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Lehigh Valley Election News

Mysterious super PACs muddy waters in Lehigh Valley's congressional primary

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Two super PACs with ties to Bethlehem Township are launching attacks against PA-7 congressional candidate Ryan Mackenzie. Some Lehigh County Republicans allege its an effort by local Democrats to meddle in the GOP primary.

BETHLEHEM TWP., Pa. — The website for Integrity Leadership Fund comes with all the trappings of a modern negative political campaign. Dominating the page is a doctored photo of Republican congressional candidate Ryan Mackenzie with an impossibly large chin. A Trump-esque personal attack scrawls above him.

"Beware of Lyin' Ryan. Republican in name only. Beware of Lyin' Ryan. Career Politician," it reads.

The site goes on to attack Mackenzie, a state representative running for Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, as an out-of-touch elitist who doesn't represent conservative values — voting to allow no-excuse mail-in ballots in 2019 and accepting the state pension available to Pennsylvania lawmakers.

The attacks have created outrage among some local conservatives, who allege it's an effort by area Democrats to put their thumb on the scales of the GOP primary.

"Any members sharing such anonymous attacks only play into the hands of these disingenuous Republicans and Democrat operatives," Lehigh County Republican Committee Chairman Joe Vichot recently emailed party members.

Little public information exists about the super PAC, but what's known suggests he may be on to something.

Mysterious super PACs

Created at the beginning of January, Integrity Leadership Fund has already spent more than $1 million in Republican primaries across the country. Most of the money went toward attacking former President Donald Trump in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. But the PAC has spent more than $89,000 opposing Mackenzie in the Lehigh Valley's congressional campaign, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The super PAC, which is allowed to raise and spend unlimited funds so long as it does not directly coordinate with a candidate, has not disclosed the source of its funding. The convenient timing of its creation means it won't need to share that information until April 15, about a week before the Pennsylvania primary.

So far, the only name attached to Integrity is William Hawach, a 20-year-old registered Democrat who serves as its treasurer. The super PAC lists his family's home in Bethlehem Township as its address.

Calls to Integrity Leadership Fund seeking comment were not returned.

Integrity shares that phone number with the Lehigh Valley Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, another Super PAC formed last month. Its only officer, Republican Sid Hawach, resides at the same Bethlehem Township home, according to FEC documents. The number's voicemail only mentions the Integrity Leadership Fund.

The Lehigh Valley Republican Congressional Leadership Fund has not disclosed any expenditures to date, but it has sent emails to registered Republican voters in the region. One email accused Mackenzie of flip-flopping on abortion after he entered the congressional race.

Mackenzie, it read, supported cracking down on predatory abortion doctors a decade ago. But in November, he joined Democrats in voting for HB 1786, known as an "abortion shield" law.

Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, several states have greatly restricted abortion access within their boundaries. After many of their residents began traveling out-of-state to receive abortions, states like Texas have begun efforts to make it illegal for their residents to seek abortions in other states.

HB 1786 would prohibit Pennsylvania's court system from cooperating with out-of-state charges involving reproductive healthcare, including abortion. Mackenzie was one of 16 Republicans to support the bill, which has yet to advance in the state Senate. The super PAC alleges in its email that Mackenzie's vote proves he's an opportunist selling out to groups like Planned Parenthood.

"PA-07 needs a member of congress who is consistent and confident in their core values as well as their beliefs and positions — not another career politician, like Mackenzie, who will be flipping and flopping all over Washington," the email reads.

Deceptive practices

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg University, said it's become increasingly common for political parties and their allies to try to influence the opposing primary battles. He noted then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro made no secret that he preferred to face Republican Doug Mastriano in the 2022 general election. Days before the crowded GOP primary, he ran an ad tying Mastriano to Trump. While it served as an attack ad in theory, it was designed to get far-right voters to rally around Mastriano, who attended Trump's Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, 2021.

Mastriano won the GOP primary, but Shapiro trounced him in the general election by 15 points.

These types of political messaging are possible because of lax campaign finance laws that make it easy to hide who's financing them, Borick said. They're becoming more and more common because they appear to be working, he said. So long as they don't directly coordinate with a candidate or commit libel, super PACs are free to mimic the talking points of and style of their opponents, he said.

"It's pretty much a Wild West environment that rests on voters' ability to vet these communications themselves with the aid, of course, of journalists to call attention to it," Borick said.

Pop-up super PACs aren't unheard of in the Lehigh Valley. The super PAC PA Lawyers Fund emerged days ahead of the 2022 general election. It distributed $2.5 million of paid political ads into eight races across the country, including $200,000 supporting Rep. Susan Wild. The PAC failed to file a mandatory 48-hour report, so it wasn't until weeks after the election that Raymond Lahoud, an Upper Saucon Township immigration attorney, emerged as its sole donor.

A national battleground

The latest messaging comes as Republicans gear up for a three-way primary race for Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District. Mackenzie, a state lawmaker about to enter his 12th year in office, has developed a network of Republican donors across Pennsylvania and beyond. He'll face Kevin Dellicker, a Heidelberg Township Air National Guard intelligence officer who nearly pulled off an upset in the 2022 primary, and Maria Montero, a member of former Gov. Tom Corbett's administration living in Easton.

The winner will face Wild, the three-term Democratic incumbent. The former solicitor of Allentown, Wild first rose to prominence in 2015 for cooperating with the FBI during its investigation into pay-to-play contracts under former Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

Mackenzie brushed off the attacks as a shadowy effort to meddle in the Republican primary. Democrats are merely borrowing Republican language in an effort to derail his campaign before he can flip PA-7, one of the most contested congressional districts in the nation, he said. Mackenzie said it's despicable that one family is attempting to mislead voters across the district.

"It's clear Democrats and their supporters are attacking me with dark money because they know I'm the only candidate who can defeat Susan Wild," said Mackenzie.

If the leaders and donors behind the super PACs were attempting to hold an honest debate, he added, they wouldn't need to do it with dark money. It's clear there's some sort of Machiavellian intent, he said, because they're criticizing him for positions favored by Democrats, such as his vote to allow no-excuse mail-in voting.

"They are not caring about the particular issues. They are trying to twist things around and they are trying to trick and deceive Republican voters," Mackenzie said.

That take isn't shared among all the candidates. Michelle Mattus, Montero's campaign manager, agreed that too many loopholes exist in the world of campaign financing. Montero, Mattus said, supports requiring more frequent report dates at the state and federal levels to make the process more transparent.

At the same time, Integrity and its sister super PAC are harping on legitimate issues with Mackenzie's candidacy, Mattus said. Mackenzie is playing the victim, but the attacks are by-and-large factual, she said.

"Mackenzie’s voting record, lack of real-world experience working in private sector and penchant for division are why Maria Montero provides Republicans with the best opportunity to defeat Susan Wild in the November general election," Mattus said.

Dellicker reached a similar conclusion in a prepared statement. He denied any involvement in the attacks, saying he'd prefer robust debates on the issues rather than delve into personal attacks. But Mackenzie's record is fair game for civil discourse, he said.

"There are substantive differences between myself and my opponents and the voters deserve to hear the candidates discuss their views openly. I look forward to doing that with my opponents," he said.