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Pennsylvania race previews Democrats’ plan to focus campaign on democracy

CAMP HILL, Pa. — Democratic congressional candidate Mike O’Brien had been knocking on doors in a leafy suburban neighborhood here for only about 20 minutes when he came upon a house with a sign featuring his opponent’s face in the window. He smiled.

“WANTED for crimes against the CONSTITUTION,” the sign read. “Scott Perry for Prison. Traitor. Insurrectionist. Criminal.”

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m running,” O’Brien, one of six Democrats vying to unseat Perry, a GOP congressman, told the couple who answered the door. “You can’t let Trump and Perry overthrow democracy under the guise of patriotism anymore.”

It’s a message that Democrats, including President Biden, hope will resonate in places like Camp Hill, a middle-class suburb outside Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg. The area was once a Republican stronghold but has become more politically independent in recent years due to population growth and moderate Republicans alienated by Donald Trump’s norm-busting behavior.

The competitive Democratic primary here Tuesday offers a preview of how Democrats intend to make democracy a central issue in competitive races for seats such as Perry’s, which could help determine control of the narrowly divided U.S. House. Most of the Democrats vying to take on Perry have made his efforts to undermine the 2020 election results a part of their campaigns, but only O’Brien has made it his central pitch.

The race also provides a glimpse of the case Biden will make in battleground states like Pennsylvania.

Biden has said his reelection is above all else about preserving democracy, which he warns is under threat if Trump wins a second term. In his first campaign speech of 2024, on the day before the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden stood less than 100 miles from here in Valley Forge.

“Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about,” he said.

It remains unclear whether voters will see it that way. Beyond the defense of democracy, Americans will be asked to weigh more tangible issues, including inflation, immigration and abortion. The age of the candidates — Biden is 81 and Trump is 77 — will also loom large in a presidential rematch that polls show many Americans didn’t want.

But there’s also reason to believe democracy as an issue will carry more weight than it did four years ago. This is the first presidential vote since Trump and his allies spread false claims about the 2020 election results, a violent mob besieged the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of Biden’s victory and Trump declared that he would be a “dictator” — if only on “day one” of his second term.

Since the 2020 vote, there has been additional evidence that campaigns built on the defense of democracy can resonate in the Trump era. In his campaign for governor in 2022, Democrat Josh Shapiro eviscerated Republican Doug Mastriano, who played a key role in the effort to challenge Biden’s win in Pennsylvania and paid to bus Trump supporters to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6. Shapiro ultimately beat Mastriano by 15 percentage points.

Democrats say a similar pitch will work in the 10th Congressional District race against Perry, who was a key liaison between House Republicans and the White House in efforts to overturn the election.

The House select committee investigating Jan. 6 found that Perry took part in White House meetings where strategies to try to undermine the transfer of power were discussed. He also pressed the Justice Department to investigate wild and unfounded claims that military satellites had been used to flip votes from Trump to Biden. After Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, Perry formally objected to the counting of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

In 2022, the FBI seized Perry’s cellphone as part of its investigation into attempts to thwart certification of the 2020 election. The Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed the congressman to testify, but he refused. He later denied assertions by former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson that he had asked for a preemptive pardon.

Nationally, Democrats see Perry, who is running for his seventh term in Congress, as one of their best shots at toppling a prominent election denier and are expected to invest heavily in trying to flip the seat.

While most Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 results represent safe red districts, Perry’s district is more of a bellwether. Under the boundaries of the 10th District, Trump would have won by four percentage points over Biden. Shapiro won the district by 12 percentage points in 2020, while Perry won reelection by eight points. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district “lean Republican.”

Democrats say they can beat Perry this time with a stronger candidate and a more targeted message tying the congressman to extremism and Jan. 6, as Shapiro successfully did against Mastriano. Perry’s campaign said it sees that as a fantasy.

“They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Democrats tried and failed to make the events that followed the 2020 election an issue in the 2022 midterm elections. Congressman Perry earned reelection in 2022 by an even larger margin than he did in 2020 because the voters of south-central Pennsylvania know he is fighting for them each and every day,” said Matt Beynon, spokesman for the Perry campaign.

Some public polling suggests that Democrats are significantly more worried about threats to democracy than other voters. A USA Today-Suffolk poll conducted in March asked respondents to choose the issue most important to them in their presidential vote. Among Democrats, 44 percent said threats to democracy were their top issue versus 20 percent of independents and 6 percent of Republicans. For Democrats, no other issue came close.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll also conducted in March found that a majority of Americans were very or extremely worried about threats to democracy in the United States, including 58 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans.

Stephen Medvic, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said democracy is clearly a factor for voters in the Democratic primary. But he said he’s skeptical of its power to move swing voters in the general election against Perry.

The Democratic nominee, he said, will have to “connect a bunch of dots that this candidate had a role, and that Jan. 6 was a real threat and going forward that Trump and Perry would continue to put democracy at risk.”

Democrats are getting some help on that front from anti-Trump Republicans. A new group, Republicans Against Perry, placed a billboard this month on a major interstate through the district. The ad shows photos of Mastriano and Perry, both with red Xs over their faces.

Craig Snyder, who served as chief of staff to then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, started the group and said he has received thousands of inquires from people who want to be involved.

“When you look at the responses we’ve had, the people wanting to come to events, it’s enough Republicans in the district to form a pro-democracy coalition,” he said.

First, Democrats need to pick a candidate to run against Perry.

O’Brien, a 42-year-old retired TOPGUN fighter pilot, said voters are most enthusiastic when he alleges that Perry, who is also a veteran, violated his oath of office to uphold the Constitution by siding with Trump after the 2020 election.

As O’Brien knocked on doors in the district one recent day, a couple in their 80s told him that they were deciding between him and Janelle Stelson, a longtime local TV news anchor whose name recognition has made her the presumptive front-runner in the race. O’Brien told them that his message is “very focused on democracy and making sure that Trump and Perry aren’t in a position to overthrow it again.”

The couple said they had long been registered Republican but recently became Democrats because of their deep aversion to Trump. Electing him again, Kathy Vollmer, 83, said, “would be like vindicating him.” Her husband, Phil Vollmer, 85, chimed in, saying: “Perry’s an idiot. Trump is dangerous.”

Stelson was also a longtime registered Republican but switched to become a Democrat in January 2023. If she can convince traditional Democrats to vote for her in the primary, she said she thinks her past political affiliation will help her win over the independents and Republicans needed to beat Perry.

Walking through a suburban neighborhood in York County one recent day, Stelson said Perry’s role in Jan. 6 is part of her message. “He tried to overturn all of our votes,” she said. At one home, she met Jerry Sowers, 74, who told her he doesn’t believe Biden truly won the 2020 election. “He got more votes, Jer,” she said.

She’s also focusing heavily on reproductive rights and Perry’s support for legislation that would make it federal law that life begins at conception.

Hours before the last debate of the primary, O’Brien went to get a fade at the barbershop in Harrisburg he frequents. Inside, over the low hum of electric razors, he debated politics with owner Johnny Butler, a registered Democrat who said he has backed Trump because he finds the former president to be authentic — even if he’s lying.

Butler, 49, said issues such as inflation are on his mind as he makes his choices for 2024. Asked if he was worried that Trump would attempt to subvert democracy, Butler said that “it’s impossible” because of the Constitution.

Later that night, Butler was in the debate’s audience to support O’Brien, who was the only candidate on the stage to mention democracy in his opening and closing remarks. In their questions, the moderators didn’t bring it up.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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