Rep. Summer Lee fends off a primary challenge in a race that tested Democratic sentiment over Israel

Progressive Rep. Summer Lee fended off a primary challenge from Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel, NBC News projects, in a race that served as an early test of how Democratic voters feel about the Israel-Hamas war and concerns over rising antisemitism at home.

With 99% of the expected vote counted, Lee held a 21-point edge over Patel.

In a victory speech in Pittsburgh, Lee said, “This movement is stronger than whatever they want to throw at us” and is “stronger than every GOP billionaire.” She called for peace “from Pittsburgh to Palestine.”

“Our movement is expansive enough and big enough for each and every one of us,” she said in a call out to those who opposed her during the primary. “We won’t be ashamed and put our heads down when we say that we want no more wars, when we say that people deserve dignity and human rights and self-determination whether they are Jewish or Muslim or Black or white or if they’re in Gaza or in Pakistan or in Haiti.”

Following her defeat, Patel said in a statement that while the result was disappointing, the “race was far from a loss.”

“This race was about so much more than me or my opponent,” she said. “It was about passing common sense laws that put money in working families’ pockets. It was about standing up to hate and stopping antisemitism. And it was about making sure President Biden gets reelected in November.”

Lee, a member of the “Squad” in the House, has been critical of Israel’s handling of the war and was one of the first lawmakers to call for a cease-fire in Gaza last year. Patel painted Lee’s advocacy as harmful to Biden’s re-election chances and out of step with her district.

The Pittsburgh-area 12th District is also home to Squirrel Hill, one of the nation’s most prominent historically Jewish neighborhoods and where the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre, the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, took place.

Lee, who condemned Hamas and has spoken out against antisemitism, has accused the Israeli government of committing “war crimes” and called for an end to unconditional military aid to the country. On Saturday, she joined 36 Democrats and 21 Republicans in voting against an aid package to Israel, which passed overwhelmingly. Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh have expressed unease with how she has handled and discussed issues pertaining to Israel.

But Lee was seen as a prohibitive favorite ahead of Tuesday. The first Black woman ever elected to Congress from Pennsylvania, Lee overcame significant spending from pro-Israel groups during her first primary bid in 2022 before winning the general election. Those same groups did not get involved in her race this time around, even as Israel became a much more salient issue, seeing the effort to topple her as a steep climb.

Well-defined in the district, Lee framed her race around fighting Donald Trump-aligned Republicans, bringing federal dollars to the district and bringing new voters into the Democratic fold.

“It’s a testament to her strength that she’s in a good position,” Nick Gavio, a progressive strategist with the Working Families Party, which spent $320,000 in digital and TV ads on Lee’s behalf.

Meanwhile, about a dozen Jewish voters in the district who spoke with NBC News almost universally said their votes in November, regardless of if they were backing Lee or Patel, would be driven by issues beyond Israel, saying that the Jewish electorate isn’t a “monolith” and that democracy, abortion rights and the economy weighed heavily on them. Most said they would be voting for President Joe Biden.

At an event launching her “Jews for Summer” coalition earlier this month, Lee framed her primary as a covert Republican effort to divide a multiethnic, cross-religious support base by using splits over Israel. Even though groups aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not get involved in the race, an outside group largely funded by GOP megadonor Jeffrey Yass spent more than $500,000 to boost Patel — a fact Lee and allies hammered home in the closing days of the contest.

“We have communities that are hurting. The Jewish community is one of them. And there are people who are … not going to agree 100% on everything that you say,” Lee said in an interview with NBC News, adding she has been “very clear and very upfront” about her cease-fire position. “I have condemned Hamas. We’ve worked with the families of hostages; we’ve done everything that I think is necessary to do that. And at the end of the day, we disagree.”

Patel, who denounced Yass and said the attacks over the donation were a distraction, framed her challenge to Lee around who offers Biden the most support. She criticized Lee for not denouncing activists and groups calling for Democratic primary voters to vote “uncommitted” in the presidential primary.

“It’s essentially playing with fire,” Patel said in an interview, arguing it could boost Trump.

Lee said she voted for Biden on Tuesday and at her “Jews for Summer” event earlier this month said: “We’re going to make sure that the person who’s sitting in the White House is not going to be replaced.” At a Pittsburgh campaign stop last week, Biden shouted out Lee as someone “who had my back.”

On voters casting uncommitted ballots, Lee told NBC News: “I totally respect that.”

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