In the Fox & Hound sports bar, next to a shopping mall in suburban Philadelphia, four Democrats are giving speeches to potential voters as they begin their journey to try to unseat Republican congressman Pat Meehan in next year's elections.
Winning this congressional district — Pennsylvania's 7th — is key to Democrats' hopes of gaining the 24 seats they need to retake the U.S. House of Representatives next November. The stakes are high — control of the House would allow them to block President Donald Trump's legislative agenda.
On the surface, Democrats face a significant hurdle. In nearly two-thirds of 34 Republican-held districts that are top of the party's target list, household income or job growth, and often both, have risen faster than state and national averages over the past two years, according to a Reuters analysis of census data.
That is potentially vote-winning news for Republican incumbents, who in speeches and television ads can trumpet a strengthening economy as a product of Republican control of Washington, even though incomes and job growth began improving under former Democratic President Barack Obama.
"The good economy is really the only positive keeping Republicans afloat," said David Wasserman, a congressional analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Still, trumpeting the good economy may have limited impact among voters in competitive districts like this mostly white southeast region of Pennsylvania bordering Delaware and New Jersey, which has switched between both parties twice in the past 15 years.
Many of the two dozen voters that Reuters interviewed in the 6th and 7th districts agreed the economy was strong, that jobs were returning and wages were growing. A handful were committed Republicans and Democrats who always vote the party line. About half voted for Meehan last year, but most of those said they were unsure whether they would vote for him again in 2018.
Some said they were disappointed with the Republican Party's handling of health care and tax reform as well as Trump's erratic performance. About half also felt that despite an improving economy, living costs are squeezing the middle class.
Drew McGinty, one of the Democratic hopefuls at the Fox & Hound bar hoping to unseat Meehan, said the good economic numbers were misleading.
"When I talk to people across the district, I hear about stagnant wages. I hear about massive debt young people are getting when they finish college. There's a lot out there not being told by the numbers," he said.
Still, Meehan, who won by 19 points in last November's general election, is confident the strong economy will help him next year. He plans to run as a job creator and a champion of the middle class.
"The first thing people look at is whether they have got a job and income," Meehan said in a telephone interview.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried the district by more than two points in the White House race, giving Democrats some hope that they can peel it away from Republicans next November.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the election will essentially be a referendum on Trump.
The economy might help Republicans, he said, but other issues will likely be uppermost in voters' minds, like the Republican tax overhaul — which is seen by some as favoring the rich over the middle class — and Trump's dismantling of President Barack Obama's initiative to expand health care to millions of Americans, popularly known as Obamacare.
Indeed, health care is Americans' top concern, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month. Next is terrorism and then the economy.
"Health care will be the No. 1 issue," in the election, predicted Molly Sheehan, another Democrat running to unseat Meehan.
Democrats have warned that dismantling Obamacare will leave millions of Americans without health coverage, and political analysts say Republicans in vulnerable districts could be punished by angry voters. Republicans argue that Obamacare drives up costs for consumers and interferes with personal medical decisions.