Last Tuesday, amid the pandemic, lockdowns, and national unrest, Pennsylvania held its primary election—the first under a new law, passed in 2019, that provides for “no-excuse” mail-in ballots, meaning that voters can cast their ballots from the comfort of their homes without needing to explain why they can’t make it to the polling place. Those ballots turned election night into a weeklong marathon: 2.8 million votes arrived at county courthouses by mail, a slight majority of all those cast, resulting in delayed results—including two congressional primaries in south-central and northeastern Pennsylvania. Both toss-up House seats prove crucial to understanding the bellwether state’s evolving political dynamics as the presidential election looms in November.
The 10th district, situated in Pennsylvania’s Midstate region, will test Republicans’ strength in a historically GOP area. Since the 1960s, only one Democrat represented portions of the region (Blue Dog Tim Holden, from 2002 to 2012). Eugene DePasquale hopes to change this trend. Following a primary challenge, he will face incumbent GOP Representative Scott Perry, now in his fourth term.
Since 2013, DePasquale, who hails from a political family in Pittsburgh, has served as auditor general, the state’s chief fiscal officer. He has long presented himself as a moderate Democrat who, in his statewide role, works as a watchdog of both parties. “My job, if I’m your member of Congress, is to represent this district, not an ideology,” said DePasquale, evidently following the playbook that elected moderate Democrats in 2018. Perry, a retired National Guard brigadier general who served in Iraq, ascended the political ladder during the Obama years, when Pennsylvanians elected numerous Republicans to Congress. His support for Trump, however, adds a layer of vulnerability among the district’s bounty of suburban voters.
The 10th district was designed to unseat Perry. In 2018, the Democratic-majority state supreme court invalidated Pennsylvania’s previous congressional map, leading to a new map that clearly favored Democrats. This reconfigured Perry’s district, featuring Democratic-leaning Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg, populous East Shore suburbs, and Hershey, a health-care and corporate hub with growing numbers of wealthy progressives; Cumberland County’s West Shore, among the state’s most prosperous areas; and parts of York County, including the city of York, a Democratic stronghold once represented by DePasquale in the state legislature.
In 2018, the new map almost delivered the race to the Democratic candidate; Perry retained his seat by less than 3 points. This year, DePasquale will depend on Democratic cities and growing opposition to Trump in sprawling suburbs. Still, enough Trump-supporting suburbanites remain to keep the race competitive—especially in a district where Republicans still enjoy a voter-registration advantage. The summer of 2016, moreover, never ended in many of the district’s rural townships, where Trump signs remain ubiquitous. Perry is counting on this enduring enthusiasm, plus widespread anger over Democratic governor Tom Wolf’s contradictory and opaque response to the Covid-19 crisis, which severely affected the capital region’s economy. Overall, the race is a suburban battle—one that, in recent years, hasn’t trended well for Republicans.
Meantime, traveling north on Interstate 81, through the Appalachian Mountain’s Swatara Gap and past Schuylkill County, Democrats face a different scenario in the northeast’s 8th district: boundaries, drawn in 2018, that could cost the party what was considered a safe seat. In office since 2013, Democratic congressman Matt Cartwright coasted to victory in the old Scranton-based 17th district, but current boundaries, though still including the city, encompass parts of Trump’s largest base of statewide support—most notably, a large share of Luzerne County, which fueled his winning margin in 2016. In addition, the district includes parts of the Poconos’ Monroe County, where an ongoing urban-rural divide—intensified by the Covid-19 crisis—is driving voters to Trump.
In fact, Trump would have won the district by ten points in 2016 had the present boundaries existed. Cartwright must confront this reality, particularly as the region’s support for Trump, over time, seems to intensify. But as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, Cartwright must champion his party’s interests in a working-class region that, despite its Democratic roots, increasingly doubts his representation. Luzerne’s courthouse, for example, now has a GOP-majority council, and its state senator left the Democratic Party last year—unimaginable scenarios during the Obama presidency. Since last year, more than 3,500 Luzerne Democrats have changed their party affiliation to Republican.
Jim Bognet, who won the district’s GOP primary, hopes to target these disaffected voters and secure the bounty of northeastern Pennsylvania’s stalwart Trump supporters. A native of Hazleton, a city in southern Luzerne, Bognet has a background in GOP politics, including at the U.S. Export–Import Bank under Trump. He’s running, in part, on that experience, while also touting Trump’s “America First” economic message. “Hazleton used to be a manufacturing paradise. All five counties in our district can be manufacturing powerhouses again,” he told the Standard-Speaker. Like Perry, Bognet is also relying on disgust over Governor Wolf’s management of the pandemic. “Their conduct has been a fiasco,” he said, referring to the administration’s disparagement of calls for reopening and the dramatic spread of Covid-19 in nursing homes on its watch.
Cartwright is relying on Biden, a native son, to provide a lifeline. While Luzerne favors Trump, Lackawanna County—home to Scranton—remains one of Pennsylvania’s most reliably Democratic counties. The Scranton area still counts residents who believe voting for a Republican is a cultural, if not familial, betrayal—especially when the Democratic candidate is Biden, who spent his early childhood in the city’s Green Ridge section. To win a fifth term, Cartwright must rely on his backyard’s Democratic allegiance and enthusiasm for Biden, even as a significant share of his district’s voters, including formerly lifelong Democrats, now consider the GOP their political home.
This November, Cartwright and Perry, from opposing parties, are electorally vulnerable. Though dramatically different in culture and history, the 10th and 8th districts reveal Pennsylvania’s shifting political fault lines. The performance of both House members could portend which presidential candidate prevails in Pennsylvania—and in the general election.