From the mayors of Lancaster and Pittsburgh to groups invested in local or national politics — endorsements are beginning to flow in for Democrats running for Congress in Lancaster County.
Four potential candidates are hoping to win their party’s nomination in May to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker during his first re-election campaign.
The district, which covers most of Lancaster County and parts of Berks and Chester counties, is historically Republican. The GOP currently holds a 6-point edge over Democrats in registered voters, and Smucker, a former two-term state senator from West Lampeter Township, notched an 11-point victory in 2016.
Local political scientists say the pair of Lancaster city residents are making the May 2018 primary possibly the most competitive ever among Democrats for this seat.
“I don’t think it’s ever been quite like this in recent memory,” said Kyle Kopko, an Elizabethtown College political science professor and Republican committeeman.
Franklin & Marshall College political scientist Stephen Medvic said he also couldn’t remember a competitive Democratic primary, noting that the party’s nominee has typically “been kind of a sacrificial lamb” because of the huge GOP margins of victory.
“That race is going to be really interesting to watch,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bill Neff, a locksmith who ran an independent write-in campaign last year, has said he will seek a spot on the Republican primary ballot against Smucker.
Building on her failed 2016 campaign against Smucker, Hartman, a 40-year-old nonprofits consultant, announced a string of early endorsements from local and statewide Democratic officials.
The locals included most of Lancaster city council, outgoing Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray and incoming Mayor Danene Sorace, state Rep. Mike Sturla, county Commissioner Craig Lehman and some Manheim and Lancaster township Democrats.
Others were former Gov. Ed Rendell, U.S. House members from Pennsylvania, statewide row officers and former U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty.
She also announced endorsements from national organizations such as Emily’s List, which supports Democratic women running for office, and End Citizens United, which is committed to ending big money in politics.
King, a 43-year-old Lancaster nonprofit director and first-time candidate, has secured endorsements from new city council members Chris Ballentine and Ismail Smith-Wade-El, School District of Lancaster board members David Parry and Mara McGrann and an incoming Millersville Borough Council member Dianne Bates.
Also backing King are Tom Houghton, who ran for the 16th Congressional District seat in 2014, and Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, where King lived for a decade. Peduto got national attention this year for combatting President Donald Trump’s actions regarding climate change.
Three national groups support her: Justice Democrats, which promotes candidates who don’t take donations from corporations, a progressive group called Blue America PAC, and Demand Universal Healthcare, which supports Medicare-for-all.
King’s campaign also got the backing this week from the area’s growing progressive group, Lancaster Stands Up.
The group, which emerged in the aftermath of Trump’s election, has held numerous events and protests against him and Smucker. Its organizers say they plan to have hundreds of its members canvassing on behalf of candidates this year, which could give King a boost in help outside her campaign team.
Decision in February
The Lancaster County Democratic Committee will hold its endorsement convention in February.
In the last congressional race, committee members were divided among Hartman, Wegman and stem cell researcher Raj Kittappa, and ultimately decided not to endorse a candidate.
Nonetheless, Wegman and Kittappa dropped out before primary day and Hartman remained the sole candidate.
Endorsements are important in races like this, not necessarily because they grab the attention of average voters, but because they unlock resources like fundraising help and volunteers, Medvic said.
Through just a few months ending in September, Hartman and King had already each raised more than a typical Democrat in the district raises throughout the entire campaign. Hartman’s team brought in more than $200,000 and King’s raised more than $100,000.
Observers agree that Hartman — who recruited support from national Democrats and raised more than $1 million in 2016 — will likely have advantages in fundraising and name recognition.
But those aren’t insurmountable obstacles for a campaign like King’s, Kopko said. With Lancaster Stands Up’s endorsement, it’s unclear how support from that group and others —including the Lancaster County Democratic Committee — will mobilize voters for both candidates.
If King’s new grassroots effort “catches fire” when campaigns typically ramp up in the months before the primary, “it could very well be that Jess King wins this thing,” Medvic said.
No matter who wins, the nominee will face an uphill battle against Smucker in a district that is roughly 45 percent Republican, 39 percent Democratic and 16 percent independent or third party.
But with Democrats nationwide expected to show up at the polls in big numbers next November, the race will be one to watch, Medvic said.
“Special elections so far (this year) have shown there is a big swing in the Democratic direction on average,” he said. “It’s big enough to close the gap in this district but … the key question is going to be: Does this district perform again on average?”