‘They smell blood in the water’ — In Pa., N.J. congressional primaries, Trump, retirements bring a surge of activity
Scores of candidates, mostly Democrats, are heading into the final weeks of unusually crowded primary contests in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The campaigns will set the stage for fall races critical to control of the U.S. House. Democrats see a chance to gain six or more House seats in the two states, a significant share of the 23 they need to take control of the chamber.
Shira Goodman had spent years pushing for tougher gun laws. Molly Sheehan was doing cancer research. And Rachel Reddick was a military lawyer clerking at a Navy and Marines appeals court in Washington.
Then came November 2016, and President Trump's election.
Now the trio, none of whom had ever sought public office, are running for Congress in the suburbs of Philadelphia. They are just three of the scores of candidates, mostly Democrats, heading into the final weeks of unusually crowded primary contests — contests that will set the stage for fall races critical to control of the U.S. House.
The wave of interest comes amid a national atmosphere characterized by a suburban backlash against President Trump, particularly among women, a surge of activism on the left and Republican retirements, all magnified in Pennsylvania by a new congressional map that reversed GOP advantages.
Richard Born, a political scientist at Vassar College , said the size and strength of a field is often one of the best indicators of the political tide.
"There is a historical pattern out there where you have a number of strong contenders for a House nomination, that's a sign that they smell blood in the water," Born said.
The Philadelphia area's races have national implications.
With four Republican retirements in the region and a difficult environment facing two other GOP incumbents, Bucks County's Brian Fitzpatrick and South Jersey's Tom MacArthur, Democrats see a chance to gain six or more House seats in the Keystone and Garden states, a significant share of the 23 they need to take control of the chamber.
In Pennsylvania's fourth and fifth districts, based respectively in Montgomery and Delaware Counties, the Democratic primary winners will be heavy favorites in November. In other races, the strength of the primary winner will help decide if Democrats can capture swing seats.
In all, 94 Pennsylvanians — including 59 Democrats — filed to run for Congress at the March deadline. In New Jersey 49 have filed, 27 of them Democrats. Pennsylvania's primary arrives May 15 and New Jersey's comes June 5.
In interviews with 16 non-incumbent candidates in the Philadelphia area, nearly every Democrat, and one Republican, described being galvanized by Trump.
"I want to make America sane again," said Scott Wallace, who is running in Bucks County's First District.
Sheehan, running in Pennsylvania's Fifth District, described being shaken by 2016. "I saw Trump elected and seared in my head is that Access Hollywood tape about him sexually assaulting women."
On the other side, Republican Dean Malik is running in Bucks County arguing that he, and not GOP incumbent Fitzpatrick, faithfully backs Trump and can stir the party base.
"The response to a blue wave has to be a red wave," Malik said.
Despite the huge field, Democrats in the region are largely aligned on policy — with one significant exception, in South Jersey's Second District.
While there is some individual nuance, in general, Democrats are pushing for tougher gun laws, and more robust government-run health insurance. They want a $15 minimum wage and an infrastructure program to boost jobs. They cast the GOP tax bill as a giveaway to the wealthy and big business.
"This country would be better served with an infrastructure bill than it will be with this massive tax cut for the top 1 percent," said Rich Lazer, a former aide to Mayor Kenney who is running in the Fifth.
Women pointed to the long-running imbalance in Pennsylvania: Every one of the state's 20 House and Senate members are men.
"That's got to change," said State Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat running in Montgomery County and backed by Allyson Schwartz, the last Pennsylvania woman to serve in Congress.
Most of all, Democrats promised to rein in Trump and what they saw as an assault on governing norms.
"I was proud of the time I had spent in the Department of Justice and I saw after Trump was elected the degradation of that institution and it being used for hate and to tear families apart," said Ashley Lunkenheimer, a former federal prosecutor who is running in Delaware County.
In the same race, Attorney Mary Gay Scanlon, endorsed by former Gov. Ed Rendell, said she would "be a check" on Trump. "There's some basic principles of our democracy that have been upended by this administration."
Many Democrats are using their personal stories to distinguish themselves.
Lawrence Arata, a Philadelphia public school teacher running in the Fifth District, decided to run after his son, Brendan, died of a heroin overdose in December.
"My wife and I of course are in mourning, but we want to mourn with a mission," Arata said, hoping his long-shot campaign will "force people to address the issue in an appropriate way."
Lindy Li, in the same race, points to her experience as an immigrant and highlights her value as a fresh voice who is under 30.
Ex-congressman Joe Hoeffel, running in Montgomery County, said that with his experience he would be "effective day one, right away." State Rep. Margo Davidson, of Delaware County, made the same case, as did others who have held public office.
First-time candidates countered that voters showed in 2016 that they want outsiders.
"What is the future of the party?" asked Goodman, who has led the gun control group CeaseFire PA and is running in Pennsylvania's Fourth District. "We need to say that it's not just the same people and the same path to leadership and service."
Several Democrats pointed to military backgrounds, including Reddick, a former judge advocate general who is competing for the nomination in Bucks County.
She said veterans are more likely to understand the impacts of war: "It's so incredibly important to have that voice represented."
South Jersey's sprawling Second District is an exception to the Democratic harmony on policy. There, Tanzie Youngblood and Will Cunningham have attacked the favorite in their primary, State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, for votes against same-sex marriage and some gun control measures.
"He is more conservative than the Republican that he's trying to replace," said Youngblood, a retired teacher and first-time candidate.
Democratic leaders in Washington and South Jersey, however, think Van Drew's history of winning in more conservative territory can help flip a seat that has sent Republican Frank LoBiondo to Congress for more than 20 years. (LoBiondo is retiring).
"Our job is to get work done. It's not to sit around and yell at each other," Van Drew said. He also said his views on same-sex marriage have evolved and that he supports and accepts court decisions making it legal.
U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers (R., Ohio), the head of Republicans' congressional campaign arm, argued that competitive primaries will force Democrats far to the left, and that a growing economy and tax cuts give incumbents a strong record to run on. With the exception of Lehigh Valley's Marty Nothstein, Stivers was pessimistic about the GOP newcomers in the Philadelphia region.
"I wish we had a better recruit in the LoBiondo seat, but we don't," he said.
In Chester County, where attorney Greg McCauley is running to replace Rep. Ryan Costello, Stivers said, "We're going to see how he does." And he conceded that the Delaware County seat, from which Rep. Pat Meehan resigned on Friday, is "going to be really tough" to hold.
All the more reason for the activity on the Democratic side.