The biggest political spender in the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh’s congressional seat is a Libertarian from the Philadelphia suburbs. Meanwhile the vast bulk of the money raised by the incumbent comes from other states.

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Jeffrey Yass, a billionaire who has long championed conservative causes and candidates in Pennsylvania, donated $800,000 this February to a political action committee that is airing television ads supporting Bhavini Patel in her bid to take the Democratic nomination from Rep. Summer Lee in the 12th Congressional District.

Lee’s national profile, though, has allowed her campaign to dramatically out-fundraise Patel’s, drawing nearly three-fourths of its dollars from outside of Pennsylvania.

District 12 includes Pittsburgh and some eastern suburbs, stretching into part of Westmoreland County. This is the second consecutive cycle a major outside funder attempted to sway the district’s primary voters, after pro-Israel donors sought to derail Lee in 2022.

At left, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee at the Hill District's Bedford Dwellings in August 2023. At right, Democratic primary challenger Bhavini Patel talks with canvassers at her campaign office in Squirrel Hill in April 2024. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg and Pamela Smith/Rtvsrece)

Lee has benefited from some outside money, too, though it made up a smaller percentage of her overall support and came from sources she explicitly aligns with politically. The New York-based Working Families Party has spent $347,495 on pro-Lee ads, in addition to $80,000 spent by progressive group Justice Democrats and $100,000 from Muslim-American Emgage PAC.



In all, outside groups have spent $1.3 million boosting either Lee or Patel.

That's more than the $1.2 million raised by the pair of candidates directly in the first three months of this year. Lee raised about 75% of that total, and enjoys a major financial edge heading into the April 23 primary election.

Incongruent sources

Each candidate has attracted a similarly large amount of independent spending, but the sources are very different.

Lee, a staunch progressive and member of the “Squad” of left-leaning House members, has benefited from more than $660,000 in outside spending by groups aligned with the progressive movement, such as the Working Families Party.

Patel’s largest outside backer, Yass, cuts against Patel’s most-repeated campaign claim: That she will be “100%” behind Biden as a member of Congress. Yass is one of the country’s top champions of conservative political causes, typically supporting Republican candidates. Yass is also an investor in the media company of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee seeking his second presidential term.

Bhavini Patel, the challenger in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, talks to a supporter at her campaign office in Squirrel Hill on April 13. (Photo by Pamela Smith/Rtvsrece)

Outside Super PACs are forbidden from coordinating directly with campaigns. But many federal candidates, including both Patel and Lee, have used a tactic known as “redboxing” to suggest messaging to prospective independent spenders.

Patel’s campaign website includes a red box informing readers that, among other things, Patel “stands firmly with President Biden in the war against MAGA extremism” and that Lee “undermines President Biden.”

The ads funded by the Yass-backed PAC, called the Moderate PAC, criticize Lee for “opposing President Biden,” juxtaposing images of Lee with images of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Every cycle Republican billionaires find a new Super PAC to spend millions of dollars against me in the final weeks of my election,” Lee wrote in a statement to Rtvsrece, “because there’s no greater threat to Donald Trump’s power than a Black woman who expands our Democratic electorate, delivers on Democratic priorities from abortion rights to environmental justice, and unapologetically stands up to billionaires and corporate power on behalf of all marginalized people.”

Lee's red box calls Patel's attacks “lies” and seeks to link the challenger to Trump through Yass.

Woman with arm raised speaking into a microphone
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee speaking at an election night party for Ed Gainey after he won the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor in 2021. (Photo by Nick Childers/Rtvsrece)

Responding to Rtvsrece questions, Patel wrote in an email that she “denounced Jeffrey [Yass] on the debate stage,” referring to an April 4 WPXI debate, and that she’s the only candidate “100 percent behind President Biden.”

The prevalence of unlimited outside money in congressional races, made possible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, can make it harder for voters to understand who is supporting a particular candidate and what the backers’ agenda is. Mike Mikus, a longtime campaign professional who has spent decades working on congressional races, said voters “tend to not really know” who is funding the ads they see on TV.

“The names of these groups are designed to deceive people so you don’t know who is truly funding it,” Mikus said. “[Voters] often don’t know what the agenda is behind the specific ads.”

Mikus said he has no recollection of an outsider exerting so much influence in a primary here, other than the 2022 race for the same seat.

“The most troublesome thing is that any one individual or company who has no ties, and doesn’t have to live with the ramifications of that spending,” can change the course of a local election, Mikus said. “I think it upends everything.”

Yass provided about 80% of the Moderate PAC’s $1.03 million raised this year. The rest came from sources that are more typically seen weighing in on Democratic primaries in the region.

The PA Laborers District Council gave $50,000 to Moderate PAC, developer Todd Reidbord of Walnut Capital gave $40,000 and Steamfitters Local Union 449 gave $25,000. All three spent money in last year’s Democratic primaries for county offices, siding with centrist candidates against progressive options.

National strength vs. local upstart

In traditional, direct contributions, Lee outraised Patel more than 3-to-1, both in the last quarter and dating back to when Patel announced her campaign in October.

Lee has flexed her muscles as an incumbent with a national presence, collecting donations large and small from 41 different states, totaling $919,000. The largest percentage came from Pennsylvania (26%), followed by California (10%) and Massachusetts (10%). 

She received four-figure checks from a number of labor unions and PACs that have supported her in the past, as well as $62,000 from Progressive Voices for Peace, a joint fundraising committee with other left-leaning House members.

Patel received a total of $290,812, with 61% coming from Pennsylvania and 90% coming from individuals rather than PACs or other campaigns.



Other races

The other local congressional race, in the 17th District, which includes most of northern and western Allegheny County plus Beaver County, has no competition in the primaries but figures to be a heated race to the November General Election. Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Deluzio, of Aspinwall, is off to a sizable fundraising lead over his Republican challenger, state Rep. Rob Mercuri, of Pine.

Deluzio, who came to office in 2022 winning a closely watched swing district race, raised $758,870 in the first quarter of this year to Mercuri’s $329,873.

The two candidates’ filings underscored the national importance of this race as one of only a couple dozen swing districts that will decide which party controls Congress. Both received money from joint fundraising committees formed with other lawmakers aimed at strengthening their party’s chance of success in the fall.

A third of Mercuri’s receipts came from Grow the Majority, a PAC launched by House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana.

Charlie Wolfson is Rtvsrece’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@rtvsrece.com.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for Rtvsrece, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Charlie aims his coverage at the intersection of policy and politics,...