Billionaire Trump megadonor is funding "moderate" campaign to defeat progressive lawmaker Summer Lee

"Every cycle Republican billionaires find a new Super PAC to spend millions of dollars against me," Lee told Salon

Published April 12, 2024 3:59PM (EDT)

Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., arrives to the U.S. Capitol for the last votes of the week on Friday, January 12, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., arrives to the U.S. Capitol for the last votes of the week on Friday, January 12, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Representing itself as a group of concerned local citizens, the "Moderate PAC" last week began airing a 30-second ad accusing progressive first-term Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., of being disloyal to President Joe Biden.

"Our rights are under attack, our democracy at risk, and in this moment, Representative Summer Lee is opposing President Biden," the narrator intones over saturated imagery of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It closed by calling for voters to support local Pittsburgh-area politician Bhavini Patel, Lee's challenger for the 12th district congressional seat. The two face in a primary contest later this month.

But the Moderate PAC is not what it appears to be. Far from centrist, its chief backer is actually a GOP megadonor and staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, whose own inflammatory rhetoric inspired the Jan. 6 insurrection. Indeed, according to the PAC's most recent financial disclosures, hedge fund billionaire Jeff Yass contributed $1.8 million of the $2 million the group has raised since it was established in 2022 by Ty Strong, a former analyst with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Moderate PAC can claim some donations from local organizations and individuals, but their donations have been dwarfed by Yass' lavish spending, which has been focused as of late on taking down the first Black woman to join Pennsylvania's congressional delegation. So far this cycle, Moderate PAC has spent $586,000 on a campaign tarring Lee, first elected in 2022, as an "extreme socialist."

Yass, a supporter of conservative policy initiatives and a member of Trump's informal brain trust, wields outsized influence in Republican politics. His company, Susquehanna Investment Group, holds a $22 million stake in Trump Media. Last month, Business Insider reported that Yass, whose company has a 15% stake in TikTok parent compay ByteDance, may have influenced Trump to flip from advocating for a TikTok ban to lobbying House Republicans to oppose it.

Even before the latest disclosure, Lee was drawing attention to Yass' influence in her own campaign ads, one of which features a supporter declaring: "I know Republican-funded Super PACs are lying about her again." 

Lee, who has also been targeted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for speaking out against Israel's actions in Gaza, counts on support from progressive groups like the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, which have collectively spent $600,000 on her behalf.

"Every cycle Republican billionaires find a new Super PAC to spend millions of dollars against me in the final weeks of my election," Lee told Salon. That, she argued, is "because there's no greater threat to Donald Trump than a Black woman that 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 marginalized people."

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Patel, who has no control over outside spending, initially welcomed Moderate PAC's support, sending an email last month to supporters that praised its ads for "[highlighting] the movement of mainstream Democrats to coalesce behind Bhavini Patel."

Asked Friday if she would call out and reject support from the Republican megadonor, Patel told Salon that she has "denounced Jeffrey Yass on the debate stage." She also insisted she is "the only candidate in this race 100% behind President Biden."

Moderate PAC, which previously represented itself as speaking for disgruntled Democrats, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yass' support of  Moderate PAC is but one example of a now-common strategy to undermine progressive members of Congress in Democratic primary elections. AIPAC, an officially nonpartisan lobbying group, has spent millions of dollars from both conservative and liberal donors to attack Democratic candidates deemed to be insufficiently pro-Israel, though many of their ads criticize them on unrelated issues. In an escalation from previous election cycles, groups like AIPAC are taking an active role in recruiting primary opponents to progressive incumbents like Jamaal Bowman, a New York congressman in danger of losing his seat to Westchester County Executive George Latimer.

Though AIPAC reportedly sought a 2024 challenger to Lee, the organization has not officially stepped into Lee's primary battle with Patel, for now. If they decide to take her on, Lee will be prepared; in 2022, she overcame $5 million worth of AIPAC money to prevail by a mere 1,000 votes.

Emilia Rowland, a spokesperson for Lee, argued that the revelation that Yass is behind the lawmaker's primary rival should inform voters' decisions.

"After weeks of lies and coverups, voters have the right to know that Republicans' number one donor this cycle is the number one financial supporter of Summer's opponent in the April 23 Democratic primary," Rowland said.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

MORE FROM Nicholas Liu

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

MORE FROM Charles R. Davis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bhavini Patel Jeff Yass Summer Lee