Like his seven Republican rivals before him, Stephen Bloom had delivered all the conservative bona fides to the crowd at the social hall in rural southern Pennsylvania when he offered a sweetener: He will visit often if he’s elected to Congress.
The worry about being ignored was on the minds of some, if not many, of Thursday night’s attendees since a court-ordered redrawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts separated Adams County from its sitting congressman in the county next door.
Now, Adams County is in a sprawling new district, as Republican voters there sort through eight candidates for the open seat and confront the reality that their next congressman could live 80 miles (128 kilometers) away.
“I’m just up the road in Cumberland County,” Bloom told about 100 people at the Adams County Republican Party event. “I come down here to Adams County a lot. If, in fact, I am elected, I’ll be coming through Adams County every single time I go to D.C. and every single time I come home, so I will always have you in mind.”
Pennsylvania’s perfect storm of new district boundaries, the most open seats in decades and Democrats’ passionate anti-Trump fever has propelled a tidal wave of candidates into congressional primaries. All told, 84 candidates are seeking Democratic or Republican party nominations for 18 seats in Pennsylvania’s May 15 primary election. That’s the most since 1984, when there were 23 seats.
Three primary races are so crowded that a candidate could win with far below 20 percent of the vote. It’s left undecided voters to sort through rushed and wide-open primaries — March 20 was the candidate filing deadline — that, in some cases, are the de facto general election in heavily conservative or liberal districts.
Simply winning a drawing for first position on the ballot could provide a crucial edge to a candidate when voters are undecided.
“If it says, ‘vote for one,’ a lot of times they’ll just vote for the first one if they don’t know anybody, if they don’t have a name to look for,” said Betsy Hower, Adams County’s Republican Party chairwoman.
In the solidly conservative 13th District stretching along 120 miles of southern Pennsylvania’s border, Bloom and seven other Republicans are competing for the party nomination that will all but determine the successor to retiring Rep. Bill Shuster, who with his father before him has held the seat a combined 46 years.
In southeastern Pennsylvania, 10 Democrats are vying to win the new heavily Democratic 5th District and succeed the now-resigned Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan in what had been viewed as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.
In the Allentown area’s new 7th District, six Democrats are competing for the nomination in a seat being vacated by seven-term Rep. Charlie Dent. In the district, viewed as a tossup in the general election, candidates diverge on core Democratic Party issues, and it is driving the race.
In recent days, John Morganelli, the longtime Northampton County district attorney, drew attacks from California-based billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s NextGen and Washington-based Emily’s List, a politically influential group that backs women candidates who favor abortion rights. The crux of the criticism is Morganelli’s opposition to abortion rights and the immigrant-friendly policies of sanctuary cities, providing an opening to compare Morganelli to President Donald Trump.
Emily’s List endorsed Susan Wild and Greg Edwards received an endorsement and a visit Saturday from liberal icon Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator. Meanwhile, a super PAC whose donors include Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and former Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig is attacking Wild and Edwards, presumably to help Morganelli.
By comparison, the 5th District race is genteel as candidates seek endorsements to separate themselves from the pack and Philadelphia’s powerful electricians’ union spends heavily to boost its favored candidate, Rich Lazer.
In the 13th District race, social media has provided a window into the underbelly of the struggle between candidates. There are accusations over sign-stealing, which candidate is an insider and which isn’t conservative enough.
For Rebecca Makdad and a group of friends who came to see the candidates Thursday night, it was likely the last, best opportunity to make up their minds.
“They come into this area where they don’t know anybody here,” Makdad said, “and we don’t know them.”