Drawing the Line: Redistricting in Pennsylvania’s 15th District
Laura Quick, a UPS package car driver in Lebanon County since 2004, knocks on doors for a living. In the next couple months, she plans to knock on 10,000 Pennsylvania doors but not to deliver packages. Laura Quick is running for Congress.
In 1999, Quick took time off from her career as a French teacher to raise her newborn son, Merrick. But when she sought to return to her teaching career, the only employment available to her was to be a substitute teacher—a position that would leave both her and her son without healthcare coverage. So Quick set out in search of a job that would allow her to support them both, first working at UPS as a night shift supervisor, then later a package car driver. Quick recalls her difficulties getting healthcare coverage as the “first seeds” of getting to where she is today. Now, Quick has set her sights on Washington.
In doing so, Quick joined a crowded field of twelve primary candidates—six Democrats (Quick included) and six Republicans—vying to represent Pennsylvania’s Fifteenth Congressional District, a position currently occupied by the notably moderate Republican Charlie Dent. But in late January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the state legislature to redraw district boundaries in order to eliminate partisan gerrymandering. After Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature failed to reach a consensus on a reconfigured map by a mid-February deadline, the courts took matters into its own hands. According to the court-produced map that will be used for the May 15th primary, what is now District 15 will soon be divided between three districts: 7, 9, and 10.
Currently drawn, District 15 lacks political uniformity. Stretching from east to west, the district roughly follows the path of Interstate 78, from the Lehigh Valley—home of Allentown, the third largest city in the state—to Hershey, a town with an economy fueled by chocolate and the health sector. It cuts through five counties in total, including half of the politically fickle Northampton, which voted twice for Obama but turned toward Trump in the most recent presidential election. Moving westward, the district captures the whole of comparatively liberal Lehigh County, and rural area of Berks north of Reading. Next comes a chunk of the solidly conservative Lebanon—where Donald Trump captured nearly 65 percent of the vote in 2016—and finally, the piece of neighboring Dauphin County that is home to Hershey, a largely suburban community that tends slightly toward the conservative side.
“Normally, [this race] would not be on anybody’s watch list for obvious reasons,” G. Terry Madonna, Director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, told The Politic before the court handed down its ruling. The obvious reason is that Dent has won the district by thirteen or more percentage points in the past five elections. In any other election cycle, Republican dominance in the 15th District would be a given.
But after seven terms in office, Dent—a standout among congressional Republicans for his readiness to criticize Trump and occasionally oppose his agenda—is ready to call it quits after 2018, a decision he’d been considering since the government shutdown in 2013.
“With no incumbent running, all things being equal, Republicans would have the edge, but a very slight edge,” said E. Fletcher McClellan, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, in an interview with The Politic. With an 84% white majority in the district, minorities aren’t as strongly represented here as on the national level. Rural voters occupy much of the land in Northampton County’s northern tier, as well as the areas west of the Lehigh Valley. Additionally, an unemployment rate of 5.5% (compared to the national average of 4.9%) keeps economic issues at the forefront of political conversation.
“The economy will be on people’s minds,” McClellan said. “For all of Trump’s troubles, the one thing that is still working in his favor is the economy.”
On the flipside, 2018 is shaping up to be a favorable year for Democrats. On the national level, many elections in 2017 have already delivered positive results for Democrats. In PA-15, the 2017 municipal elections saw stronger-than-usual Democratic turnout as well. Barring a Republican upset, the Democrats’ stamina is expected to continue through 2018.
“Midterms after a president comes into office usually aren’t very good for his party,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in an interview with The Politic. “A large part of our DNA is that we don’t like to give the same party control of everything for very long.” According to Borick, the effects of this election cycle could be compounded in districts like the former 15th where the lack of an incumbent, a fairly competitive balance between parties, and historically low presidential approval ratings could perhaps result in the district turning blue.
“It’s like predicting a snowstorm,” Borick said. “You kind of know it’s gonna snow, but lots of little variables could take place to make it two inches or a foot. I think that’s kind of like what the Democrats are dealing with right now. It seems like all of the conditions are right for a storm that’s going to rain down on the Republicans, but it’s just a question of how big it’s going to be.”
And in light of the recent court ruling, this snowstorm has the potential to expand from a flurry to a bomb cyclone throughout the state. Currently, Democrats hold five of Pennsylvania’s eighteen Congressional seats, but Democratic voter registration outweighs Republican registration by a ratio of 5 to 4. The disproportionate number of Republicans representing the state in Congress prompted the majority-Democrat Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the map “clearly, plainly, and palpably” a violation of the state constitution on January 22. Now that the courts have set forth their “compact and contiguous map,” Democrats are likely to win seats in eight to eleven of the newly drawn districts, according to a tweet from David Wasserman, a congressional race analyst from the Cook Political Report. But what does that mean for the strip of the state once represented by Charlie Dent?
Before the court’s decision was announced, most of the candidates running for the 15th were clustered in the Lehigh Valley, with the only geographic outsiders being Republican candidates Mike Pries in Dauphin County, Scott Uehlinger in Berks County, and Democrat Laura Quick in Lebanon County. Those three candidates in particular face the challenge of heavily reconfiguring their campaigns to focus on new geographic areas and face different challengers.
“To some extent, it’s unfair to some of the people who have been working the district for a long time,” said Lebanon County Democratic Committee chairwoman Lois Herr, pointing to the example of Quick, who’s been planning her run since before Charlie Dent announced his retirement. “This is a good thing at a bad time.”
Quick, along with Uehlinger, now finds herself in the new 9th District, which is drawn to include all of Lebanon County as well as several conservative counties to its north. According to analysis by the New York Times, voters in this area chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 34 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, making prospects bleak for the progressive Quick. Pries is now situated in new 10th—which Trump won by a nine-point margin—and may face current District 4 incumbent Scott Perry in a primary, if each candidate chooses to run in the newly-drawn District 10.
The cohort of Lehigh Valley-based candidates are in luck. The entirety of Lehigh and Northampton Counties, as well as a portion of the Democratic-leaning Monroe County to the north, now make up the new PA-7. No sitting Congressman, aside from the soon-to-be-retired Dent, is strongly rooted in the Lehigh Valley and would be likely to present a challenge for the 7th District to the present hopefuls. However, a new challenger—Democrat Rick Daugherty, who twice ran for the 15th District seat against incumbent Charlie Dent—announced his intention to jump into the race for the 7th on February 20th, just one day after the new map was released.
For Democrats in the new 7th District race, winning the general election is looking more promising. Unlike the R+4 District 15 of the present, where Trump carried the 2016 vote by eight points and Dent by 20, Clinton garnered the majority of the votes in the future 7th by one percentage point. Adding to the other factors at play, Lehigh Valley Republicans have the new challenge of a somewhat more liberal district on their hands.
The Republican field will also have to face the inconvenience of the inevitable question of their stance on Trump. And given the midterm timing and overall nature of politics and Washington, voters will care. In the view of G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College Poll, “Democrats are going to want the winner to be four-square with Trump because of Trump’s low job performance.”
Even before redistricting, Republicans seemed to have a good idea of the challenges that await them. “I do think there are political headwinds across the country, and it’s no different here in the Fifteenth District,” Republican candidate Marty Nothstein—an Olympic gold medalist, businessman, and Lehigh County Commissioner who prides himself on the ability to “move things across the finish line”—told The Politic before the court announced its decision.
“I think that conservative voters need to realize that there’s a real fight on our hands,” Nothstein said. “They’re gonna have to come out in force to support the candidate that they believe can win. … [As County Commissioner elected with the highest vote total,] I do feel like I can get Democratic votes. That’s why I feel like I’m the strongest candidate in this race. But we do have to energize our base and get the conservative voters out there.”
The question of where the candidates lie on the political spectrum will also play a role, although it’s unclear what that will be. Looking at the makeup of the current district, Madonna believed the Democratic candidate to replace Dent couldn’t be anyone “way far-left,” but also doubted the ability of a moderate Democrat to motivate voters.
But Borick disagreed. “Things that are energized in Democratic circles might also not be the best attributes for a general election candidate in the district given its Republican lean and demographics,” he said, speaking of the district with its old boundaries. “Interestingly, I think the type of candidate that would probably be best prepared to win the district as a Democrat is someone that is more centrist.”
But the new lines add some uncertainty to the mix. After the announcement of the initial judicial decision to redraw—but before the new map was released—Borick told The Politic that a shift in the district’s boundaries could also affect the place on the political spectrum where a viable candidate would lie. A shift eastward to include fewer red areas on the western end of the district and more blue and purple areas in the portion of Northampton County could hypothetically move overall political alignment leftward, he said, making the district more competitive overall, and open to a more liberal candidate. This scenario is exactly what happened with the new map.
For Democrats—regardless of where the primary winner stands on the political spectrum—the key to winning this election will unquestionably be voter excitement, though the approaches to bringing that energy to the surface make for a matter of debate.
In McClellan’s view, it could be better for the eventual Democratic primary victor to lay low and allow the midterm election to be exactly what midterm elections generally are—a reflection of public opinion surrounding the president.
“In this last election, whether deserved or not, a lot of the Trump vote was not so much pro-Trump as anti-Hillary. Negative partisanship motivates people,” he said. “Probably the less people know about the candidate, the better. Just make this a referendum on Trump.”
But Democratic candidate Greg Edwards believes that this race, along with midterm elections throughout the country, have the potential to be a defining moment for the Democratic Party, and the best strategy is to treat it as so.
“We are the party that creates the large canopy, that doesn’t believe in building walls, but actually believes in expanding the table and placing another seat for those who have had difficulty along the way travelling to the table,” Edwards said. “If we do that, I think we win. If we try to, once again, convince people who are Republicans, who are deeply steeped in an ideology of isolationism and extremity, I think we lose.”
Whether Democrats ultimately seek to run a candidate-driven or an anti-Trump campaign, party leadership in the district is looking to mobilize voters through grassroots support and person-to-person interactions.
Herr said that conservatism in the Lebanon area drives Democrats’ strategy toward “get out the vote” tactics rather than changing opinions. Right now, Herr and the committee are focused on local recruitment and engagement, especially in filling empty committee positions with strong members who will get to know Democratic voters in their areas and encourage them to vote. Right now, there are 70 vacancies, out of 165 total committee positions.
“I’ve found that some people want to join with somebody, whether it’s Bernie or Elizabeth or whoever and fight from that level,” Herr said, “but I try to argue to people, ‘You wanna make a difference? Be local.’”
Meanwhile, Northampton Democrats chair Matthew Munsey seeks to engage with voters who are “in tune” with the Democratic Party, but may not necessarily identify with it. He believes that Trump’s success in the region was largely due to the now-president’s ability to speak to persisting feelings in the region, and future Democratic victories are a matter of honing in on those feelings and offering solutions. Munsey hopes to see the party attract more voters in upcoming elections by “appealing to their bread and butter issues” and offering leadership that will “actually deliver on their concerns.”
With Democrats needing 24 more seats to flip the House, Pennsylvania and its newly-redistricted Congressional map has the potential to be a crucial player in that effort.
“Hopefully, I think there will be a lot of persuasion in 2018. I think there’s going to be a big push for just turning out our base as well,” Munsey said.
Yet, the possibility that Pennsylvania’s Congressional map will remain in its current state through the midterm election is still open. Republicans are preparing to sue in federal courts to block the new redistricting map from going into effect, although it is unclear how a federal court could intervene with this case given that the ruling is based off of interpretation of the state constitution.
But even in a scenario where the present map remains, Pennsylvania remains an important battleground for the Democratic Party, given Dent’s retirement, three other open seats, and several other hotly-contested House races. Although we may never know if a Democrat has the ability to win Charlie Dent’s district in the right circumstances, the Keystone State will hold a fair share of political intrigue in the coming months.