with the Squad, Lee said, “They don’t serve the 12th Congressional District. Whoever is making this race about them are doing that intentionally so as to tap into people’s discomfort or the fear of change, where we see more Black and brown women getting into office.”

Some of her online supporters are not so civil.

After posting his concession speech on Twitter in May, Lee’s supporters went after Irwin and his supporters.

“There’s a lot of angry people on the left, who would definitely say things that go beyond what I would support,” Faeder said. “They demonize people in ways, even people who … at least consider themselves their allies.”

Funded heavily by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an organization that lobbies the U.S. government for pro-Israel policies, United Democracy Project has continued its negative ads into the general election. Through Oct. 19, Lee had raised eight times as much cash as her Republican opponent to counter these attacks, according to nonpartisan campaign finance research group OpenSecrets.

“AIPAC has never done something like that before,” Blitstein said. “So that was out of step for them, and I don’t care for that at all.” He said he’s voting for Lee on Tuesday.

“In the end, people realize the most important thing to Democrats is that Democrats continue to control the House of Representatives,” the Democratic Mike Doyle said.

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Ethan Dodd
Ethan Dodd

Correspondent Ethan Dodd covers western Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @ethandasaxman.