What’s the key to beating President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania in 2020?

The Democratic presidential candidates mostly aren’t campaigning here yet. But they are trying to convince voters in early states who are obsessed with “electability” that they can win critical battlegrounds like Pennsylvania. Trump won the state by less than 1% in 2016, which along with razor-thin victories in Michigan and Wisconsin helped elevate him to the White House. Pennsylvania is expected to play a similarly decisive role this year.

There’s no special formula for Democrats to win back a state they lost for the first time since 1988. But House Democrats who flipped Republican districts in the midterm elections say their 2018 victories offer some clues.

In interviews, they favored unity and a positive message over pugilism. They supported pragmatic proposals on issues like health care and immigration. And they said the Democratic nominee should try to win over swing voters who may have backed Trump last time.

“I think people are not just wanting, but craving, somebody who will be a unifier,” said Rep. Susan Wild, who represents a Lehigh Valley district Trump narrowly lost but had long been held by the GOP. “Who will respect different types of people, different opinions, different points of view. And won’t talk down to anybody, won’t make fun of anybody.”

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who became the first Democrat to represent Chester County in Congress since the 1850s, emphasized the importance of not getting distracted by Trump.

“What we’re for — not who we’re against — is really an important message,” Houlahan said. “That is not only a winning message but it’s the right message. People want to know you are not running against things but rather that you represent positive change.”

Wild added: “I wouldn’t spend one second talking about Trump. I’d spend time talking about why I can bring things back from the brink.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan.
BRADLEY C BOWER
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan.

Democrats have been consumed by what approaches to take against Trump in the general election. And if the disarray from Monday’s Iowa caucuses is any indication, the Democratic primary is shaping up as a long, messy fight between the liberal and more centrist wings of the party. Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have been locked in a virtual tie in Iowa for days. It remains to be seen whether the results of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary will offer any clarity.

For his part, Trump emerged from his Senate impeachment trial with an acquittal and the highest approval ratings of his presidency, according to Gallup. During his State of the Union address Tuesday, Trump previewed his reelection message by heralding a “great American comeback” and casting his presidency as a bulwark against socialism and illegal immigration.

‘Stop having these debates that are about symbolism’

In March 2018, Conor Lamb won a special election in a Western Pennsylvania district that Trump carried by almost 20 points, giving Democrats their first big victory of the year. (Because of a change in congressional maps imposed by the state Supreme Court, Lamb now represents a district that Trump would have won by fewer than 3 points. The same redrawing also made Houlahan’s and Wild’s districts less Republican.)

“I would be looking for any presidential nominee to come in and just be very straight with working people about how you’re going to defend their jobs, how you’re going to get their paychecks up, their drug prices down,” he said.

Lamb said he opposes proposals championed by some on the left — including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — to create a single-payer health-care system. “I don’t see it as a very realistic answer to the problems people are having in my district,” he said.

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb.

Sanders, Warren, and other candidates have also called for decriminalizing illegal border crossings.

“I don’t agree with it, and again I think it’s unrealistic," Lamb said. “We need to stop having these debates that are about symbolism, that are about tweets or about emotion — or I don’t know what they’re about.

“We need to talk about proposals that can actually command a majority support in Congress and among the American people,” he added. “Our No. 1 task has to be to start trying to bring people back together and get some kind of concerted action in D.C. and get things done.”

Lamb and Houlahan have both endorsed Biden and campaigned for him in Iowa. Wild said she would not endorse a candidate in the primary.

They all said their party must make clear to voters that Trump and Republicans in Congress tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and the administration is now trying to gut it in court.

“I think we have to be unified as a party that every American has a right to quality affordable health care," Wild said. “That has to be the No. 1 message. That really is the overriding difference I think between Democrats and Republicans in Washington.”

The Trump economy

Perhaps the president’s strongest argument for reelection is the economy. A Gallup poll released this week found that 63% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, up 6 points from November, and the highest marks for any president in almost 20 years.

Democrats said they still saw an opening for their party’s nominee on the issue.

“There are a lot of people … who are comfortable, whose holdings are going nicely,” Wild said. “The vast majority of working Americans are still struggling to get by.”

As Lamb put it: “It’s fine for us to say we’re happy there are some great economic indicators out there. But most Americans don’t own stock. ...We want to see people’s paychecks go up. We believe health-care premiums and drug costs are shrinking and hurting the middle class.”

Raising the minimum wage and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, Lamb said, would put more money in people’s pockets. “Then the money actually is spent in real towns in Western Pennsylvania, as opposed to on Wall Street or wherever else money gets spent by the wealthy,” he said.

Win back Obama-Trump voters, or mobilize new ones?

Trump won Pennsylvania in part by flipping working-class counties that had voted for Barack Obama. Democratic activists and party leaders have debated whether they should focus on winning back those Obama-Trump voters or on mobilizing scores of new voters.

Lamb pointed to his special election in a district that overwhelmingly favored Trump over Hillary Clinton as evidence that Democrats can win back swing voters. “But it matters how you talk, it matters what issues you emphasize,” he said. “You gotta know the industries, the jobs, the economic life of Western Pennsylvania. That has to be your focus.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Susan Wild.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Susan Wild.

Wild said that the party should try to turn out new and sporadic voters but that they can’t be the only or even the primary focus. “You’ve got to be able to excite the true, consistent super voters,” she said. “And by excite, I don’t mean you have to be revolutionary or you have to do something kind of crazy that nobody else is doing.”

“They’ve got to feel really good about you,” Wild said.

Wild had another piece of advice — or maybe a plea. “One thing I’m telling the campaigns: You really need to come to my district,” she said. “I have the big swing district in the big swing state. You need to know how my voters feel.”

“I know they’ve got a lot of places they need to be,” Wild continued. “They’ve all made it to Philadelphia for fund-raisers. And they’ve all made it to New York for fund-raisers. We’re right smack in between them. Come visit us.”