With New Map, Pennsylvania Fields Busy U.S. House Primaries
George Scott got the inevitable question a half-hour into a meet-the-candidate house party in the rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania: How will you inspire all those people in the congressional district who put up Donald Trump signs in 2016?
"Really good question," said Scott, a Democrat, to anxious laughter around the room, before answering.
Motivating the nearly 30 people who came to see Scott was that they actually have a choice in this year's congressional race: a four-way Democratic primary contest in a stretch of Pennsylvania that has been represented in Congress by a Republican for 50 years.
On May 15, Pennsylvanians will settle 21 congressional primary contests, the state's most since 1984. There are 84 candidates, the same number as in 1984 when Pennsylvania had 23 U.S. House seats, compared with 18 now.
Fueling the flood of candidates is Democrats' anti-Trump fervor, as well as seven open seats, Pennsylvania's most in decades.
But also contributing is a court-ordered redrawing of Pennsylvania's congressional districts, wiping out 6-year-old Republican-drawn boundaries that the state Supreme Court deemed to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
The new map is expected to help flip at least two seats to Democrats, and it is giving Democrats extra hope in areas long represented by Republicans where incumbents are seeking re-election in districts that are no longer quite as Republican-friendly.
Victory for Democrats in districts like those might not be necessary to help the party wrest control of the U.S. House in November's elections.
It could, however, help pad a majority.
One of those districts is represented by four-term Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who didn't even draw a challenger for his northwestern Pennsylvania seat in 2016.
Although prognosticators still heavily favor Kelly, the court's modest changes to the district's boundaries substantially boosted Democrats' recruitment efforts, said Bill Cole, Erie County's Democratic Party chairman.
This year, Democrats are fielding a three-way primary race after years of struggling to recruit a challenger to Kelly.
"They always came back with, 'It's not even winnable,'" Cole said.
Another of those districts is represented by three-term Republican Rep. Scott Perry, owner of one of the most conservative lifetime voting records in Congress, based on American Conservative Union ratings.
Perry acknowledges the district will be more challenging for him. But Perry has rebuffed any advice that he change how he votes, he said.
Instead, Perry said, he intends to campaign aggressively and persuade voters who don't know him that they share the same values.
"I think most people when they hear about the things that I believe in, they're the same things they believe in," Perry said in an interview this month.
This year, Scott and three other first-time Democratic candidates are competing for the party nomination to challenge Perry in November.
Scott, a 20-year Army veteran and Lutheran minister, warned the crowd at the house party that Perry remains a formidable opponent.
"A new 10th District is much better electorally than the old 4th District was, but don't get it wrong," Scott said. "This is not going to be easy."
Perry has not won a general election by fewer than 25 percentage points and, in 2016, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the district by 21 points. Under the court-drawn boundaries in effect for this year's election, Trump would have won Perry's home district by just 9 points.
Scott was so affected by Trump's election that he was prepared to challenge Perry under the old boundaries. He filed candidacy paperwork last year, compelled to respond to the hostility of the presidential election trickling down to his community and his congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church.
"That was deeply disturbing and I felt like it was time to do more," Scott, 56, said in an interview.
Two others in the primary — Alan Howe and Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson — also filed last year, and the fourth, Eric Ding, filed in February under the new boundaries.
Such a congressional primary is a relatively novel experience for Democrats in heavily Republican York County, and they are more optimistic about the chances of sending a Democrat to Washington.
The only question is which one.
"There's a lot to like in all the candidates," said Bill Turner, 66, a registered Democrat who had come to meet Scott. "But it's time to decide who can best defeat Scott Perry."