For years, the fight for congressional seats in Pennsylvania centered on the moderate Philadelphia suburbs.

But now, in the wake of a broad political realignment turbocharged by President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, attention has shifted to newly contested regions of the state.

Democrats, who captured almost every suburban seat in 2018, believe their next best shot lies in a changing south-central Pennsylvania district. Some Harrisburg suburbs there are gradually trending blue, while Republican Rep. Scott Perry is sticking to his staunchly conservative stances. Republicans, meanwhile, are targeting a working-class Northeast Pennsylvania district breaking from its Democratic roots.

And a perennial battleground in Bucks County is still competitive but less of a priority than in the past, as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick tries to hang on to the one Philadelphia-area district still in Republican hands.

Much hinges on the candidates: Members of both parties believe Perry is more vulnerable than Fitzpatrick and has a far stronger opponent.

“Brian’s shown he can win in that district consistently through headwinds in every situation,” said Josh Novotney, a Philadelphia-based lobbyist who once worked for House Republicans’ campaign arm. “Congressman Perry is a great guy, but he just hasn’t adapted that well to that district.”

Most political watchers consider Democrats a strong favorite to retain control of the House. But the races may still offer clues about the parties’ relative appeal in these new battlegrounds — though the outcome of the presidential race and views on Trump could ultimately overwhelm other factors.

Here are the Pennsylvania races to watch.

An old swing district and a new one

The high-profile House vote in late June on Democrats’ police reform bill illustrated the divergent approaches of Fitzpatrick and Perry — and why Democrats see Perry as their top target.

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent who represents the 1st Congressional District in Bucks County, was one of just three Republicans who broke ranks to support the sweeping measure. Perry, a member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus from the 10th District, joined almost every other Republican in voting no.

Democrats argue that Perry’s record is now out of step with a more moderate district. And they think they’ve hit a recruiting home run in state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who has held statewide office for 7½ years.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in 2019.
Marc Levy / AP
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in 2019.

Portraying himself as a pragmatist willing to work with Republicans, DePasquale carried the district in his 2016 reelection campaign even as Trump won it by nine percentage points.

“Scott wants to represent an ideology,” DePasquale said. “I want to represent a district.”

He pointed to health care as a top issue, and said his brother’s death from a disease for which insurance companies denied coverage when he was growing up shows the importance of the Affordable Care Act’s protection of those with preexisting conditions.

Playing up his bipartisan bona fides, DePasquale rated Gov. Tom Wolf’s response to the coronavirus as a “B-plus or A-minus,” but noted he is investigating the way Wolf approved waivers to certain businesses to remain open.

“I wouldn’t be auditing it if I didn’t have concerns about it,” DePasquale said. He said he supports congressional Democrats’ police reform bill and opposes calls to “defund the police.”

The district, which includes all or parts of Cumberland, Dauphin, and York Counties, still leans right, but parts are shifting. It has become more diverse, with people moving from around Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore to a less expensive region, said Rogette Harris, the Dauphin County Democratic Party chair. Jobs at local hospitals have also drawn new residents, many of them younger. And a new congressional map imposed by the Democratic-led state Supreme Court in 2018 added Democratic and moderate voters to what was once a staunchly Republican district.

Perry, elected under the more conservative district map, has been a die-hard Trump ally, sitting in the front row at his impeachment hearings and defending the president at news conferences. “Vote Perry. Help Trump,” read one recent digital ad.

A Facebook ad paid for by the campaign of U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) encouraged people to vote by mail.
Facebook
A Facebook ad paid for by the campaign of U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) encouraged people to vote by mail.

In an interview, he criticized Wolf’s response to the coronavirus while praising Trump.

“The president has handled this as well as anybody could, as a matter of fact better in some cases than anybody could,” Perry said.

An Iraq War veteran and retired Army colonel, Perry also saw partisan politics in recent criticism of Trump over reports that Russia offered bounties for the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. American investigators are examining the death of a Marine from York, in the district, as potentially linked to the scheme, according to the New York Times.

Echoing Trump, Perry described the intelligence as “uncorroborated,” and said its disclosure “jeopardized any possible way of proving Russia might have been doing this.” The information reportedly appeared in the president’s daily written intelligence brief earlier this year.

Perry said it was the “height of arrogance” and “profoundly disrespectful to drag this community through this.”

While Democrats say he’s too far right for his district, Perry said he simply doesn’t like to see government waste and supports American traditions: “If that makes me conservative, then I guess I’m conservative.”

Perry faced a tougher race than expected in 2018, winning by less than three points. This year, he has already spent more than $867,000 on such things as mail, polling, and digital advertising, records show, even though he ran uncontested in the GOP primary.

His allies say the district still favors Republicans. They plan to paint DePasquale as too liberal, and a potential part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s majority.

“Was there slippage two years ago? Sure, there was a little bit of a transition” in the district, said David Feidt, chairman of the Dauphin County Republicans. “Has it somehow transitioned dramatically since the last time Scott was on the ballot a year and a half ago? I don’t think it has.”

On the other hand, the evenly balanced 1st District is always a top national target.

Fitzpatrick is one of just two Republicans nationwide seeking reelection in a district carried by Hillary Clinton, and he’s the last House Republican in Philadelphia’s collar counties.

“Perry sees his path to victory as simply turning out the Republican base, whereas Fitzpatrick knows he needs a few Democrats and independents to vote for him to win,” said Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The conservative Heritage Foundation gives Perry a 98% voting score, but just 23% for Fitzpatrick, the highest and lowest among Pennsylvania House Republicans.

Democrats have struggled for years to beat either Brian Fitzpatrick or, before him, his brother Mike, who also held the seat and who is now deceased. The longer the Fitzpatrick winning streak goes, Democrats worry, the harder it becomes to persuade top-tier candidates to run.

Many in the party fear they face an uphill battle again this year, though they hope that a Trump wipeout could carry them to victory. As of May 13, Democrat Christina Finello, an Ivyland Borough council member, had $82,500 in her campaign account, though her campaign said it raised $200,000 more in June alone. Fitzpatrick, however, had $1.8 million in his campaign fund as of June 30.

Finello argues that Fitzpatrick has sided with Trump on the most important votes, including impeachment. But the congressman established enough of an independent image to survive in the 2018 Democratic wave.

An emerging Trump Country?

The GOP sees its best opportunity to flip a Pennsylvania seat in the 8th District, which includes historically Democratic urban centers like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre but also more rural areas. Trump carried the district by almost 10 points in 2016 as the region, like many other predominantly white, working-class areas, saw a dramatic realignment.

Republicans say that spells trouble for Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, especially after his vote in favor of impeachment. Republican nominee Jim Bognet grew up in Hazleton, and his father owns a small business there. Democrats plan to highlight another part of Bognet’s biography: his career as a traveling political operative before he moved back to the state to run for office.

Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping to hit back in two more traditional suburban battlegrounds they lost in 2018. They’re targeting Susan Wild, who won the Lehigh Valley-based 7th District by 10 points in 2018, and Conor Lamb, who represents a right-leaning district outside Pittsburgh.