Battle of women in DelCo congressional race

Candidates for Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District, Republican Pearl Kim (left) and Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon, square off during a debate at Delaware County Community College in Delaware. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Candidates for Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District, Republican Pearl Kim (left) and Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon, square off during a debate at Delaware County Community College in Delaware. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In this “year of the woman,” voters in Pennsylvania’s new 5th Congressional District are being treated to something truly rare: a race in which both major party candidates are women.

It’s a battle national analysts count as a likely win for Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon, but it’s interesting for a few reasons.

When congressional districts were re-drawn in January, the new 5th, which includes all of Delaware County, parts of South and Southwest Philadelphia and Montgomery County, was the most Democratic-leaning seat in the Philadelphia suburbs.

No Republican office-holder wanted the party’s nomination, so leaders turned to Pearl Kim, a 38-year old former prosecutor, who’s taken to the race with gusto and put $200,000, which she describes as her life’s savings, into the campaign.

Cutting against the grain

How does an unknown Republican run in a race like this?

Kim’s TV ad never mentions her party affiliation, and in the campaign’s one debate last Thursday, she sounded a lot like a Democrat.

“I’ve come out publicly that I do not agree with the [Trump] administration’s stand on immigration,” Kim said, noting that her parents are immigrants from South Korea. “I think we need to have more legal avenues of immigration, not less.”

To a question about global warming, Kim said, “I think it’s important that everyone recognize that I do believe in climate change. I do not agree that we should have withdrawn from the Paris Accord.”

And on health care, she said, “As a cancer survivor, I certainly think that we should have universal health care.”

At that point, Scanlon made an observation.

“I’m hearing for the first time what my opponent’s positions are on many of these issues,” Scanlon said. “She seems to be running against the Republican Party position, which I understand, because I am as well.”

The second lap

Scanlon has already won a hard-fought race this year.

She had to overcome nine rivals in the Democratic primary. One of them, Rich Lazer, was the beneficiary of $600,000 in spending by a super PAC.

Scanlon tapped a rich fundraising network as a longtime attorney for the mega-law firm Ballard Spahr, and she invested $300,000 of her own money in the campaign.

Now facing Kim in the general election, she wears her Democratic identity proudly, featuring Barack Obama in her TV ads, and in the debate mocking a signature Republican achievement when asked about the growing federal deficit.

“Really, the deficit is higher? How did that happen?” Scanlon said, provoking chuckles from the audience. “Could it have been the tax bill last year – a $1.5 trillion giveaway to corporations and high-income individuals with the thought that maybe this time trickle-down economics will work?”

Celebrity candidate

Kim has had no help from national Republican groups, a sign that party leaders see the race as a lost cause.

But as a Republican among the wave of women candidates, she’s gotten some national coverage from The Washington Post, the New York Times, Vice News, and Van Jones’ show on CNN.

Kim frequently cites her roots as a daughter of Korean immigrants, and says her candidacy itself is history-making.

“There has never been a woman of color elected to Congress in the history of Pennsylvania,” Kim said, “and so by me putting my name in the hat I am already changing the narrative of politics, and I think that’s very important.”

Kim also often describes herself as a sexual assault survivor, and says her disappointment with authorities’ response to her complaint in college motivated her to become a prosecutor who handled sex trafficking cases.

Asked whether she believes Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Kim said she doesn’t have enough information to offer an opinion. She said she did not get to review all of the testimony or all the documents from the hearings including Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh.

Despite Kim’s national exposure, analysts say Scanlon is the clear favorite.

The silver medal

There’s another interesting wrinkle to this race.

U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan represented Delaware County until he resigned in April after a sexual harassment scandal.

While Scanlon and Kim are running in the new 5th district Tuesday, they’re also running in a special election to finish Meehan’s term in the old 7th district.  The district’s bizarrely-shaped boundaries include some of the 5th, but other, more Republican areas as well.

(State law requires a special election to fill the term, even though the winner will serve only until January.)

Does it matter who wins the special, and holds the 7th District for a few weeks until it disappears?

Yes, at least a little, said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick.

If Scanlon wins both races, he noted, she would enter the capitol in January as a second-term representative.

“You’re coming back as a current member of Congress that has seniority,” Borick said, “even for serving a month and a half. You’re not a freshman.”

If Kim wins the special and loses the general, she can spend a few weeks in Washington and forever call herself “former Congresswoman Kim.”

Most voters are probably unaware there will be a special election on some ballots, but if Republican voters who live in the old 7th District pull the straight party lever, that could give Kim an edge.

So both candidates and paying attention to both districts.

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