Democrats need a blue wave in Pennsylvania to win back the House. So they're focusing on towns like Bethlehem

Key Points
  • Democrats in key eastern Pennsylvania districts see this fall's midterm House elections as their best, and possibly last chance to push back on President Trump's agenda.
  • Democrats' road to winning back the House this fall begins in Pennsylvania, where a third of the 18 seats up for grabs are considered tight.
  • The party needs to win 23 seats nationwide to flip the House and seize the majority.
A cutout of former President Barack Obama with pro-Susan Wild decorations sits in Shirley Morganelli’s Bethlehem living room.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

Democratic activists in Bethlehem, Pa., have convinced themselves that the stakes can't get any higher. If they are not successful in winning over voters in the city of about 75,000, their goals are more than likely to fall short.

They see this fall's midterm elections, just a little more than four months away, as the best and maybe last shot to push back against President Donald Trump and his agenda.

It's hard to disagree with them.

Democrats' road to winning back the House this fall begins in Pennsylvania, where a third of the 18 seats up for grabs are considered tight. The party needs to win 23 seats nationwide to flip the House and seize the majority.

At a week-ago meeting of Lehigh Valley ROAR — the Rally of American Resistance — local women discussed the problems they say the GOP-controlled government has created: inhumane immigration policy, rising health-care costs and more strained relations with global allies, among others.

Gathered in the Bethlehem living room of nurse Shirley Morganelli — complete with decorated cutouts of 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama — about 20 members listened to Democratic House candidate Susan Wild talk about how they can help her bid for Pennsylvania's 7th District seat through volunteering and word of mouth.

The area is a key swing district in this year's fight for House control. Some locals see aiding the Democrat as their most effective way to change the national discourse.

"She's our hope," one group member said of Wild. "Not to put too much pressure on you," Morganelli responded, to laughter around the room.

The exchange underscored how many on the political left see the midterms as a potential turning point in the effort to push back against Trump and Republicans in Congress.

For Democrats to take the majority in the House, they will need to win a number of districts roughly split by party allegiance. Those include eastern Pennsylvania's 7th District, which Wild hopes to represent, and the neighboring 1st District northeast of Philadelphia, where GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick aims to defend his seat.

The combination of the state Supreme Court revising a GOP-drawn congressional map and a midterm environment favorable to Democrats gives the party an opening to flip multiple House districts in Pennsylvania alone. Democrats in both the 7th and 1st Districts have enthusiasm to spare. They have also employed a strategy that the party considers a winning one in close races this year: tying the Republican tax law to efforts to cut social safety net programs.

Eastern Pennsylvania races appear tight

Scott Wallace
Source: Scott Wallace

Wild, the former solicitor for the city of Allentown, faces Republican Marty Nothstein, a former Olympic cyclist and a member of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners. The 7th District appears to be a strong pickup opportunity for Democrats. Clinton narrowly won the district, which includes the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem, and incumbent GOP Rep. Charlie Dent is retiring.

In the 1st District, the first-term Rep. Fitzpatrick will try to hold off Democrat Scott Wallace in another area Clinton won. The representative has tried to build a moderate brand amid a tough re-election bid.

Top nonpartisan election analysis sites consider the 7th District race either a toss-up or favoring Wild. CNBC could not find public polling for the contest. Wild had roughly $700,000 in cash on hand at the end of June — compared with nearly $200,000 in the bank for Nothstein.

The same nonpartisan handicappers believe the 1st District race is either a toss-up or leans Fitzpatrick’s way. A June poll from Monmouth University found a 1 percentage point lead for both Fitzpatrick and Wallace using two separate models of midterm turnout.

Wallace, a wealthy philanthropist who focuses on efforts such as clean energy, had loaned nearly $5 million to his campaign by the end of June and had about $1.7 million on hand. Fitzpatrick’s campaign has raised significantly less than Wallace’s, but had spent much less and had $1.6 million on hand at the close of last month.

While both eastern Pennsylvania swing districts are critical for the major parties’ hopes for a House majority, the candidates and issues at play have already made them vastly different races months before the general election.

A unique race with some common ground

Scott Wallace supporter Lynda Mintz holds a repurposed campaign sign for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

Wild and Nothstein are running in a pivotal race made more competitive by redistricting. Dent’s retirement also threw another wrench into the race. On Election Day, voters will cast ballots for two races: one to fill Dent’s old, more Republican 15th District seat through January, and another to elect the new district’s representative starting next year.

While both candidates acknowledge the conditions have created complications, they say they have focused on trying to meet the concerns of voters in their ideologically split district. Wild flatly rejected mounting talk from national Republicans that Democrats have gone too far left to win in moderate areas. She said she will focus primarily on policies that will boost working families and young people.

“Each one of us who are elected to the House of Representatives, our job is to represent the people of our district, not the people of San Francisco, or Texas, or whatever. And that’s what I’m going to do,” Wild said last weekend outside the ROAR event in Bethlehem.

Nothstein admitted that he faces a difficult bid for Congress. “The numbers don’t favor us,” he said.

Still, he thinks he can relate to some of the more moderate Democrats who live in the district.

“I think there are a lot of conservative Democrats in this district,” Nothstein said at his Bethlehem campaign office last week. “These are hard-working, blue collar families and individuals. The same way I was raised. I can relate to them. I know what matters most to them.”

The candidates have distanced themselves from one another on many key policy issues. For one, Wild opposes the Republican tax plan passed in December, saying the “real benefit” goes to corporations and high earners rather than the working class. She worries the GOP will offset lost revenue “from the backs of working people” by trimming so-called entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

These are hard-working, blue collar families and individuals. The same way I was raised. I can relate to them. I know what matters most to them.
Marty Nothstein
Republican House candidate

Nothstein wants to make the individual tax cuts contained in the GOP law permanent. He said he has concerns about deficits, but argued that the U.S. has a “spending problem.” Nothstein said the U.S. should look at “a lot of stuff across the board” when considering whether to trim spending.

On health care, Wild said she wants to protect the Affordable Care Act and the protections it provides, such as those for patients with pre-existing conditions. Nothstein wants to repeal the law.

One area where the candidates overlap is on Trump’s tariff policy. Both the Democrat and Republican have taken a measured approach — saying they understand the White House’s desire to target alleged unfair trade practices by China but worry about damage to businesses or consumers.

From 'despondent' to enthusiastic

Though Wild, the Democrat, will likely need to appeal to moderates to win the 7th District, enthusiasm in blue areas such as Allentown and Bethlehem will determine if she can prevail in November.

ROAR started when “despondent” friends got together following Trump’s election, said Morganelli, who hosted the group's recent event. The group then decided to donate to causes such as women’s health organization Planned Parenthood and back candidates for office. Members, who meet once a month, will focus on helping Wild get elected by efforts including canvassing, volunteering at her campaign office and helping to set up events.

Morganelli, who said she has known Wild for 25 years, said the organization of more than 80 members has supported six candidates, including Wild, since November 2016. The previous five candidates on the local level won their races, she said.

Amy Scott, a Bethlehem nurse practitioner, attended her first ROAR meeting last weekend. She cares about issues such as the Trump administration’s separation of migrant children from families and the upholding of Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

“We just need to get a lot more blue going,” she said.

A Republican tries to build a moderate brand

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., talks with guests during a town hall meeting in Bensalem, Pa., on August 22, 2017. 
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Nearby in the 1st District, Republican Fitzpatrick tries to withstand a separate Democratic push. The first-term representative has taken on a tough re-election environment by trying to build a moderate brand.

He voted against the GOP health-care plan last year and recently received an endorsement from a gun-control group backed by ex-Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt. He received the backing of the influential labor group AFL-CIO. Fitzpatrick has also repeatedly called for a bipartisan immigration reform plan.

Still, Democrats have plenty of gripes with him. He voted for the GOP tax plan last year. And while Fitzpatrick opposed a National Rifle Association-backed concealed carry reciprocity bill last year, a Mother Jones report suggests he views the issue differently in private.

Many Democrats in the 1st District do not believe Fitzpatrick’s effort to put distance between himself and Republican leaders is genuine.

“I think Fitzpatrick is another enabler of Trump,” said Wendy Miller, who volunteers for the Democrat Wallace’s campaign.

Fitzpatrick’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

A rich Democrat runs into controversy

Wallace is the grandson of Henry Wallace, who served a term as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president. He previously worked as counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his personal wealth has allowed him to spend heavily to boost name recognition.

For about two decades, he managed the Wallace Global Fund. The organization, which listed about $140 million in assets as of 2017, focused on initiatives related to clean energy, climate change and women’s health.

The organization has caused headaches for Wallace during the race. The Republican Jewish Coalition ran an ad highlighting that the fund gave to groups that back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions push against Israel. Wallace has said another board member made the decision to make those donations. He has called himself pro-Israel.

The donation controversy and Republican Fitzpatrick’s centrist credentials have led to Cook Political Report downgrading Wallace’s chances of winning.

Wallace has focused his candidacy on opposition to the GOP tax law, which he told supporters last week “ripped the heart out of the Affordable Care Act.” It included a provision to repeal the requirement that most Americans have health insurance or pay a financial penalty, which was designed to keep costs down.

Some Wallace supporters are also driven by opposition to the GOP-controlled Congress as a whole.

David Green, a Doylestown, Pa., minister who moved from Texas about a year and a half ago, said he has “nothing in particular” against Fitzpatrick.

“I just want a Democratic House,” he said.