You Should Pay Attention to the Messy Pennsylvania Primaries

Tuesday's contests will set the table for one of the most important midterm battleground states.

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May 15 2018, 3:30am

Stephen Bloom, a Republican candidate in Pennsylvania's 13th District, speaks at a social hall. AP Photo/Marc Levy

Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.

On Tuesday, Keystone Staters go to the polls to pick nominees in a number of competitive races. These are far more important than your run-of-the-mill primaries: In February, the state supreme court ruled that the GOP-drawn districts amounted to an unconstitutional gerrymander and ordered new lines be drawn. At the same time, a rash of retirements and scandals have upended a number of congressional races, leading to seats of varying ideological stripes without an entrenched incumbent. Pennsylvania could very well be the state that decides which party controls the House of Representatives, and the outcome of so many races is very much up for grabs.

So what should you look for tomorrow? And if you’re still an undecided voter in the Keystone State, who should you vote for? Never fear, our Pennsylvania (and Nebraska!) primary preview is here—below are the most important Democratic primary contests:

Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District (Bucks County)

Presidential results:
2016: Clinton 49–Trump 47
2012: Obama 50–Romney 48
2008: Obama 53–McCain 46

The most notable candidates in the Democratic primary are Rachel Reddick and Scott Wallace. Reddick is a millennial former JAG attorney who was a registered Republican until 2016 and has the backing of women’s groups. Wallace is a wealthy philanthropist who moved back to Bucks County last year after 40 years of living in Maryland and South Africa promoting environmentalism and liberal democracy.

So both candidates face questions: Reddick on her ties to the party, Wallace on his ties to the district. While the ideological space between their campaigns is pretty slim, I do think you can look at someone’s career before they ran for Congress for hints on how they’ll act once they’re there, and Wallace is certainly more reliable in that regard.

I don’t buy the argument that Wallace is unelectable because he spent the last 40 years out of Bucks County. Yes, it is an opportunistic move, but you know what helps obviate that? Money. Wallace has lots of it and is not afraid to spend it to get to Congress. Air time in Philadelphia isn’t cheap (unless you’re Steak Em Up), and Wallace will have the resources to fight against attacks on his opportunism. Notably, the Republican incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick just moved to the district from California a year before his election and he still made it to Congress.

Either Reddick or Wallace would be a viable candidate against Fitzpatrick—Democrats will be fine no matter who they pick. The district narrowly went for Clinton and has been a bellwether for House control since 1994—I suspect it’ll move along with the national mood regardless of the nominee.

Pennsylvania’s Fourth Congressional District (Montgomery County)

2016: Clinton 58–Trump 39
2012: Obama 56–Romney 42
2008: Obama 60–McCain 40

The State Supreme Court gave Montgomery County, third biggest in the state, its own congressional district and the Fourth is reliably Democratic. It attracted three viable contenders: State Representative Madeleine Dean, former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, and activist Shira Goodman. This is another race where there isn’t a ton of ideological space between the campaigns, so the candidates pre-2016 careers seem most instructive.

And Hoeffel’s pre-2016 career should definitely give Democrats pause. He was offered a scathing non-endorsement from Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, who noted that his time on the Commission was fraught—he did a poor job managing the county’s finances and he was investigated (but not charged) by a grand jury looking into potential violations of state transparency laws. Moreover, Pennsylvania’s all-male congressional delegation should be evened out a bit, and where better than in the Fourth?

Dean’s been endorsed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, NOW, Planned Parenthood, and scores of elected officials. As noted above, there’s little ideological distinction between her and Goodman, and she’s the best chance to stop Hoeffel from reviving his political career and send a woman to Congress. She’s the obvious choice.

Pennsylvania’s Fifth Congressional District (Delaware County)

2016: Clinton 63–Trump 34
2012: Obama 65–Romney 35
2008: Obama 63–McCain 36

In 2016 Ted Budd won a congressional primary in North Carolina’s 13th District with 20 percent of the vote, the lowest percentage for a primary winner that I know about since 1982. The ten-candidate primary in the Fifth could beat that record, as the only polls of this primary have shown no candidate getting more than 22 percent. Primary polling for congressional races is often unreliable and the high number of undecideds show that this is really a fluid race.

The Fifth is a safely Democratic seat, and as such the winner of the primary will become the seat’s next congressman barring a freezer full of cash. And there doesn’t seem to be a corporate centrist in the group either. So who should you vote for?

If you want a woman to represent the seat no matter what: Mary Gay Scanlon has led in every poll of this race, and the former Wallingford Swarthmore School Board member seems the best chance to stop former State Representative Greg Vitali, who’s got a progressive record but seems to be kind of a jerk. Scanlon is a reliable liberal but has an incrementalist attitude that may hamstring Democrats if they ever get unified control of government again.

If you’d prefer the leftmost candidate: Rich Lazer supports a $15 minimum wage, free college, a national jobs guarantee, marijuana legalization, and a raft of other great ideas. He’s also supported by a bevy of labor unions, the remnants of the South Philly Democratic machine, and Bernie Sanders. But he’s got a few strikes against him. He’s from Philadelphia, not Delaware County, and he may be having a tough time making inroads there. After pushing for fair seats, it’d look bad if Delco (fifth-biggest in the state by population) didn’t have its own congressman. And in a year where Democrats are embracing diversity in primaries, Lazer is still a straight white man.

If you want to embrace leftism, identity politics, and back a candidate from Delaware County: Ashley Lunkenheimer and Molly Sheehan both have reliably left-wing views and either live in Delco (Lunkenheimer) or plan on moving back there after growing up there (Sheehan). Lunkenheimer is openly gay, while Sheehan, refreshingly, isn’t afraid to say things like imperialism and deficit hawkery are bad.

Again, there’s very little risk Democrats will nominate a dud here, so if you live here you should feel free to just vote your conscience. Voting strategically may be necessary in some contexts (check out the entry below!) but it’s always best for your own wellbeing if you can just go and vote for who you like the most.

Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District (Lehigh Valley)

2016: Clinton 49–Trump 48
2012: Obama 53–Romney 46
2008: Obama 57–McCain 42

I’ve been warning you about Northampton County DA John Morganelli for months, so I’m relieved CNN has finally gotten hip to just how terrible he is. Anti-woman and anti-immigrant group No Labels has provided support to Morganelli, much as it did with the similarly awful Dan Lipinski. But the group only spent around $300,000, much less than they did on Lipinski. And Morganelli’s never had to run a race where his opposition to immigrants’ and women’s rights has become so public. So there’s reason for optimism.

But if you’re looking for a reason for pessimism, the bad news is there are two liberal candidates, Greg Edwards and Susan Wild, who will split the anti-Morganelli vote. The DCCC got taken to task for trying to get one of them to drop down to a state senate race, something that would’ve made it far less likely that Morganelli would make it to the general. And if Morganelli wins the nomination with a plurality, a lot of DCCC critics will likely wish either Edwards or Wild had listened to the much-hated party establishment.

So who should progressives back to avoid Morganelli being nominated? I’d go with Edwards. He’s been running for the seat the longest so he seems to have built up the highest level of grassroots support (including an endorsement from Sanders). Also, most of the sniping seems to have been between Morganelli and Wild, leaving him a bit above the fray. No Labels’ typical m.o. is lying, which it’s doing to smear Wild. Hopefully Edwards can benefit from it instead of Morganelli.

Pennsylvania’s Tenth Congressional District (Harrisburg)

2016: Clinton 43–Trump 52
2012: Obama 46–Romney 53
2008: Obama 49–McCain 50

Unlike the seats listed above, the Tenth has a pronounced Republican lean, so the primary has flown a bit under the radar. Which is too bad, because incumbent Republican Scott Perry has never had to run a tough race and, accordingly, may not be ready to have to appeal to people who don’t have terrible politics. The three Democrats of note are veteran/pastor George Scott, former Obama aide Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, and scientist Eric Ding. Scott’s running to the middle, Corbin-Johnson to the left, and Ding somewhere between them. So ultimately your choice in the primary depends on what you think the best way of winning over a conservative-leaning district like the Tenth is.

BONUS Non-Pennsylvania Primary Preview: Nebraska’s Second Congressional District (Omaha)

2016: Clinton 46–Trump 48
2012: Obama 46–Romney 53
2008: Obama 50–McCain 49

As results wind down in Pennsylvania turn your attention to Nebraska, because the result here will tell us a lot about Democratic primary behavior in 2018.

Former Congressman Brad Ashford should win this primary in a cakewalk. He represented the district before and likely still would if not for the Comey Letter hurting the Democrats as a whole along with Hillary Clinton. But with Democrats increasingly interested in promoting the quality, not just the quantity, of elected officials, his record has attracted some additional scrutiny. While he was a reliably pro-choice vote in Congress, he wasn’t when he served in the Nebraska legislature. His support of the Keystone Pipeline was troubling too. And he seemed to take his affiliation with the Democratic Party lightly.

So I can’t blame progressives in the district from lining up behind Kara Eastman, a local nonprofit director who may not have Ashford’s record of political success (anyone who can knock off an incumbent Republican in 2014, which Ashford did, has skill) but would be a more reliable vote in Congress. The second is by no means a solidly liberal district but I don’t see any reason why a mainstream Democratic candidate like Eastman can’t win a seat that went for Obama and only gave a narrow plurality to Trump.

So the second will be a test—will Democrats reward politicians they know over women running to their left? Because if Brad Ashford can’t win, it’s hard to see how centrists without worse name recognition can elsewhere.

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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here , and his DMs are open.

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