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Money talks, and gets talked about, in 12th Congressional District primary

Summer Lee, Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The three candidates, Summer Lee (right), Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald, met with one of the organizers of the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum before they squared off on Sunday.

Congresswoman Summer Lee and Democratic challenger Bhavini Patel each started 2024 bolstered by strong fundraising at the end of last year — a sign that the primary battle in the 12th Congressional District will be hotly contested.

But while the money a campaign raises can amplify its message, how the money is raised can create talking points for opponents… and reports filed last week suggest some potential vulnerabilities for both candidates.

Patel’s campaign raised slightly more than $311,000 in the final three months of 2023, not long after she jumped into the race. That’s an impressive sum for a challenger coming out of the gate, and Patel’s campaign said it reflects “grassroots support and overwhelming commitment to her vision for a better future.”

Still, Lee outpaced that with a whopping $1 million in the last quarter of 2023.

“The massive fundraising haul was overwhelmingly powered by grassroot support,” the first-term incumbent’s campaign trumpeted.

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Taken together, those amounts dwarfed the sums being raised in the 17th Congressional District next door. Incumbent Democrat Chris Deluzio raised more than $461,000, a commanding advantage over the $203,000 raised by the likely GOP challenger, state Rep. Rob Mercuri.

(A third Democratic hopeful, Laurie MacDonald, entered the race after the period covered by the 2023 reports.)

Patel’s fundraising has come under fire, however, in coverage of an online fundraiser she held with a gathering of Indian-American people late last month.

Pittsburgh City Paper and left-leaning journal The Intercept reported that the video call “court[ed] out of state donors” and hardline supporters of Israel and India’s current leadership. Patel, as the Intercept put it, “spoke of plans to tap into Republican support for her campaign, attract national spending, and eventually take down the progressive” Lee. Both outlets noted that some event organizers and Patel donors have previously backed Republicans, and they said that during the call Patel discussed efforts to get independents and Republicans to register as Democrats to support her in the primary.

Patel, who previously worked for former Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, pushed back against the idea that she was a conservative Trojan horse.

“I’m a lifelong principled progressive Democrat,” she told WESA. And while she said her campaign “is focused on getting our message out to Democrats,” she added, “I make no apologies for encouraging Indian-Americans to join my party in support of making history with this race and reelecting President Biden.”

A key part of Patel’s campaign message is that Lee is out of the Democratic mainstream on issues like Israel. Not surprisingly, her donors include some who have pushed back against Democrats in Lee’s camp, such as a laborers union local that backed Republican Joe Rockey over Democrat Sara Innamorato in last year’s race for Allegheny County executive. And WESA verified that of the two-dozen Patel donors who’ve given the maximum amount to her campaign for the primary, somewhat more than half have previously given to Republicans.

The significance of such cross-party giving can be debated.

Business leaders, for example, often hedge their bets by supporting friendly politicians in both parties. Top Patel donor and Giant Eagle executive David Shapira, for example, has donated to Republicans, including former Senator Pat Toomey, in the past but largely gives to Democrats — a pattern that held for some other donors reviewed by WESA.

And donors, like other voters, can have idiosyncratic tastes. (One of Lee’s top contributors, for example, has also supported Republican James Comer, who has tussled with Lee on an impeachment inquiry being held by the House Oversight Committee Comer chairs.)

Patel also tried to turn one of the criticisms of her fundraiser — that she was seeking support from out-of-staters she wouldn’t represent in Congress — against her rival. Most of her fundraising had come from within Pennsylvania’s borders, her campaign noted, while Lee’s had not.

Indeed, Lee’s campaign reported raising $814,545 from individual donors who gave $250 or more, a level of support that requires disclosure of basic address information for contributors. Of that, slightly more than $600,000 — roughly 60 cents of every dollar Lee raised during the time — was given by individual contributors from outside Pennsylvania.

Patel, by contrast, raised most of her money in the state. She raised $267,016 from individuals who gave more than $250. Of that, the vast majority — $203,306 — came from Pennsylvania residents.

The Lee campaign argues that the volume of dollars raised is less important than the total number of people who contribute. An army of small-dollar donors, after all, may not register much on an FEC report, but it can signify the kind of grassroots support Lee has always touted.

Lee raised slightly more than $115,000 in the latter months of 2023 — an impressive sum the Lee campaign says demonstrates “the unprecedented grassroots energy and broad-based support for the people-powered movement Rep. Lee has built.” In all, the campaign said that 652 of its donors in late 2023 live in the state.

Patel raised slightly more than $20,000 in small-dollar amounts during that time, but her campaign did not provide a full breakdown of donor residency.

It remains to be seen what other outside groups might give to candidates or spend on their own behalf in the race. Lee’s campaign, for one, has been bracing for a potential onslaught of spending by AIPAC, a hardline pro-Israel group that spent millions to foil her bid in 2022. So far, however, it has yet to weigh in.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.