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


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.

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.


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.

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.


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