WASHINGTON — For Democrats, opportunity and peril abound in Pennsylvania as the party seeks to win control of the House in the November elections.
Exhibit A is Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, where Democrats have a prime opportunity to flip a seat now in GOP hands. But it’s not clear the party will unite around the nominee who emerges Tuesday from a bruising primary in the Keystone State.
That’s because a leading Democratic contender is Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, an immigration hardliner who opposes abortion and once wanted to serve in the Trump administration.
The outcome of that primary and others across Pennsylvania are being closely watched because the state is so pivotal for Democrats come November. The state could give Democrats up to a quarter of the 23 seats they need to win a House majority. Pennsylvania became much more favorable to Democrats after the state Supreme Court ruled in January that its congressional map was an unconstitutional gerrymander and redrew it.
The new map made seven districts more friendly to Democrats and put a handful of others within striking distance. In addition, five Republican lawmakers have announced they will not seek re-election, opening up races where the GOP incumbent would have had an edge. Only one Democrat has announced his retirement, in a district that is solidly blue.
Pennsylvania’s new 7th district is already attracting attention and money from national party strategists and outside groups. Under the old map, President Trump won the district by 8 percentage points in 2016; under the new map, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried it by 1 percentage point, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. The seat is currently held by a moderate Republican, Rep. Charlie Dent, who has announced he intends to retire this month.
“By the numbers, this seat should be a golden takeover opportunity for Democrats,” David Wasserman, an analyst with Cook wrote earlier this month. But, he cautions, “the extraordinary Democratic discord raises the possibility the party won’t be able to unite by the fall.”
There are six Democrats running for the party’s nomination, but the race appears to have narrowed to three leading contenders from different wings of the party. Morganelli — who has been the Northampton County district attorney since he was elected 1991 — is facing off against Greg Edwards, a progressive pastor endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Susan Wild, the former Allentown city solicitor who has been endorsed by Emily’s List. That political action committee aims to get Democratic pro-abortion rights women elected to office.
Morganelli has worked with Republican hardliners on immigration, relationships he touted in a Nov. 20, 2016 tweet when he urged Trump’s transition team to reach out to him.
“Thankful for your coming leadership. Waiting to hear from transition. Met you at Bedminister (sic) when I played in Member Guest,” he wrote in another tweet three days later.
Morganelli has since deleted the tweets, along with others bashing liberal members of his party, according to CNN. In 2016, he also appeared at an event with Pennsylvania’s Republican senator focused on cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities.
Some Democrats worry Morganelli is not the right fit for the district and could suppress voter enthusiasm if he’s the nominee. Democrats are banking on an energized anti-Trump base to propel them to victory in key House districts across the country.
“If you try to run a Democrat like a Republican, the Democrats won’t show up,” Edwards said.
Edwards believes that because the district now tilts in favor of Democrats — if only slightly — the November general election will be all about turnout. If the Democratic base shows up because they’re excited about their candidate, that candidate will win, with or without the support of Republicans and independents, he argues. Edwards said he’s the “one true progressive” in the race able to crank up excitement.
Wild agrees that Morganelli is too conservative for the district, but said the Democratic nominee will need crossover votes in November — and she’s in the best position to deliver.
“The number of moderate Republicans who have reached across the aisle and whispered in my ear and talked to me and said to me I can’t wait to vote for you in November” is encouraging, Wild said.
Morganelli said he is not too conservative, arguing that his record has been exaggerated. He said he was a “big” supporter of Clinton and he only offered to help Trump after he was elected because it was what you do “as a good American.”
“This all got blown out of proportion, as if I agree with the guy and all of his policies,” Morganelli said.
Morganelli said he disagrees with Trump on guns, Social Security and Medicare. He said he supports abortion in limited circumstances and touted his support for protecting the DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, from deportation.
In Washington, Democratic party strategists have reportedly expressed concerns about all three candidates, and they have even tried to quietly influence the outcome of Tuesday’s primary.
For example, Dan Friedman, a spokesman for Edwards’ campaign, said officials with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee talked to local party leaders to see if Edwards “would be willing to seek a lower seat and get out of the race.” The DCCC is the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
Morganelli said DCCC officials have fretted his position on abortion and immigration. “But they had reservations about all of us,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the DCCC pushed back on that, saying the committee has not endorsed any candidate in the race or told anyone to drop out. Neither Edwards or Morganelli said they were explicitly told to drop out.
“We are confident that the Democratic primary winner will present a clear contrast to the Republican’s toxic agenda and make this district highly competitive in November,”said DCCC spokesperson Amanda Sherman.
But Republicans have already pounced on the intra-party friction.
The DCCC is “torching their relationships with the grassroots Democrats (and) they’re failing to harness the energy and enthusiasm of the grassroots movement,” said Chris Martin, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Democratic nominee will face off against one of two Republicans, both from the Lehigh County Commission. Chair Marty Nothstein, who won a gold medal for cycling in the 2000 Olympics, has been placed on the NRCC’s watch list for candidates that appear to be competitive. Former Lehigh County Commissioner and business executive Dean Browning is also running.
Pennsylvania’s 7th district is just the one of 18 congressional primaries in the state on Tuesday. There are other competitive Democratic races across the commonwealth, including in the 1st and 5th Congressional Districts.
There will also be primary races in Idaho, Nebraska, and Oregon on Tuesday.
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