NEW CUMBERLAND, Pa. — Scott Perry might be the most loved congressman in Pennsylvania right now. And the most loathed.
Democrats, devastated by their failure to defeat the Harrisburg-area Republican in a region where they thought they were making headway, are outraged by revelations of his connection to a failed scheme to help former President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election results.
Republicans, devastated by Trump’s loss, see the Iraq war vet and staunch conservative as one of the last remaining politicians in their corner, still fighting for an election they wrongly think was stolen.
The split reflects the complicated, polarized politics of central Pennsylvania, with Perry at the center of a problem facing both parties: how to unite and move forward after a mixed-bag election of wins and losses.
Perry confirmed late last month that he introduced Trump to a sympathetic Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, who discussed a plan to oust department leadership and use the country’s top law enforcement agency to invalidate Georgia’s Electoral College votes. It’s unclear how much Perry was involved other than connecting Trump and Clark. But for months he’s been one of the most vocal Pennsylvania Republicans in pushing Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, including voting against certifying President Joe Biden’s win in the state.
“There’s shock. There’s anger. There’s particularly the sense of, ‘How can he really be my representative?’” said Susan Roller, a Democratic activist organizing “Fire Perry Fridays” — protests every other week outside his York, Wormleysburg, and Harrisburg offices. The new group is modeling itself after Tuesdays with Toomey, which formed in opposition to Sen. Pat Toomey. Activists are also writing letters to Perry’s corporate donors.
Perry’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. But Republican officials, activists, and voters in his district said his star is only on the rise, and pushed back on the notion that his support for Trump will backfire.
“This does not hurt Scott Perry,” York County GOP chairman Jeff Piccola said. “His people are rallying around him, promoting him for higher office.”
Perry won reelection in the 10th Congressional District by seven percentage points, a big margin for a race analysts saw as one of the country’s more competitive contests. He did so partly thanks to big turnout from Trump supporters and a robust, in-person campaign.
As Perry spoke at Baptist churches and drove cars around the dirt track at York’s speedway, his opponent, Eugene DePasquale, largely avoided in-person campaigning.
“We made the right moral decision, but clearly it had an impact politically,” said DePasquale, the former state auditor general.
Limited public polling suggested a tight race. But internal surveys by DePasquale’s campaign missed about 40,000 voters who turned out for Perry. Linda Meyers Drei, a Republican activist in York who volunteered on Perry’s campaign, likely registered some of them at the racetrack or through pastors whose congregations got involved in Perry’s campaign.
“We realized these were the people we needed to get,” Meyers Drei said. “They were the true-blue conservatives, but they were registering to vote for the first time in their 60s. And Scott was relatable. He drove a race car. He’d say to them, ‘What can I do for you?’ And he means it.”
Although Biden won Pennsylvania, many other Democrats lost as Biden voters supported Republicans down-ballot. That ticket-splitting didn’t play a big role here. Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance in the district but still lost by three points. And Biden outperformed DePasquale only in a few areas, such as Hershey, York, and Camp Hill.
Perry prevailed thanks to big margins in more rural parts of Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg, a county where DePasquale needed to run up the score but won only 52% of the vote. Democrats improved in fast-growing Cumberland County, but not by enough. And Perry crushed DePasquale in York, the most Republican county in the district. Voter turnout was about 80% in York, and the county went for Trump by about 60,000 votes, his largest raw margin in the state.
“Their voter turnout was historic and I think that clipped us,” DePasquale said.
DePasquale hasn’t ruled out a 2022 rematch. The House Democrats’ campaign arm is in talks with him, a source close to DePasquale said. He sent out fund-raising emails blasting Perry last week.
A moderate Democrat, DePasquale was seen as an ideal candidate for the area. But now Democrats are divided over what went wrong and what to do next. Some think DePasquale made mistakes such as aligning himself too closely with the party’s progressive wing. (He held several fund-raisers with candidates endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders.) Others think he wasn’t progressive enough or that a nonwhite candidate could have boosted turnout in Harrisburg, the district’s largest city.
Democrats hope that by reminding voters of Perry’s ties to Trump, they’ll capture moderate Republicans in 2022 and mobilize the district’s growing number of Democrats. In the last month, some Republicans have changed their voter registration, mostly to independent.
“We need to make sure voters don’t forget what he’s done,” said Rogette Harris, the Dauphin County Democratic chair. “When you meet him one-on-one, he’s very nice. But it’s about what they do when they’re in Congress, not what they do when they’re at the church picnic.”
Democrats also hope that in 2022, with Trump off the ballot and his supporters potentially less energized, any challenge will be stronger. And the decennial redrawing of congressional maps could make the district more competitive. Every race will matter in determining control of the closely divided U.S. House.
Nicholas Sones, a local Democratic strategist, said the party should focus on Perry’s support for Trump’s false election claims. Perry won on the same ballots and under the same rules he later painted as illegitimate.
“What Congressman Perry attempted to do was deny every Pennsylvanian their right to vote,” Sones said.
It remains to be seen how much that kind of message will resonate. Perry is appealing to voters who just got him reelected and are happy with what he’s doing.
Six Republicans from the district gathered last week for lunch in New Cumberland — just south of Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River. They came to talk with Piccola, the York GOP chair, and a reporter about Perry and the party’s future. All six were college-educated, some with multiple degrees, and have largely sworn off mainstream news in favor of conservative websites. Each doubted the results of the presidential election and celebrated Perry’s questioning of it.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud in Pennsylvania’s presidential election. Republicans argue that the rules used to administer the election were unlawful, but courts, including Trump-appointed judges, have rejected that claim. The postelection controversy has been stirred by unfounded claims of fraud, leading about three-quarters of Republicans to doubt the results, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.
“Everything [Perry] did was legal,” said Anita Marchesani, a psychologist and judge of elections who lives in Manchester Township. “You want to call it ‘highly distasteful’? Ninety-eight percent of politics is highly distasteful. He said he’d support the president and that has been very, very important to me.”
Marchesani, who attended the Jan. 6 protest in Washington but didn’t participate in the deadly Capitol attack, said she sees no connection between what Perry did and the insurrection.
“The tension of opposite ideas is what has made this nation great,” said Kathy Beckford, a York baker who is originally from West Philadelphia. “That’s what created this society, but now that’s gone and it’s ‘This is the narrative. There can be no dissent.’”
Beckford, whose father emigrated from Jamaica, said she’s particularly fed up with a “cancel culture” that she feels unfairly targets her, a Black woman, as racist for supporting Trump and Perry.
“When you have a lot of people who aren’t being listened to, for one, they’re going to try to find somebody who is going to listen to them,” Beckford said. “I think that’s the whole reason Trump was voted into office. But now, it’s even worse. You can’t even have a question of fraud. You’re dismissed.”
That frustration has such Trump supporters as David Chiaverini questioning whether he will keep voting.
“I feel something was not right,” Chiaverini said. “And until someone tells me otherwise, I am not going to be comfortable that when I vote the next time that my vote is going to be properly counted. My fear is that like-minded people, that are not idiots ... are going to get disenchanted with the process.”
Piccola said keeping voters engaged without Trump on the ballot and despite the election legitimacy doubts he fanned is an obstacle for the party moving forward.
“Scott Perry, he helps with that task,” Piccola said. “Because people here, they might be fed up with politics but they trust him.”