ALLENTOWN, Pa. — At a recent Democratic candidate forum here in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, five hopefuls raised their hands to show their support for abortion rights. One candidate kept his hand down.
North Hampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said after the event that he supports abortion under certain circumstances, but described himself as “a pro-life Democrat like Sen. Bob Casey.”
The question for Morganelli is whether the Democratic Party still has room for candidates like him.
“I don’t know,” he said after the Thursday night forum. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Ahead of the May 15 primary, the intraparty contest in the newly drawn district comes at a time when Democrats are divided over whether to embrace moderate candidates or those who are stridently progressive.
And that debate is playing out in a seat that became more competitive for Democrats, first after Republican incumbent Charlie Dent decided against running for an eighth term, and then when the state Supreme Court imposed a new congressional map for midterms.
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As district attorney and a failed candidate for statewide office, Morganelli has the advantage of high name recognition, operatives watching the race said. But his primary rivals argue it will take more than that to win.
“Name ID is good if it’s very favorable,” said Democrat Greg Edwards after the candidate forum hosted by NextGen America, a progressive group backed by billionaire Tom Steyer that aims to mobilize young voters.
Edwards, the founder and senior pastor of Resurrected Life Community Church in Allentown, said his own endorsements, fundraising and robust field operation make him the strongest candidate in the race.
He led his Democratic opponents in total cash on hand at the end of March, with $237,000 in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Morganelli had $191,000, while former Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild had $105,000.
Edwards has also been endorsed by national groups such as the Service Employees International Union, and sitting lawmakers including Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans.
He made national headlines over a tussle with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Washington Post reported last month that the DCCC asked local leaders if Edwards, who is African-American, and Wild, the only woman in the race, would consider running for the state Senate. The DCCC noted it did not ask the two to drop out, but was gauging potential options after the new district lines were drawn.
While Edwards noted that he is the only candidate of color in the primary, he stopped short of calling the DCCC’s actions racially motivated.
“I don’t know why they did it,” he said. “At least for me, it says that the Democratic Party may have a bit of an identity crisis and not understand where it’s strongest base lies.”
Edwards said he is building a diverse coalition of progressives, young people, African-Americans, Hispanic voters and people in the LGTBQ community.
Many Edwards supporters packed the Thursday night forum, including Marisa Ziegler, who was with her wife, Andrea. Both are volunteering for Edwards’ campaign.
“He’s the most progressive candidate, in my opinion,” said Marissa Ziegler, who identified herself as very liberal.
Wild said she is courting a similar group of voters to support her campaign, including women.
Operatives have described Morganelli, Wild and Edwards as the three front-runners. The other Democrats in the race include retired social services worker David Clark, college professor Roger Ruggles, and Rick Daugherty, an executive director of a community center who twice unsuccessfully challenged Dent.
Wild has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, although the group’s independent expenditure arm has not yet spent in the primary. She and most of the other Democrats have taken progressive positions like supporting universal health care and banning assault weapons.
“I really believe that we are going to have … not just a blue wave, but a progressive blue wave this year,” Wild said. “And I want to be part of that.”
But she said she could appeal to moderates by emphasizing her ability to compromise and be “the grown-up in the room.”
Both Wild and Edwards said they can overcome Morganelli’s name recognition by outworking him on the campaign trail.
But one Pennsylvania Democratic consultant noted that it’s not clear if the other candidates have enough resources to simultaneously boost their own name ID and highlight Morganelli’s positions that could hurt him in a primary, such as his November 2016 appeal to President-elect Donald Trump, expressing interest in working for him.
One issue that clearly divided the candidates Thursday night was immigration.
Morganelli is known for his hard-line stances on illegal immigration. The liberal crowd groaned when he said he would not support so-called sanctuary cities. He quickly gave up trying to explain his position, saying later that he did not want to fight with the audience.
The topic could play a key role in the primary, especially in the increasingly diverse district. Lehigh County has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the state — roughly 23 percent, an increase of more than 4 points from 2010 — according to estimates from the Pennsylvania State Data Center.
Edwards suggested the issue could boost turnout in the primary among voters who are “fearful” of a candidate who does not support sanctuary cities, or jurisdictions that do not comply with federal immigration law.
“I mean, they’re literally voting for their lives and their families,” he said.
A boost in turnout could shake up the primary, especially with such a crowded field. (Pennsylvania does not have runoffs.) Strategists suggested a candidate could win the primary with about one-third of the vote.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face either Dean Browning, a former Lehigh County commissioner, or Marty Nothstein, who currently serves on the county commission. Nothstein is well-known in the district for winning a gold medal in cycling in the 2000 Olympics.
The candidates and voters at Thursday’s Democratic forum were optimistic about flipping the seat, which Dent has held since 2005. The new lines shifted the district from one that Trump took by 8 points to one that Hillary Clinton would have carried by 1 point. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Democratic.
But the Pennsylvania Democratic consultant was concerned about Morganelli’s prospects if he wins the primary. He’s already lost two races for state attorney general — falling in the Democratic primary in 2016 and in the general election in 2008.
“Every time John Morganelli’s run for higher office, it’s ended in failure,” the consultant said. “That does not inspire tremendous confidence.”
Even though liberal voters like Marisa and Andrea Ziegler won’t support Morganelli in the primary, they said they would support him if he is the nominee.
But, Andrea Ziegler said, it would be “through gritted teeth.”
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