In a normal election year, the campaign for a Pennsylvania congressional seat that made waves last cycle would be clear-cut. But the coronavirus has upended the political playbook for candidates and pundits looking ahead to the June 2 primary.
In the 5th Congressional District, composed chiefly of Delaware County along with a chunk of South Philadelphia and a sliver of Montgomery County, incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon has, by all conventional indications, a strong advantage in the November general election. But in the absence of conventional primary campaigning tools, and the district’s changing relationship with the national Republican Party, the GOP race is an open question.
Scanlon, 60, a former attorney with the firm Ballard Spahr and onetime Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board president, won her seat in 2018 after emerging from a crowded Democratic primary race. She was part of a wave of female candidates elected to national office across the country, and one of four Democratic women to win in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The area now constituting the 5th Congressional District had long been a Republican stronghold. But in 2018, Democrats got an opening after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s gerrymandering decision. The redrawn electoral map is more competitive than it has been in the past. However, according to state data, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 272,112 to 170,818 in the district, with 63,588 voters who don’t belong to either party.
Two styles of suburban Republican
In the Republican primary, one candidate is campaigning as a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, while the other is holding up a more traditional fiscal approach to regional policy issues. But so far, neither has received significant support from the party.
Dasha Pruett of Drexel Hill is a first-time candidate who was drawn into politics by an interest in supporting Trump’s administration and concerns over what she sees as alarming leftward trends among Democrats. The 50-year-old financial administrative assistant and photographer emigrated from the Soviet Union with her family when she was 10 years old, and her campaign rhetoric frequently touches on the perils of socialism.
“It’s just inexcusable to me,” Pruett said of early support among Democrats for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential campaign, one of the factors in her decision to run.
On issues, Pruett pointed to several hot-button national topics that she’d focus on if elected to Congress: pulling federal funds to Planned Parenthood, infrastructure improvements, and removing regulatory red tape from business and development. She faults Scanlon for giving attention to the House impeachment proceedings instead of listening to constituent concerns.
Pruett is a strong supporter of Trump, even campaigning with the slogan “Make Delco Great Again.”
“I like that he’s a businessman,” she said.
Though she believes the president is sometimes uncouth and says things she doesn’t agree with, “he gets things done.”
By contrast, the other candidate in the Republican primary, 54-year-old Rob Jordan, a senior sales executive with Highmark Blue Cross, is campaigning largely on a platform of fiscal growth for the district. That includes expanded manufacturing, improving the private health care system, and expanding the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts.
“I want to keep that prosperity going,” Jordan said.
Having grown up in the region, the Marple Township native said he is in a strong position to court both committed Republicans and unaffiliated voters who may not be fans of Scanlon. And as a leader in the gay community, he believes he can expand his base of support in the general election by pulling in more open-minded district residents.
Though a first-time candidate, Jordan has worked for campaigns in the past, and he believes that, along with his intimate knowledge of the district’s communities, gives him a primary advantage.
“I know I am going to win Tuesday,” he said.
A close watcher of state politics is less sure what the outcome will be.
“The party has become, in many ways, the party of Donald Trump,” said Christopher Borick, who runs the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College. “I think it’s hard to win a Republican primary in any district, even a district like the 5th, without having a strong connection to the president.”
He sees Jordan’s views as aligned with older Republican attitudes in the district, while Pruett’s strong embrace of the president could give her an advantage in the party primary that may not translate well in the general election. But, Borick conceded, there is not much data.
“I have no polling on this at all,” he said of the 5th district primary.
For her part, Scanlon is running on a platform of continuity.
“My priorities remain the same: We need to do all we can to support our children and families in this region and across the country, and ensure that our government works for everyone,” she said in a written response to questions while votes are being held in Washington.
Scanlon is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. Though another candidate, Lou Lanni, initially filed to challenge her, a state court ruled in March that he lacked the 1,000 valid signatures required for eligibility, and his name was removed from the ballot.
The money gap
Scanlon has raised the most money. According to Federal Election Commission reports, the campaign collected $869,378 in contributions since the start of 2019, including many from unions, large business groups, and political action committees.
Neither of the Republican candidates has come close to that. Jordan raised just $2,810 and put $10,000 of his own money toward the campaign. Pruett collected $10,890 from a handful of individual donors. Both say that it is difficult asking supporters for money at a time when so many people in Pennsylvania are out of work due to the pandemic and its impact on the economy.
The coronavirus is also creating barriers for new candidates to connect with voters, recruit new donors, and garner name recognition. With the disease still spreading and social distancing protocols in place, it isn’t exactly feasible to knock on doors around the district. And with in-person meetings and traditional fundraising events nearly impossible, both Pruett and Jordan say they are reaching out digitally to win supporters. That might be a disadvantage for candidates who thrive on retail politics and face-to-face meetings.
“I’m more of a hands-on guy,” Jordan said of the new challenges.
Pruett said that with the conventional primary campaign playbook out the window, creativity and a novel digital presence may serve to benefit her campaign.
“You’ve got to be smarter than your average bear,” she said, pointing to Trump’s winning 2016 online strategy as an example of a successful digital disruption to normal politics.
Currently, national Republican groups are not spending on either candidate. Borick thinks it’s unlikely there will be much financial support after the primary, regardless who emerges from it, a sign that the party sees a Democratic victory as a foregone conclusion.
“I would be shocked if Republicans at the national level targeted this race as one that they would like to put a lot of resources in,” Borick said. “I don’t think it’s on their radar.”
Scanlon, he said, has the advantage of incumbency, substantial financial support, and the remapped district’s demographic dynamics on her side. Even if there weren’t a global pandemic reshaping the tactics of congressional campaigning, it would be a “Herculean task” to overcome all those obstacles, according to Borick.
“Whoever emerges from the Republican primary has a very uphill battle in the general election,” he added.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!