His name is Jonathan Kassa. You probably don’t know him. He is one of the lesser-known Democrats looking to make history next month. He’s running for a political seat held for 10 years by an incumbent, Todd Stephens, whose Republican Party has controlled Pennsylvania’s legislature for years.
Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, people like Kassa have won state races like this one in Montgomery County’s 151st House District with a tool that’s less about money and more about face time: door-knocking. But as he and others try to flip GOP control of the House with victories across the region, they’re contending with a complication that has everything to do with COVID-19.
They haven’t been able to press the flesh. Pound the pavement. Tell people who they are face-to-face. And it could be a crushing blow to their hopes next month.
Door-knocking and group meetings are how Democratic newbies swept Republicans out of local, county, state, and congressional seats in 2017, 2018, and 2019. It is how they introduced themselves to Pennsylvanians. But this year, until just a few weeks ago, it’s been a no-no due to contagion fears.
The loss of canvassing is just one thing that has some Democrats feeling shaky. Thanks to Harrisburg Republicans who forced it into law through negotiations with Gov. Tom Wolf last year, straight-party voting is gone for this election, too.
No longer can a single voter press a single button for a popular presidential candidate and lodge a vote, automatically, for every other party candidate on the ballot below. Now, if you vote for Joe Biden, you have to then find every other Democrat and vote for them, too, if you want to vote straight party. It makes winning, if you’re a lower-rung candidate, all the harder to do. Those state Republicans knew what they were doing. They’d had lots of members defeated in elections in 2018; why let Dems keep winning so easily?
“I’m not only down ballot," Kassa said when I brought this up. “I’m the flea on the tail of a dog.”
Democrats are understandably nervous about both. And that’s on top of worrying about election interference from Trump and his supporters and how things will go with this year’s introduction of expanded mail-in voting.
“There is nothing as valuable as being out, even if it’s 12 feet away with a mask on, talking to someone. I’ve seen a difference," Kassa said. He began going door-to-door only a few weeks ago, after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
“People are at their door, it’s almost a sense of grief; I’m getting anger, I’m getting depression, I’m getting anxiety from people,” Kassa continued. “I have so many people who say they’ve voted for Todd before because he’s a nice guy, but not this time.”
Democrats need a net gain of nine seats for a House majority in Harrisburg. They flipped 14 other seats two years ago for a net gain of 11. Stephens is one Republican on their list.
Stephens says that he, too, has lost thousands of door-knocking opportunities this year. He began venturing out about a month before Kassa, in August.
“The reception has been terrific,” Stephens said.
He said he has been selling himself as a moderate who has partnered with countless Democrats through the years. A nonpartisan type of guy despite belonging to a caucus whose leaders from less populated regions in Pennsylvania are very conservative.
“So why aren’t you a Democrat?” I asked.
“Is that rhetorical?” he said and paused. “In the end I do what’s best for my district.”
I asked Stephens if he is confident about winning.
“I survived ’16, I survived ’18, and I’m going to survive ’20,” he said.
Stephens, though, has to be looking over his back. Why else would he then tell me about hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring into Kassa’s campaign to get his face and name into people’s homes through TV ads and literature?
“It’s a crazy amount of money coming into this district,” Stephens said.
Kassa said his campaign spent months texting and phone banking with the help of anti-Trump volunteers. His war chest reportedly is huge. Independent expenditure groups also are throwing money into efforts to back his candidacy. A TV ad on major cable networks went up just a few days ago.
If Democrats win this seat — it’s in a formerly Republican county that is now overwhelmingly blue — they may never lose it again. They came close in 2018: Stephens managed an 889-vote victory margin over newcomer Sara Johnson Rothman out of nearly 30,000 votes cast.
When Kassa agreed to run in January, he was told it would all boil down to canvassing and money.
“'It’s all about doors and dollars,'” he recalled Democratic Rep. Matt Bradford telling him back then.
“I thought I would knock until my knuckles would bleed,” Kassa said.
On Wednesday, Kassa was, in fact, out knocking. I found him at the Village of Neshaminy Falls, a retirement community in North Wales. He was masked and armed with flyers and an iPhone leading him to Democratic voter addresses.
Shirley Damm came to the door and took a leaflet.
“I just think we need a change,” she said, launching not into Stephens, for whom she had voted in years past, but Trump: “He’s making a big farce out of everything.”
A woman down the street later told Kassa she was thrilled to see him after having just heard his name for the first time a few days earlier. I asked if she knew that straight-party voting was gone. She did not.
“I’ll have to tell my sister that," she said. “She might be confused.”