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Pa. Dem congressional candidate is 'Trumpish' on immigration. Will the party stop him?

Since Democrats suffered an electoral shellacking in 2016, the party has been retooling its economic message to expand its base of supporters. But the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District is posing a different test. Liberal outside political groups are seeking to impose ideological discipline in the relatively moderate Lehigh Valley district, hammering John Morganelli's conservative positions on immigration and abortion and his Trump-friendly posts on social media.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli
Northampton County District Attorney John MorganelliRead moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

ALLENTOWN — Jon Serhus mistrusts "centrist Democrats" who he says are controlled by corporate interests and "don't care about the people." As he waited Saturday for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to endorse Pastor Greg Edwards in a congressional race here, the 52-year-old software developer said he liked the candidate's idea of a national gun registry.

A few miles away, Richard, a 74-year-old retired union electrical worker, was sitting at the counter at a farmers market waiting to order breakfast. Richard, a registered Democrat who would give only his first name, says the United States admits too many immigrants and doesn't do enough to help "our own people, including retirees like myself."

He's leaning toward supporting John Morganelli, the longtime district attorney of Northampton County, who rails against "illegal aliens" stealing jobs and criticizes "the far left" for promising "free tuition, free health care, free lunches, free everything."

Since the Democrats suffered an electoral shellacking in 2016, the party has been retooling its economic message to expand its base. But the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District is posing a different test. Liberal outside political groups are seeking to impose ideological discipline in the relatively moderate Lehigh Valley district, hammering Morganelli's conservative positions on immigration and abortion, and his Trump-friendly posts on social media.

He's running in a six-candidate primary field that includes the Sanders-backed pastor and a litigator supported by EMILY's List, a Washington-based political group that supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights. Meantime, a super PAC reportedly linked to the centrist group No Labels is spending tens of thousands of dollars attacking both those candidates.

These progressives — Edwards, 48, a self-described "unorthodox" candidate whose slogan is "All of Us or None of Us," and attorney Susan Wild, 60 — may appeal to the party's liberal base. Some analysts think Morganelli, who has longtime ties to organized labor in the region, has stronger general-election prospects in a district currently represented by a centrist Republican, and could win back working-class voters who drifted away from the Democratic Party over the years, most visibly in 2016.

The outcome in Tuesday's primary is being closely watched by national political observers because the district, like several others in the Philadelphia area, is seen as a potential flip for Democrats, who need a net gain of 24 seats to take control of the House in November's midterm elections. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican, put the seat in play when he announced his retirement in September, and the opening grew in February when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court imposed a new congressional map that created a more favorable field for Democrats. President Trump won the old 15th District by 7 points in 2016, but Hillary Clinton would have carried the new one by 1.

A majority of registered voters in the district disapprove of Trump’s job performance, according to a Muhlenberg College poll published this month. Registered voters favor a Democrat over a Republican on a generic congressional ballot by 11 percentage points, the survey found.

Also running are social worker Rick Daugherty, David Clark, and Easton City Councilman Roger Ruggles. Seeking the GOP nomination are Marty Nothstein, an Olympic gold medalist in cycling, and Dean Browning, a former Lehigh County commissioner.

To date, outside groups have spent about $530,000 in the Democratic primary, records show, a figure expected to grow. That's not a ton of money for a competitive House race, but the district is in a cheaper media market than, say, Philadelphia. Edwards has raised the most and has the most cash on hand.

EMILY's List has been airing a television ad depicting Morganelli as a Trump lackey, pointing to the district attorney's opposition to so-called sanctuary cities, his anti-abortion position, and a November 2016 tweet in which he said he was "waiting to hear" from Trump's transition team.

"You know John Morganelli as district attorney," the narrator says in a 30-second ad paid for by a PAC affiliated with EMILY's List. "But in Congress, the job is being tough on Trump. And on issues that matter to the Lehigh Valley, Morganelli agrees with Trump."

For his part, Morganelli pitches himself in an ad as a "Democrat with backbone" who would push to ban assault weapons, fight efforts by Trump to cut Medicare, and "stand up to drug and insurance companies."

The son of a union construction worker and a seamstress, Morganelli, 62, of Bethlehem, emphasized his "strong Democratic roots," saying he supports organized labor and public education, protecting Social Security, and expanding Medicare. He's endorsed by the Lehigh Valley Building Trades Council.

In an interview, he said he recognizes Roe v. Wade as the law of the land but as a Catholic personally opposes abortion, with exceptions. Morganelli says he supports fully funding Planned Parenthood.

On immigration, he says he supports protecting the immigrants known as Dreamers who were brought to the country illegally by adults. But he hedges on whether to provide a pathway to citizenship for other undocumented immigrants, and says local authorities should cooperate with federal immigration agents — a break with his party.

"I don't believe open borders is what most Americans want," Morganelli said. "I think we have to have borders, an orderly immigration process."

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst who studies congressional races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Morganelli would be among the five most conservative members of the House Democratic caucus. "He has kind of a Republican/Trumpish tone on immigration," Kondik said, adding that he was "different than almost every Democratic candidate in the country."

"The fact that Democrats don't have a lot of people like Morganelli anymore may be sort of suggestive as to why they did so poorly in northeast Pennsylvania and across the heartland" in recent years and 2016 especially, Kondik said.

Groups like EMILY's List and NextGen Climate Action, founded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, are working to make sure the Democratic nominee adheres to the party line on immigration and abortion.

NextGen has budgeted $100,000 for the primary, a spokeswoman said, and has sent voter guides in the mail that highlight the contrasts on those issues with Edwards and Wild.

Intervention by outside groups seeking to impose litmus tests on key issues has been more prominent among Republicans, Kondik said. Steyer's play in Pennsylvania could signal the trend is on the rise among Democrats, too.

But the Seventh District race isn't simply a contrast between moderates and progressives.

There have also been echoes of the bitter 2016 presidential primary, when Sanders supporters suspected — correctly, it turns out — that national Democrats had put their thumb on the scales for Clinton. Likewise, Edwards has accused the House Democrats' campaign arm of trying to force him out of the race, though those concerns have subsided.

He and Wild mostly agree on the issues — supporting Medicare for all, debt-free college, legalizing marijuana — but differ in their approach.

Edwards, a community organizer who was arrested last year during a protest of the GOP tax overhaul, says his life's work has been "building social movements for human and civil rights to address inequity."

"I am the person that makes the least amount of money, who has raised the most amount of money through small-dollar donations," he said.

Wild, a former Allentown city solicitor, has been a litigator for 30 years. She says her negotiating skills are the best of any in her field, but she's also no stranger to jury trials. "I'm ready for the fight," she said.