Astatue of Christopher Columbus stands in downtown Scranton — or still stands, it may be necessary to add, given the fate of statuary around the country. Its survival is due at least in part to a group of defenders who sat beside it in lawn chairs on June 13, during a Black Lives Matter protest. The night before, in nearby Wilkes-Barre, a similar event had left that city’s Columbus monument defaced by red paint.
Jim Bognet thinks that these guardians are the kind of people who will send him to Congress in November. “Columbus is important around here,” says the Republican candidate in Pennsylvania’s eighth congressional district. “My middle name is Rocco.” What he means is that his Italian-immigrant forebears were proud of their connection to 1492’s Man of the Year, and that their descendants won’t tolerate assaults on this heritage, no matter what their party. “We believe in law and order, and that’s true for Republicans, Democrats, and independents.”
This message of opposition to cancel culture and the iconoclasm that goes with it could give Bognet an edge in his swing district, where voters favored President Trump in 2016 but then elected a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 2018. At the very least, Bognet’s candidacy could test the theory that Democrats are rushing too fast and too far to the left, putting them at a disadvantage in close elections against Republicans who don’t want statues toppled or the police defunded.
The fortunes of the entire GOP may rest on the messages of candidates in the Keystone State, where Republicans are banking on Bognet and two other GOP challengers to beat Democratic incumbents in Trump-friendly districts. A good performance in these races would give Republicans a chance to maintain or possibly strengthen their position in Congress. Moreover, Trump’s reelection may turn on how he fares in these areas: It’s possible to imagine that he’ll prevail in Pennsylvania yet lose the general election, but it’s difficult to see how he could suffer defeat in Pennsylvania yet win a second term.
Four years ago, Trump carried Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes by a little more than 40,000 votes, out of more than 6 million cast — an upset victory in a state that hadn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Republicans at the time also enjoyed a 13–5 majority in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. Since then, however, the GOP’s position has weakened. A court-ordered redistricting altered the state’s political map. Following the 2018 midterms, Republicans were reduced to a 9–9 split with Democrats. They also lost seats in the state legislature. Today the polls are bleak: CNBC’s mid-July survey of likely voters in Pennsylvania gave Joe Biden an eight-point lead. “The environment looks very rough,” says Republican senator Pat Toomey. Yet he’s hopeful about those three House races: “We have a real shot in each of them.”
Jim Bognet — the first syllable of his last name is a long vowel, as in “Bogart,” followed by “net,” as in “dragnet” — says that he decided to run for Congress after the House impeached the president last December. Back then, Bognet was working in the administration as a communications officer at the Export-Import Bank. One of the impeachers was Democratic congressman Matt Cartwright, who represents Hazleton, the city where Bognet grew up. “That was unpardonable,” says Bognet. “I went home for the holidays and made up my mind to run. This is Trump country.” He’s right about that: Trump carried the eighth district by about ten points. Bognet branded himself as a “Trump Republican” in his advertising this spring, and he’ll need a big turnout this fall among GOP loyalists, as well as the votes of Obama Democrats who went for Trump in 2016. Amid the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the economic turmoil, his original campaign rationale of anger over impeachment may feel obsolete. But it’s easy to understand his confidence when he utters a simple fact: “Cartwright has never run in this district with Trump on the ticket.”
Just south of the Wyoming Valley, as Bognet’s region is sometimes called, lies the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania’s seventh district, where Republican businesswoman Lisa Scheller hopes to unseat first-term Democrat Susan Wild. This is definitely not Trump country, as it touches the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, but it should be competitive — and in Scheller, Republicans have a conservative candidate with an unusual biography.
Scheller runs the family business, which makes the aluminum pigments that provide the metallic sparkle in car paint. “I love being an American manufacturer and signing the front of people’s paychecks,” she says. Scheller is a conventional Republican on abortion, guns, and taxes, and she expects to pound Wild for her co-sponsorship of Medicare for All legislation: “That would be a disaster for Americans, a step down the road to socialism.” She’s betting that moderate voters will recoil from government-run health care rather than choose to make peace with it: “I don’t look at this race as flipping the seat but as returning the district to its natural state.”
Scheller is also a former heroin addict, with a story to tell. “I’ve been in recovery for more than 38 years,” she says. “A stigma surrounds addiction and recovery, but I broke my anonymity because I want people to see that you can have a great life in recovery.” Two years ago in her hometown of Tamaqua, she founded a coffeehouse that employs addicts in the early stages of rehabilitation, allowing them to gain work experience. “We’re not talking much about the opioid epidemic these days because of COVID-19, but it’s still out there and it’s still significant,” she says.
A voting reform may give her a small boost this fall. Last year, Pennsylvania eliminated straight-ticket voting, which allowed people to make a single mark to select every candidate of one party. Republicans had called for this change, gambling that Democrats would be more likely either to vote at the top of the ticket and skip the rest or to vote with their party for president but make independent choices in other contests. In this scenario, a nontrivial number of Trump-fatigued voters might go for Biden and Scheller at the same time.
This reform came at a cost, however, as Democrats also got a voting change that they wanted: a large expansion of mail-in voting, in which they traditionally have held a big advantage over Republicans. The main beneficiaries, though, may be incumbents of both parties. With mail-in voting set to begin 50 days before Election Day, name recognition and resources matter more than ever. “You need to be up at full volume, and over a longer period of time,” says Mark Harris of ColdSpark, a Republican consulting firm. “It’s harder to take advantage of the late momentum that can help challengers.”
A third House race in Pennsylvania will be tougher for the GOP. Sean Parnell, whose best-selling memoir, Outlaw Platoon, made him one of the most recognizable veterans of the war in Afghanistan, says that he wasn’t thinking about running for Congress until last October, when Trump visited Pennsylvania and mentioned the former infantry leader as a possible candidate. It took Parnell by surprise: “I had never even met or talked to him.” Days later, he declared his candidacy.
The problem for Parnell is that he faces Democratic incumbent Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran who won his last election by nearly 13 points. Although Trump may be competitive in western Pennsylvania’s 17th district, the political demographics are shifting. “The areas I used to rely on are now the ones I’m concerned about,” says Rick Santorum, the former senator and representative whose old House district overlaps the current one. “The suburbs there are becoming reliably Democratic.” And although Lamb has the voting history of a conventional House Democrat, including support for Trump’s impeachment, he also opposed the choice of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, giving him a veneer of independence.
Yet the upbeat and charismatic Parnell thinks that the last two years have exposed Lamb as a true liberal rather than the moderate he claimed to be when he was seeking office: “Now he’s got a record and it’s real bad.” The congressman has earned high marks from Planned Parenthood and low marks from the National Rifle Association, in an area where many Democrats remain social conservatives. These voters didn’t turn out in 2018, when Trump wasn’t on the ticket, says Parnell. This year they will: “Trump is a combat multiplier.”
Like Bognet in the eighth district, Parnell has an Italian grandfather. In Outlaw Platoon, he wrote of how his “Grandpap” warned him to be careful on his deployment. Parnell wondered if this was even possible in the Hindu Kush: “I would have to take risks, expose myself, and place myself in the center of any fight.” In Afghanistan, he did all of those things — and on the campaign trail, as he gears up for November with an incumbent president who wasn’t supposed to win the first time, he’ll have to be ready for a new kind of combat.
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