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4 primary races to watch in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s primaries set the path toward a pivotal November election.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Weeks after they were originally set to take place in late April, the Pennsylvania primaries are finally happening on Tuesday, June 2.

In March, amid the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation postponing voting in the state. “Delaying this year’s primary election as several other states have done is in the best interests of voters, poll workers and county election officials,” he said at the time.

This election also marks new territory for the state in vote-by-mail, which it’s now allowing without an excuse as to why people can’t vote in person. (The deadline to apply to receive a mail-in or absentee ballot was May 26.) In-person voting is still happening — poll workers will get protection kits — but given the status of the pandemic, people are being encouraged to avoid in-person voting if possible.

Leading up to voting, many officials, activists, and political groups have raised concerns about how this new system will work, especially given the high volume of ballots expected to be returned by mail.

Some nonprofits asked the state to extend the deadline for returning ballots (county election offices are supposed to have received ballots on Tuesday by 8 pm), and on Monday, Gov. Wolf signed an executive order extending the mail-in ballot deadline in six Pennsylvania counties to June 9, which means primary races in Pennsylvania’s first, fifth, 10th, and 18th districts won’t be called on Tuesday. But the races in the state’s seventh, eighth, ninth, and 11th districts may be.

“This is a very strange primary, I’ve never seen one quite like this,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

Much of the campaigning has been virtual, as typical in-person rallies and meetings are off the table. There are no US Senate or governor’s races on the ballot, and many members of Congress and local officials are running unopposed in the primary, making the primaries something of a preview of November’s elections. For example, the state’s 17th District, represented by moderate Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb, is one Republicans have set their sights on flipping. In the fall, he’ll face the only person on the Republican primary ballot: Sean Parnell.

In 2020, all of Pennsylvania’s US House of Representatives seats will be on the ballot, and both Republicans and Democrats hope to flip some seats in the state. There will also be elections for state auditor general, attorney general, and treasurer, for 25 of its 50 state Senate seats, and for all 203 of its state House seats.

Pennsylvania will be a big deal come November in the race for the White House and for Congress. In 2016, it was a key state in swinging the election for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and Democrats are hoping this time around to swing it back. And in 2018, Democrats picked up three House seats there.

This time around, Joe Biden has consistently led Trump in the Pennsylvania polls — according to a RealClearPolitics average, he’s up by more than six percentage points. That doesn’t mean the state will surely go to Biden, but Trump has some obstacles there which could affect candidates underneath him on the ticket.

“The more you think about it, the more you realize that for Trump to win, he has some challenges — he has to pretty much repeat what he did in 2016, but then he can’t get swamped like the Republicans did in the midterms, where they got decisively defeated in the Philly suburbs,” Madonna said.

But with November still months away, here are some of the congressional primary races to keep an eye on Tuesday:

Pennsylvania District 1

Who are the Republicans? Currently, Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District, which includes all of Bucks County and some of Montgomery County in the southeastern part of the state, is represented by Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate first elected in 2016. He is being primaried by Andy Meehan, a businessman, who is running to his right.

Who are the Democrats? Vying to (likely) take on Fitzpatrick in November are Christina Finello, a member of the Ivyland Borough Council, and Skylar Hurwitz, a technology consultant. Another candidate, Debra Wachspress, dropped out in February after making offensive remarks.

What’s the background on the race? Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent and a moderate, is likely to come out ahead in his primary, and he’ll be interesting to watch moving toward the general election. In 2016, Fitzpatrick said he wrote in Mike Pence’s name on his presidential ballot, and his views haven’t always aligned with Trump’s — he often breaks with the president when voting on legislation. But he’s done some shifting in recent weeks to align more with Trump, and it’s worth noting he survived the 2018 blue wave.

Finello, a more moderate Democrat, is favored by the party and has landed important local endorsements. Hurwitz, on the other hand, is running in a more progressive lane and has been backed by the Pennsylvania branch of Our Revolution and the local Sunrise Movement.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has named the district as a target the party wants to pick off. But in an email to Vox, John Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, warned that flipping the seat might not be easy. His organization rates the seat Likely Republican, and he noted that in 2018, Fitzpatrick was reelected even as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey carried the district by double digits. “That type of crossover vote is impressive,” Coleman said. Cook Political Report rates the district Leans Republican.

Pennsylvania’s Seventh District

Who is the Democrat? Rep. Susan Wild currently represents Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District in eastern Pennsylvania that encompasses parts of Lehigh, Monroe, and Northampton counties. The area was previously the state’s 15th District, which was represented by Republican Charlie Dent for more than a decade.

Who are the Republicans? On the Republican side, Dean Browning and Lisa Scheller, both former Lehigh County commissioners, are vying to take on Wild. Both candidates have kicked their own money into their campaigns.

What’s the background on the race? Scheller has earned the backing of some high-profile Republicans, including President Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and multiple Pennsylvania Republicans in Congress. Brown has tried to paint her as too liberal, but it’s unclear if that message has broken through.

The Republican National Campaign Committee (RNCC) has targeted Pennsylvania’s Seventh District as an opportunity for flipping to red come November, and the DCCC lists Wild as one of its “front-line” members — that is, a vulnerable incumbent whom national party resources will be used to defend. The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the seat Leans Democratic.

Pennsylvania’s Eighth District

Who is the Democrat? Rep. Matt Cartwright is the Democratic incumbent representing Pennsylvania’s Eighth District in northeastern Pennsylvania that includes all or parts of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, and Wayne counties.

Who are the Republicans? Half a dozen candidates are competing to go up against Cartwright in the general election: Jim Bognet, Mikel Cammisa, Teddy Daniels, Earl Granville, Harry Haas, and Mike Marsicano.

What’s the background on the race? Trump hasn’t weighed in on this race, even though Bognet is a former appointee to his administration. Rep. McCarthy has backed Granville, a veteran of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Four of the six candidates in the race — Bognet, Granville, Marsicano, and Daniels — have raised more than $100,000.

One particular wrinkle about the Republican primary in this district is how it breaks down by county. Five of the candidates are from Luzerne County, and one, Granville, is from Lackawanna County. Pennsylvania voters tend to prefer candidates from the counties they’re from in the primary, one state political operative told me, and that gives Granville an advantage. The other candidates “are all kind of in a small wading pool competing for voters,” the operative said.

As Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman notes, Republicans think Cartwright is vulnerable because Trump won the district by 9 points in 2016 (though Cartwright won in 2018 by 9 points), and they think having Trump at the top of the ticket will make a difference. But it’s also worth noting that this is Biden’s home district, given that it’s home to Scranton.

Madonna says he understands why Cartwright, like Lamb, is on the GOP’s radar. “I’m not disagreeing with it, but I’ll put it this way, it’s going to be a difficult challenge to defeat them in the fall,” he said.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball lists the race as Leans Democratic, and Cook Political Report has it as a Democratic toss-up. The DCCC has the district as a front-line one, and the RNCC as a target.

Pennsylvania’s 10th District

Who is the Republican? Republican Rep. Scott Perry currently represents Pennsylvania’s 10th District in southern Pennsylvania that includes parts of Cumberland, Dauphin, and York counties. Roll Call lists him as one of the 10 most vulnerable members of Congress come November.

Who are the Democrats? Eugene DePasquale and Tom Brier are facing off on Tuesday in the Democratic primary. DePasquale, the state’s auditor general, is the favorite, while Brier, an attorney and first-time candidate, is running to his left.

What’s the background on the race? Coleman said that Democrats have found their “best possible recruit” to take on Perry in DePasquale. “This is a Trump +9 seat, but DePasquale, who is from York County, carried the district in 2016 — he was the only statewide Democratic candidate to do so,” he explained. Gov. Wolf has endorsed DePasquale as well.

That’s not to say Brier should be completely discounted. He’s proven to be a stronger candidate than expected, and he’s run a spirited campaign. If he wins, it would be an upset, but a scenario that’s not entirely out of the question. Further complicating predictions is the fact that having competitive Democratic primaries in the first place is a relatively new development for the district.

Perry has the most conservative voting record of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. Cook Political Report rates the district as a Republican toss-up, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball as leans Republican. The DCCC has Perry’s seat as a target.

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