Wild campaign: How Lehigh Valley’s first congresswoman rose to power

Two weeks before Election Day, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez was speaking on stage during a rally at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to campaign for local Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.

Susan Wild, running for the state’s new 7th Congressional District, sat just a few feet away from Perez when he prematurely called her “Congresswoman Wild.” The remark was brushed aside with a laugh. Wild cautiously waved it off with an uneasy gesture, wanting to avoid the mere notion of any assuredness as to how the race would turn out.

The moment evoked thoughts of the Presidential election of 2016, when polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win easily until she lost to Donald Trump.

Like Clinton, Wild was looking for a first, and on Election Day the longtime Allentown lawyer became the first woman to represent the Lehigh Valley in Congress.

There are currently no women in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, but Wild was among more than 100 women elected to the House of Representatives this year, including three others from Pennsylvania, Mary Gay Scanlon, Madeleine Dean, and Chrissy Houlahan, representing the Philadelphia suburbs.

Following a redrawing of district maps earlier this year, the Pennsylvania 7th is made up of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton and is the third most populous region in the state. The district includes Northampton County, which voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 but then flipped in 2016 to help make Donald Trump the first Republican to carry the state since 1988.

A supporter wears a pin, originally printed before Pennsylvania’s congressional map was redrawn, at a canvass launch event for Susan Wild, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s new 7th Congressional District, with Senator Bob Casey on Oct. 13, 2018, at a Democratic campaign office in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WHYY)

Wild was ahead in the polls for much of the race, at times by double-digit percentage points over Republican opponent Marty Nothstein, a former Olympic and professional cyclist. But she took nothing for granted and generated a significant ground game of volunteers to canvass and make phone calls to help spread her message throughout the Lehigh Valley.

With stops at area colleges in the month leading up to the election, as well as with support from millennial icon Abbi Jacobson, a co-creator and star of the TV show “Broad City,” Wild reached out to the younger demographics of the region. During a “Meet the Ticket” event at Muhlenberg College, she spoke to students face-to-face to explain how she wanted to defend the environment, protect LGBTQ rights and make college more affordable.

Susan Wild speaks to students during a ‘Meet the Ticket’ event featuring Democratic and Republican candidates Oct. 26, 2018, at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WHYY)

Many young first-time voters had spent the past two years joining marches and protests while taking more of an active role in politics than previous generations. They now wanted to use this year’s midterm election as a referendum on the administration and policies of President Donald Trump.

Wild, however, followed the national Democratic strategy by making her campaign not about the President, but rather about the issues most important to residents of the Lehigh Valley to show how she would work to make their lives better.

Embraced by the Democratic establishment, she was frequently joined by higher-profile politicians to help tap into existing concerns of the constituency. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey was on hand as she spoke to labor unions about workers’ rights, and New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez visited the region as Wild met with leaders in the Latino community.

 

Susan Wild, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s new 7th Congressional District, talks to voters Nov. 6, 2018, at St. Johns Windish Lutheran in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WHYY)

On Election Day, Wild traveled over 100 miles and made more than a dozen stops to polling locations in communities across her district to greet voters outside as they entered to cast their vote. Rain fell for most of the day, which usually suggests sluggish turnout, but it was clear with each stop that turnout was closer to matching that of presidential election years and significantly higher than turnout during normal midterm elections.

As Wild was projected as the winner of the race to represent the Lehigh Valley in Washington, her supporters were already gathered in the suite level at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown to hear Wild make it official and deliver her acceptance speech.

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