COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. — Democrats across the country are doing some soul-searching as Congress returns to the nation’s capital. The crowded Democratic primaries taking shape raise questions about whether more liberal candidates can win in Republican districts.
For a sense of how that battle for the party is playing out on the ground, look no further than Pennsylvania’s 7th District.
Democrats are targeting the bizarrely shaped district that includes suburbs and rural areas outside Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 2 points last fall, while GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan was winning re-election by 19 points.
Democrats see an opening here, especially with voters who are unhappy with President Donald Trump. But they’re battling over which candidate can best speak to those voters.
The Democratic primary field includes a liberal state senator, a former Capitol Hill staffer and community leader, a biomedical engineer, a real estate agent, an IT consultant, and a political outsider who has worked in education.
“These primaries present some real challenges for the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and the Democrats at large here,” said a Democratic strategist with ties to the DCCC. “If a candidate wins, who takes out positions that are too extreme, that will be a huge challenge for winning the general election.”
Go to the left?
Here in Collegeville, state Sen. Daylin Leach recently made his case for running against Meehan as a proud liberal.
Collegeville is not technically in the 7th District, but Leach was speaking to the Indivisible Mid Montgomery County group, the local chapter of a national grass-roots movement. So 7th district residents from Montgomery County were there.
Stretching his right and left hands far apart, Leach explained that some people look at the ideological spectrum to figure out who can win a general election.
“The Republican is here,” he said holding his right hand in front of him. Moving his left hand close to his right, Leach said some think, “If a Democrat is just right here, they’ll get all these votes and they’ll win. The problem is it doesn’t work.”
Leach pointed out that Meehan is an affable person whom voters in the district might like and support.
“They aren’t going to fire him for this,” he said, putting his hands close together. “There’s not much difference.”
Leach said the key to winning is to highlight the differences between Democrats and Republicans, and to make the case to voters in both parties that Democratic policies will improve their lives.
“We can be proud progressives and we can win elections that way,” he said after the meeting. “I don’t think we do well when we try to pretend that we’re something we’re not.”
Leach said he can make the case for his policies, and sway moderate Republicans and independents even on issues like the Medicare for all system.
But strategists in both parties say those liberal policies might not win enough GOP voters to win the general election.
“He’s running as ‘I’m going to be the most liberal guy possible and see if I can possibly win this race,’ which understandably would give Democratic national strategists a bunch of heartburn,” one Pennsylvania Democratic consultant said.
Others said Leach’s passion for his positions and unabashed “he is who he is” nature could bolster his campaign.
But the Democratic strategist with ties to the DCCC said the key is making sure voters can hear about that passion and not be overwhelmed by GOP ads.
“Can you get that authenticity across to the several hundred thousand voters you need?” the strategist said. “Or are you staking out positions that can be caricatured” in a television ad?
Pragmatists as well
Other candidates in the race have cast themselves as liberal, but also as pragmatic outsiders who can get things done.
Molly Sheehan, a biomedical engineer, said her evidenced-based approach to problems can resonate with voters on both sides of the aisle.
“I can come to them and honestly say, ‘Me too. I’m also disillusioned with both parties. I think we can do better,’” she said.
Sheehan has received training from 314 Action, a group backing scientists for Congress. She has also worked with EMILY’s List, which backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. She said EMILY’s List is not endorsing in the primary because another woman, Elizabeth Moro, a real estate agent, is also in the race.
Paul Perry, who has an education background, said he is also a unique candidate with a “family-first agenda.”
Perry, who has gay fathers, most recently worked at a nonprofit supporting children of LGBT parents. He has been endorsed by New Politics, a bipartisan group backing candidates with public service backgrounds, and Brand New Congress, a group formed by staffers with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“I’m not a career politician so I’m very much a public servant and am coming at this race from that position of I’ve been working with kids and families my whole life,” Perry said. “I think we need a little bit more of that in Congress.”
Others are casting themselves as the more centrist candidates in a bid to win the primary and be well-positioned for the general election.
Drew McGinty’s campaign website calls him a “Moderate Democrat for Congress.” McGinty, an IT consultant, said people are tired of extremism. Though he acknowledged a message like that could be tough in the Democratic primary where candidates are competing for the party’s base voters.
“That is a challenge. However … there are a lot of moderate Democrats out there too,” McGinty said. “In my opinion, they’re the silent majority.”
Dan Muroff is making the case that while he supports liberal policies, he has the experience that will appeal to general election voters.
Last week, Muroff, who has been endorsed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, spent a warm afternoon canvassing a neighborhood in Delaware County with a local Democratic candidate. With local elections coming up this year, they were reminding people to go to the polls.
The mild-mannered, bespectacled Muroff who worked as a chief of staff in the House, a ward leader in Philadelphia, and president of a gun violence opposition group, said he knows how to get things done. He grew up in Delaware County and recently moved back into the district.
“I have experience for this office,” Muroff said as he walked through the neighborhood. “But I also think I have the right approach to appeal to people in the middle without abandoning my values.”
Primary voters weighing their options will have to choose between all of these candidates, and it’s not yet clear who will come out on top.
A number of strategists consider Leach the likely front-runner since his Senate seat covers part of the district, and he has a sizable liberal following. (That’s thanks in part to his humorous and sardonic social media posts. Leach joked that if his tweets become boring, “You’ll know that I’ve been kidnapped.”)
Mike Purkis, a 59-year-old project manager from Jeffersonville, said he was leaning toward supporting Leach. But he also liked Sheehan and Muroff.
“People are really looking for a candidate that gives them a reason to get excited,” Purkis said after the Indivisible meeting in Collegeville.
Whichever candidate emerges from the primary will have to contend with Meehan. Republicans are confident that he is in a strong position given his fundraising ability and some of his more independent stances.
Meehan voted against the House GOP health care plan on the floor, though he originally supported it in committee. He also said last year that he would not vote for Trump, but would instead write in the name of his running mate Mike Pence, now the vice president.
Following a recent event at a Boeing facility in Ridley Park, Meehan said he would keep the focus on his district during his re-election campaign.
“This is one example of the multiple things that we’re out fighting on for our district,” Meehan said at the Boeing plant, where lawmakers celebrated a contract with the Army. “So we just continue to work hard, engage with the people. The politics are always going to be there.”
Any Democratic candidate in the race will likely need to raise more than $1 million to compete in the expensive Philadelphia media market, said Democratic consultant Michael Bronstein.
Meehan had more than $2.3 million on hand at the end of the last fundraising quarter.
Muroff had the most cash on hand of the Democratic challengers with $167,000 (including a donation from his former boss, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern). Sheehan ended the quarter with $112,000 on hand. Both Leach and Perry said they were confident they would have strong numbers in the next quarter.
The congressional primary, scheduled for May 15, is still more than eight months away.
In the meantime, the 7th District candidates, like Democratic primary candidates across the country, will battle over who is the best person to unseat the Republican incumbent.
“This being sort of a microcosm of how the party is finding its soul, I think we’re going to be — I’ll be honest — I think it’s going to be a street fight,” Perry said.