In one of the country's most gerrymandered districts, Democratic Candidate Alan Howe is convincing voters that he can overcome the partisan divide to win in PA's 11th. His plan to realign the country's values starts in the district's small towns and cities, like Carlisle, where he held his first town hall on Monday night.
The 24-year Air Force Veteran is building energy behind a "Strong Communities, Strong Nation" platform, detailing his vision for a demand-driven economy that grows from the bottom up. While the country has largely recovered from the Great Recession, Howe explained, local communities are still suffering because most of the gains over the past decade have gone to the richest one percent. He says that trickle down economic policies like tax cuts for the rich, supported by incumbent Lou Barletta, have stymied growth because those dollars are not being recapitalized. Putting money in the hands of our neighbors--instead of Wall Street--will increase demand and invigorate local economies and municipalities, he argued.
Howe is trying to overcome the hyper polarization that characterizes our current political climate by presenting a clearly defined, transparent set of ideas based on a seemingly novel, yet undervalued approach: with verified facts and information! Delivering this message to audiences at more than a dozen planned town halls will help Howe counter an increasingly hyperbolic Republican party and an electorate that has lost faith in the political system. Serving an example of his approach to about thirty five residents, Howe rejected Barletta's claims that immigrants cause economic decline and higher crime rates, and instead volunteered widely accepted, official statistics that show the opposite is true. His analysis of the economy was rife with symbolic examples, citing actor Mark Wahlberg's minimal tax rate to demonstrate one of the many causes of rampant inequality in America.
Howe's truthful approach is novel in a district riddled with over-the-top claims about immigrants by Barletta, who, as mayor of Hazleton, left the city with $1.4 million in legal bills that resulted from anti-immigrant legislation, which was rejected by the courts. While Barletta takes aim at Senator Casey's statewide seat in '18, the primary battle will escalate and shift Republican candidates further to the right. According to FEC filings, former State Rep. Stephen Bloom, also a Cumberland County resident, is vying with political insider and former revenue secretary, Daniel Meuser. Like Barletta, both Bloom and Meuser made their way into the political establishment through business, and all three support a top-down approach to the economy: tax cuts for corporations and service cuts for healthcare, education and the environment.
A lifelong angler and hunter, Howe's message on environmental conservation and a fair economy has the potential to cross party lines and attract the attention of the district's Republicans, who outnumber Democrats +10 in the Partisan Voting Index. Just as traditional assumptions about voting have been undermined nationally, PA's 11th district hosts several 'pivot precincts' that went for President Obama in '08 and President Trump in '16. Many of these voters' second choice in 2016 was Bernie Sanders and his anti-establishment message. As the race's lone Democrat, Howe will have to leverage this narrative in order to swing 30,000 voters (about 16% of the overall tally) who opted for Barletta in the 2014 midterms.
Voters from Shippensburg to Wyoming and Carbon counties, which make up the district's unlikely boundary, opted for a Republican by a margin of two-to-one in the previous two elections. Helping Howe close the gap could be an unusually high turnout of Democrats during a midterm election, the result of unprecedented political engagement by those outraged by the Trump Administration. Combined with increasing frustration from Trumps's base, dissatisfaction with GOP members of Congress and a predictable swing away from the party that won the presidency, there is hope for Democrats in purple Pennsylvania.
As the race turns into a sprint by next summer, PA's 11th district will see first-hand the redefinition of a Democratic party that has lost credibility with working class whites who feel left behind, and minorities who never felt represented in the first place. If Howe, who has never previously held public office, can garner attention from swing voters with his economic message and build a ground game to get Democrats to the polls, the 11th just might send a Democrat to Washington in 2019.
Michael Fisher is a co-founder of ActionAgenda.org and field organizer in PA's 16th Congressional District. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Resources for PA's 11th Congressional District
PA Congressional Districts by Party Affiliation
PA Counties vs Congressional Districts Overlay