Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), fresh off its victory in helping defeat progressive Democratic challenger Nina Turner in Ohio, has begun throwing money behind corporate attorney and former Republican congressional staffer Steve Irwin in Pennsylvania. Irwin is facing progressive State House Rep. Summer Lee in the Democratic primary for the state’s 12th Congressional District, a solidly Democratic seat that is being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle.
The group’s super PAC recently put $305,000 behind TV ads and $95,000 behind internet ads backing Irwin, according to new FEC filings. DMFI is closely tied to the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It was founded in 2019 by Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and former AIPAC consultant, and several of its board members have recently held positions with AIPAC and its affiliated groups. Many of its donors have also been affiliated to AIPAC. For example, Stacy Schusterman, the chairman of oil and gas company Samson Energy who is DMFI PAC’s top donor this year with $2.5 million given, is a former AIPAC board member.
Irwin co-leads the government relations and securities groups as a partner with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl law firm. He previously led the firm’s employment group and according to his bio he continues to counsel clients “on all legal aspects of the employment relationship and labor compliance, with special emphasis on the financial services sector.” The employment group specializes in representing employers, and a version of the firm’s employment group pitch sheet archived by the Martindale-Hubbel legal resource lists “Union Avoidance” as one of its services, though that specific language has been cut from the version currently hosted on the Leech Tishman website. In March, labor news website Payday Report reported on documents showing Leech Tishman’s anti-union legal work, as well as Irwin’s work at the firm opposing paid sick leave legislation. In the 90s, Irwin was a legislative aide for then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate who raised over $2 million from securities and investment firms including Goldman Sachs over the course of his congressional career.
The DMFI ad buy is just the latest piece of the explosion in spending by groups in the AIPAC universe this election cycle to boost corporate-aligned Democrats who face strong challenges from left-leaning candidates. AIPAC decided this cycle to engage directly in electoral politics, something it had avoided doing for decades in order to maintain an image of political neutrality around its pro-Israel advocacy. Its first round of endorsements announced in March included more Republicans than Democrats, and it has recently faced criticism for endorsing dozens of the Republicans who voted against certifying Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021.
DMFI’s ads are far from the only way that Irwin is benefitting from AIPAC’s foray into politics. The super PAC United Democracy Project (UDP), which AIPAC bankrolled with an $8.5 million contribution earlier this year, has spent more than $1.8 million on direct mail pieces and ads that either attack Lee or promote Irwin. That amount is more than the group has spent in any other race so far. AIPAC has also served as a fundraiser for Irwin’s campaign. According to FEC filings, at least $393,000 of the Irwin campaign’s approximately $1.2 million total raised so far has been contributed by AIPAC acting as a conduit for individual donors who have chipped in up to $2,900 a piece.
In total, more than $2.5 million has been raised by AIPAC or spent by AIPAC-tied super PACs so far to promote Irwin over Lee. That means the group is tied to at least 73 percent of all the pro-Irwin money in the contest so far, including amounts raised by the campaign and spent by outside groups.
A recent mailer from UDP attempts to associate Lee, a community organizer who was elected to the Pennsylvania House with the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America, with former President Donald Trump. The mailer says, “Joe Biden or Donald Trump: Easy choice for a Democrat, right? Not for Summer Lee.”
In response, a group of area Democrats including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey blasted UDP’s tactics in a letter to Irwin that the Lee campaign is highlighting in its press materials. The mailer is “shrouded in the racism and sexism that has prevented so many Black women before her from running for and holding elected office,” the letter says. “We urge you to condemn these ads full of outright lies and ask for them to stop immediately.”
Sludge reached out to the Irwin campaign for comment but did not receive a response.
“What is astonishing is that even after Democratic leaders, including Mayor Ed Gainey and State House Democratic Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, asked Steve Irwin to condemn these attacks ads full of misinformation and racist and sexist lies, that the candidate is still doubling down smearing State Rep. Lee. Summer Lee is the only elected Democrat, the only woman, and only candidate who stumped for President Biden in 2020,” said Lee campaign manager Anne Weinberg.
Lee has also benefited from spending by outside groups in the race, but at a much smaller scale. A dark money nonprofit called Pennsylvania United that describes itself as “a grassroots organization with member-led chapters that build power for working-class families in Western PA” has reported $17,570 of in-kind donations for Lee. The PAC of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has spent $125,000 on pro-Lee mailers and ads, the Working Families Party has chipped in $198,000 for campaign materials and event expenses, and the Justice Democrats’ PAC has spent $136,000 on mail pieces and ads backing Lee. The Justice Democrats PAC is funded by thousands of individual donors plus $275,000 this cycle from Way to Lead PAC and has received $180,000 in staff time from its dark money sister nonprofit Organize for Justice. Other groups that have made pro-Lee expenditures include End Citizens United, which spent $26,000 on digital ads, and League of Conservation Voters, which bought digital ads worth $65,000.
Prior to the recent onslaught of spending by outside groups in the race, public polling by EMILY’s List, which has endorsed Lee, found that Lee was favored by 25 percent more likely voters in the district than was Irwin, though 40 percent of respondents told the pollsters that they were undecided.
The primary will be held on May 17.