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A super PAC touting itself as ‘moderate’ is mostly funded by Republican billionaire

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (left) faces challenger Bhavini Patel in the Democratic primary to represent Pennsylvania's 12th U.S. Congressional District.
Matt Rourke / AP
Patel campaign
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (left) faces challenger Bhavini Patel in the Democratic primary to represent Pennsylvania's 12th U.S. Congressional District.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Every political season includes hand-wringing rituals in which we complain about the influence of big money. And let me tell you: There’s nothing we public radio journalists like more than TV pundits complaining about how the ads their outlets benefit from are bad for democracy.

But for the candidates themselves, a big-spending outside group can be a double-edged sword.

Just ask Bhavini Patel, whose effort to topple first-term Congressman Summer Lee in this month’s Democratic primary has been bolstered by one of the nation’s most prolific Republican donors.

A handful of independent spending groups have advertised in the 12th Congressional District. But the largest is the innocuously named “Moderate PAC” — a “superpac” that can raise unlimited funds to support candidates. As of Wednesday afternoon, the group had spent over $600,000 on the race, money that is amplifying Patel’s argument that Lee isn’t loyal to President Joe Biden.

Those would be fighting words in any Democratic primary, and Moderate PAC underscores them in a spot that deploys imagery of Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection. The message is that Lee is undermining democracy — or at least bailing on Democrats when “our rights are under attack [and] our democracy is at risk.”

As it turns out, those attacks — including the claim Lee doesn’t support the Democratic agenda — are being boosted by a guy who staunchly opposes that agenda himself.

Bala Cynwyd hedge fund manager Jeffrey Yass has already spent close to $50 million on Republicans in this year’s federal election cycle, making him the GOP’s biggest donor (so far!). And even that doesn’t capture his influence. Yass’ firm has also been the top investor in Donald Trump’s Truth Social, whose public stock offering could net billions for Trumpor not.

And he’s decided to weigh in against Lee as well.

As this space first reported last month, Yass was previously “Moderate PAC’s” only real donor, having given the group $1 million when it formed in 2022. Just about all of that money had been spent at the outset of this year, however, and it was a mystery about how much he was spending this time.

Until now. A financial disclosure filing by Moderate PAC shows that Yass contributed $800,000 to it at the end of February. That’s the vast majority of the $1.03 million it has raised to date.

The PAC did receive some local support, led by real estate developer Todd Reidbord, who gave $40,000. Locals representing area Steamfitters and Laborers unions, meanwhile, gave $75,000 between them. But it’s mostly Yass money that fuels “Moderate PAC” … at the very moment when Democrats have identified him as a top enabler of GOP extremism.

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Lee seized on the report, saying in a statement that “Republican billionaires” attack her because “there's no greater threat to Donald Trump and their right-wing power than a Black woman that expands our Democratic electorate, delivers on Democratic priorities from abortion rights to environmental justice, and unapologetically stands up … on behalf of all marginalized people."

And just hours before Moderate PAC’s filing dropped, Lee’s campaign unveiled an ad in which a supporter said, “I know that Republican-funded SuperPACS are lying about her again.”

By law, candidates have no control over how an independent group such as Moderate PAC raises or spends its money. And Patel said she didn’t welcome Yass’ investment.

“It would be better if it hadn't happened because it’s a distraction,” she said.

Lee, she added, “wishes she were running against a Republican because she is trying to deflect from the reality that she is hedging on Biden.”

Patel argued that case during a debate with Lee last week, in which Patel faulted Lee for not disavowing a movement to vote “uncommitted" instead of for Biden. Patel said she denounced Yass, a decision she told me was “easy.”

Patel, a former aide to previous county executive Rich Fitzgerald and 2020 delegate for Joe Biden, told me she’d always been “a principled Democrat that believes in advocacy for the issues that matter to the voters.” She said she learned of the extent of Yass’ involvement only “when everyone else did.”

But Yass’ earlier support of Moderate PAC was a warning flag, one the campaign sought to deny early on.

When Moderate PAC first purchased ads last month, Patel’s campaign embraced the move, sending out a blast email that said the new ads “highlight the movement of mainstream Democrats to coalesce behind Bhavini Patel.” When Patel herself was questioned about Yass’ involvement in the committee at a gathering of 14th Ward Democrats last month, she said it was “really concerning to me that there have been allegations about outside money, Republican money. … Misinformation has been spread.”

The money in her race, she told forum attendees, “came from people in the community. That was documented by an article in Politico.”

In fact, that story merely quoted the PAC’s leader, Ty Strong, asserting that “the ad is funded by donations raised recently in Lee’s district.” Strong later acknowledged that Yass did in fact contribute to the PAC: Yass, he said, “likes a moderate Democrat, as opposed to a far-left Democrat.” Still, even that report asserted that “Pittsburgh-based donations will match Yass’ contribution.” Not quite!

Lee’s campaign has warned from the outset that well-heeled outsiders would wade into the contest. That’s what happened in 2022, when groups such as AIPAC, which back an Israeli government that Lee has long criticized, spent millions to defeat her.

Those groups stayed on the sidelines this year, as their spokespeople hedged about whether they would take on Lee at all. As more than a few Democrats have joked, Patel had all of the baggage of being labeled “the AIPAC candidate,” but without the actual money. Now at least some of that cash has arrived … but when I asked Patel if Moderate PAC’s role made her wish for better campaign finance rules, she said “undoubtedly.”

Lee supporters will argue that’s easy for her to say. But in any case, it’s too late now.

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.