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A Pennsylvania House race looks a lot like the campaign between Trump and Biden

One of the most competitive congressional elections in the country is a Central Pennsylvania contest that looks and sounds an awful lot like the presidential race.

Pennsylvania Auditor General and Democratic congressional candidate Eugene DePasquale (left) with LaQuana Barber, owner of House of Vegans restaurant in Harrisburg, on Saturday.
Pennsylvania Auditor General and Democratic congressional candidate Eugene DePasquale (left) with LaQuana Barber, owner of House of Vegans restaurant in Harrisburg, on Saturday.Read moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL

YORK, Pa. — One of the most competitive congressional elections in the country is a central Pennsylvania contest that looks and sounds an awful lot like the presidential race.

The race for Pennsylvania’s 10th District pits a moderate Democrat against a conservative stalwart, an election that could go either way in a region that has slowly but surely become more of a battleground.

Democratic challenger Eugene DePasquale, Pennsylvania auditor general, says he’ll be a representative “for the entire district … not just a right-wing ideology.”

Incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Perry, a reliable ally of President Donald Trump, dismisses DePasquale as a radical in moderate’s clothing. “Moderates don’t have fund-raisers with Nancy Pelosi and I think central Pennsylvanians get that," Perry said earlier this month.

Perry, an Iraq War veteran, has represented the district — which includes parts of Cumberland, York, and Dauphin Counties — since 2013. He previously represented the area in Harrisburg, is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and has largely echoed Trump’s campaign themes.

DePasquale, the state’s elected fiscal watchdog since 2013 and also a former state representative, is hoping his experience investigating government agencies will win over moderate Republicans and independent voters.

In many ways, the district is a microcosm of the country — with its medium and small cities Harrisburg and York, inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs, and more rural areas. And the campaigns have at times sounded like miniatures of the presidential race. In one Perry ad, images of police cars burning and liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) appear on the screen as Perry says he’s “fighting to protect American values and freedom, not turn us into a socialist nation.”

A DePasquale ad traces his personal history, his father’s struggles with addiction after Vietnam, and a brother who died of muscular dystrophy. In the ad, DePasquale says, “It’s time we had people in Washington who understand struggle.” Biden’s campaign has similarly focused on his own personal tragedies to argue he knows how to heal a divided and hurting nation.

The district was redrawn in 2018 to include all of Harrisburg, York, and Carlisle, which tend to vote more Democratic. That year, Perry narrowly defeated Democrat George Scott. The region has grown in population, particularly in the Harrisburg suburbs, where Democrats have made some inroads. It’s also home to a large number of independent voters.

Almost $1 million in outside spending has poured into the race, in the form of TV ads that hew closely to each party’s campaign playbook. Perry has outspent DePasquale on the airwaves since the June 2 primary, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics, about $604,000 to $165,000. Altogether, DePasquale and Democratic groups have spent $1.1 million on TV since the primary, compared with $608,000 by Perry and Republican groups.

A York Dispatch poll last week showed Perry and DePasquale in a statistical dead heat. Surveys show Biden narrowly beating Trump in the district, which is seen as one of the few places where Democrats can still pick up more House seats after sweeping gains in 2018.

“This is going to be a nail-biter,” said Christopher Nicholas, a GOP strategist in Harrisburg.

» READ MORE: The Philly suburbs aren’t the only suburbs where Democrats are on the rise in Pennsylvania

DePasquale is courting moderate and independent voters. He’s quick to highlight aspects of Trump’s agenda he agrees with, including parts of his trade policies and his promise to clean up Washington — though DePasquale said Trump has failed to actually deliver.

“When [Trump] said D.C. wasn’t working for average everyday folks, a lot of middle-class America was getting sold down the drain, he wasn’t wrong,” DePasquale said in an interview in York this month.

Perry has been an ardent defender of Trump and has framed the campaign as one against creeping socialism — never mind DePasquale’s more moderate stances compared with his party’s liberal wing.

And Trump has praised Perry on Twitter as “an incredible fighter for Pennsylvania.”

A native of Pittsburgh, DePasquale moved in 1997 to York, where he briefly served as director of economic development for the city. In 2016, he won the 10th District in his statewide reelection bid by 2 percentage points. Trump won it by 9 points the same year.

“I get texts, ‘Hey, just so ya know this is a Trumper who’s voting for you,’ ” DePasquale said. "A lot of Republican voters will tell me they’re frustrated with a lack of leadership. ... They’re pretty comfortable with giving me a shot.”

Like Biden, DePasquale, 49, has called the race a referendum on character. He’s highlighted his middle-class upbringing spent in his family-owned bar in Pittsburgh.

Perry, 58, has also put his personal story front and center. He grew up poor, raised by a single mother, first in California and then Pennsylvania. He joined the Army National Guard in 1980 and later deployed to Bosnia and then Iraq, where he’s credited with flying 44 missions and accruing almost 200 combat flight hours. He was promoted to brigadier general in November 2015 and retired in 2019.

Perry argues that the middle of the road isn’t what voters are looking for right now.

“There seems to be less and less middle ground, and I think elections are showing that," Perry said. "People are, I think, gravitating toward candidates willing to take a stand for something. They want someone that’s gonna fight for something and not just try to be in the middle.”

Last month, speaking at a York Rotary Club, he questioned whether systemic racism exists in America. The comments prompted the former GOP chair in York to back DePasquale.

» READ MORE: How ‘naked ballots’ in Pennsylvania could cost Joe Biden the election

But Perry said that as the region has changed, with growth in the suburbs, he sees an opportunity to win over voters with Trump’s campaign against looting and civil unrest in American cities.

“Let’s face it, Joe Biden is the nominee at the top of the ticket, but Bernie Sanders is in charge of the party," Perry said, referring to the liberal Vermont senator Biden defeated in the Democratic primary. “People at the end of the day still want a safe neighborhood, peace of mind of knowing they can walk on the streets safely.”

On a visit Saturday to downtown Harrisburg, DePasquale talked with business owners about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected livelihoods. He’s currently auditing Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of an oft-criticized waiver process to exempt businesses from orders that shut down nonessential businesses.

That investigation sparked its own criticism given that Wolf has donated to DePasquale’s campaign. “He’s taking maximum campaign donations from the governor,” Perry said. “Despite the fact that the governor is under investigation.”

DePasquale has said that the audit will come out on Oct. 6 and that he can still be impartial. He has previously audited both Democratic school boards and Republican-led agencies. He revealed failures at the state Department of Environmental Protection and a law enforcement backlog of more than 3,000 rape kits.

“If I’m making insiders in Harrisburg uncomfortable, that’s good,” DePasquale said.

Nicholas, the GOP strategist, said he doubts attacks on Perry’s health-care record will be effective.

“He votes against most things because he wants the government to be significantly smaller,” Nicholas said. “Democrats are criticizing him for not being a Democrat."

Sean Crampsie, a Democrat on the borough council in Carlisle, said he thinks DePasquale is appealing to left-leaning independents.

“I think both he and Biden can pull those voters in, and that’s going to make things very close here in November," Crampsie said.