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A surge of volunteers and political newcomers hopes to make Pennsylvania blue again

Katie Muth knew something was off before the polls even closed. Working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in southeastern Pennsylvania, Muth and her husband were dispatched on election night 2016 to a polling place in Collegeville, Pa., to make sure voters in line stayed to cast their ballots even after the polls closed. They were wearing Clinton gear, and both the weather and reception from those waiting in line were cold. Someone had a cutout of Donald Trump, and to Muth the whole thing felt eerie. A few Clinton voters hugged them after casting their ballots, but as Muth’s husband checked the numbers rolling in from other states, she felt ill.

Muth went to bed before results were final and awoke to the news that Trump was president, partially due to a narrow victory in the Keystone State, the first time a Republican had won there since 1988. Clinton’s supposed “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin had collapsed, and the night had other bad news for Pennsylvania Democrats: Not only had Trump carried the state by 44,292 votes, but Republican Sen. Pat Toomey had been reelected by a slightly larger margin. The GOP also picked up a few more seats in the state’s House and Senate, solidifying its stranglehold on the legislature. Democrats still had a senator in Bob Casey Jr. and a governor in Tom Wolf, but both would be up for reelection in 2018 in the face of possible continued Republican momentum in a state that is older and whiter than the national average. There was a chance things could get even more dire.

But in the aftermath, after spending much of the next day in bed, Muth did what many others across the state and country have done in the wake of Nov. 8, 2016: She threw herself further into the political process. Muth is running for state Senate in a district in northwest Philadelphia, a first-time candidate among a number of first-time candidates, a woman among many women. In addition to the rookie politicians, there has been a wave of volunteers new to politics, trying to flip the state legislature, reelect Casey and Wolf, win some congressional swing seats, and lay the groundwork for a Democratic presidential bounce-back in 2020. Buoyed by strong poll numbers and a state Supreme Court decision calling for redistricting the state’s notoriously gerrymandered congressional district lines, Pennsylvania Democrats are at least cautiously optimistic about their chances in the midterms. Yahoo News spoke to nearly a dozen of the state’s Democratic candidates and operatives about what’s changed on the ground in the 22 months since Nov. 8, 2016. There is energy and optimism on the ground to go along with the growing pains of incorporating new voices and ideas into the party’s old guard.   

One change is the party’s new state chairwoman, Nancy Patton Mills, who was elected in June. On Election Day 2016 she was party chair in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh. Mills said she was surprised and disheartened by the result but was soon invigorated by the opportunity it presented. Two days after the election, Mills spoke to despondent students at Chatham University, a former women’s college whose student body is still 75 percent female, and laid out her theory.

“We’re probably in a better place today in Pennsylvania because of the loss, although the loss was so, so painful,” said Mills. “That night at Chatham University I said Hillary’s loss is the worst thing that has ever happened to the Democratic Party and the best thing that’s ever happened to the Democratic Party, because we now know the work that we have to do.”

The task for Democrats was converting the energy from events like the women’s march and travel ban protests into electoral action, enlisting those who regretted not doing enough in 2016 and putting them to work. Jamie Perrapato, executive director of Turn PA Blue, is focused on electing Democrats to the state legislature, targeting districts in eastern Pennsylvania to close the double-digit seat gaps in both chambers. A big part of her job is getting volunteers who live in safe blue neighborhoods to canvass in the surrounding swing districts. As competitive races mount up, she says, she is running short of funds to campaign in all of them.

“State legislature races do not get the attention that Congress does,” said Perrapato. “We’ve been taking all of these people who are ‘newly woke,’ I guess you could say, and plugging them into state campaigns where the resources are desperately needed. They’re underfunded and they’re underrecognized, and the influx of volunteers makes a huge difference.”

Muth is running for one of the seats targeted by Perrapato’s group, a rookie candidate learning the ropes and dealing with a Democratic establishment that’s attempting to integrate the flood of new interest and ideas into the existing structure. The party establishment is still skeptical of in-person campaigning, she said, noting that her campaign just knocked on its 50,000th door; the leadership in Harrisburg would prefer she come with the news of a $50,000 check. She’s not expecting much help from the party and is instead building alliances with the other candidates in her area, sharing information on voters and donors while coordinating on canvassing efforts. Muth expressed the same sentiment as other new candidates who spoke with Yahoo News: It is extremely difficult to run, particularly if you are not independently wealthy, because the costs are astronomical and the system feels broken. But being a newcomer does have its advantages in winning over Trump voters in her district, even if her politics couldn’t be further from the man whose victory kept her in bed for a day.

Sara Innamorato, Katie Muth (Photos: Sara Innamorato via Facebook, Katie Muth for PA Senate via Facebook)

“A lot of my volunteers, when it comes up, will text me and say, ‘I just sold my soul to the devil,’” said Muth. She explains: “People will say, ‘I voted for Trump because he isn’t a politician,’ and they’ll say, ‘That’s great! Katie Muth isn’t either.’ Whatever works — we need the damn vote. I don’t want to lie for the vote, but it’s not really a lie because I’m not a politician. It’s just realizing that common connection that people are frustrated with what’s going on.”

And it’s not just the Democratic candidates who are new, but those supporting them and running their campaigns. Sara Innamorato defeated a longtime state representative in a Pittsburgh-area primary in May, one of two Western Pennsylvania women to knock out members of a powerful Democratic family and win nomination to a safe blue seat. Innamorato launched her campaign after what she described as an unexpectedly visceral reaction to the 2016 results and the belief that if the host of “The Apprentice” could be president there was no reason she — a 32-year-old who ran a communications consultancy for nonprofits and government agencies — couldn’t run for state office. Innamorato said many of her volunteers and even some of her paid staff were political novices.

“We ran our race with people who had never really managed or worked on campaigns in a very significant way before,” said Innamorato. “We weren’t raising $100,000 to spend on expensive consultants. I think they would have guided us in a very different direction.”

Muth, Innamorato and other female candidates are up against a Pennsylvania tradition of electing white men to office. The state has never had a female governor or senator, and the current congressional delegation has zero women from either party. While Clinton and Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty lost in 2016, three Democratic men won statewide office — as attorney general, auditor general and treasurer — providing evidence for those who believe sexism had a role in the 2016 defeats. One study cites Pennsylvania as the 49th best state in the nation for electing women, ahead of only Mississippi, and also lagging in racial diversity. But the dearth of women is almost certain to change in 2018. It’s likely at least four Democratic women will be heading to Congress next year from the state, and there will almost certainly be more women in the statehouse.

Democrat Conor Lamb on the night of the March special election when he beat Republican Rep. Rick Saccone. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In the eastern part of the state, Democrats were energized by the 2017 local elections, in which Democrats won seats on the Delaware County Council for the first time in decades and captured offices in both Chester and Bucks counties. Western Pennsylvania activists saw their huge win in April, when Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election in a Pittsburgh-area congressional district Trump had carried by 20 points. Lamb’s victory came by only a few hundred votes, which Mills views as a positive in terms of motivation.

“Had he won it by a whole lot,” said Mills, “we may not have been as energized as we were by the narrow margin. It proved to people who had never been in politics before ‘Oh boy, those 10 doors I knocked on, that made a difference. I personally made a difference.’ I had so many people share with me, ‘Oh, you know, I made 100 calls, that really made a difference, didn’t it?’ Yes, it did.”

Lamb’s reelection efforts — and the congressional opportunities for Democrats across Pennsylvania — got a boost via a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that threw out the congressional map Republicans drew at the beginning of the decade, locking in a 13-5 GOP advantage in congressional seats in a state whose voters are roughly evenly divided between parties. The new map issued by the court turns six Republican-held districts into competitive or Democratic-leaning seats. Lamb is now running in a new district against Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus, a race the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates as Lean Democratic.

The ideal situation for Democrats in Pennsylvania and nationwide is that enthusiasm surges up and down the ballot: competitive state House races helping congressional races in the area and both having a potential benefit to the top of the ticket and vice versa. This includes reaching out to segments of the electorate that have either stopped voting for Democrats or stopped voting entirely, including by competing for seats that have gone uncontested in previous elections.

“The way to bring people back is to have a conversation,” said Innamorato, “They want to know that you’re a real authentic person, and you might not agree on every single policy point but they just want to know your character and your core and what moral code you’re going to use when you get into office. I find the only way to express that authentically is not through a commercial on cable news but having a conversation, having a town hall, sitting down and inviting folks to have a cup of coffee with you. That’s very labor intensive, it’s time intensive, but it worked here and we’re seeing across the U.S., we’re seeing with different candidates who were written off by the Democratic National Committee, written off by the state party, and they’re winning.”

John Fetterman, right, strikes up a conversation at a diner in the depressed steel town of Clairton, Pa., in May. Fetterman is running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. (Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh, running as lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with Wolf, also stresses the importance of showing up in traditionally red areas. The Clinton campaign was criticized for concentrating on the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas and ignoring the rest of the state. Fetterman’s campaigning has taken him across the state to the many counties that went for Trump, and while he says some voters are unpersuadable, there’s been plenty of buyer’s remorse, along with people just happy to see a candidate visit their area.

“People would say ‘Thanks for coming,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s crazy, don’t thank us. Thank you for showing up,’” said Fetterman. “That’s our job as a candidate. Don’t vote for a party, don’t vote for candidate that doesn’t come and visit, that’s Politics 101. That’s our job as candidates to show up, and that’s been our commitment.”

Fetterman also recognizes the bump that the gubernatorial ticket gets from the hard work by down-ballot Democrats, some in counties where Trump earned over three-quarters of the 2016 vote.

“There are [state legislature] candidates that know what a heavy lift they have, but they’re going to drive turnout too,” said Fetterman. “We as a party can never cede a county 80-20, 70-30. We’ve got to contest every county and make it 55-45. Even if it’s not realistic to turn Potter County [in north-central Pennsylvania] blue, we’ve got to make sure we’re getting every vote we can out of each and every one of these counties.”

Polling supports the theory of Keystone Democrats having a bounce-back election come November. An August NBC News/Marist poll found Trump’s approval rating 14 points underwater in the state, and while he is near 50 percent approval in western and central Pennsylvania, he is at just 30 percent in the Philadelphia suburbs, a potentially ominous sign for Republicans on the ballot there. That same poll found Casey with a 15-point lead over Rep. Lou Barletta in the Senate race and Wolf with a 14-point lead over businessman Scott Wagner in the gubernatorial, which is in line with other polling. The survey also found 51 percent of respondents saying they planned on supporting the Democrat in their congressional race versus 39 percent who plan to back the Republican. At the state Senate level, Democrats have candidates in 24 of 25 districts, tying a record, with seven of those districts having voted for Clinton in 2016. And if you believe polling that shows young people lean heavily Democratic, the fact that Pennsylvania led the nation in youth voter registration according to one June report is another data point for November.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr., who is running for reelection, greets supporters in Philadelphia in July. (Photo: Matt Slocum/AP)

There is also plenty of anecdotal support from those on the ground, who cite an enthusiasm in voters that didn’t exist in 2016 when many were disenchanted with both presidential options or were disengaged because a Clinton victory seemed preordained. Jennifer O’Mara, who’s running for a state House seat outside Philadelphia, said lifelong Republicans have told her they’re voting straight ticket for Democrats. One man in his 90s told her she would be the second Democrat he has voted for in his life, after Harry Truman. O’Mara says she encounters widespread disgust with the political system.

“I’ve noticed a pattern of women,” said O’Mara, “particularly Republican women, want to know what party I am, and they don’t even want to talk to me until they know I’m a Democrat. Then they want to vent a little bit about how frustrated they are about how things are going and how chaotic and messy our politics have gotten, and they really want to see our politics start to work again.”

Because Pennsylvania doesn’t have early voting, everything will come down to the first Tuesday in November, which means that for the nervous it seems like anything from the weather to the latest streaming television release could affect the outcome.

“I worry about it,” said Perrapato. “I joke around all the time that we’re just one Netflix binge away from losing a bunch of volunteers. I freaked out that Season 2 of [Netflix original series] ‘Ozark’ came out because it’s raining and now everyone’s going to watch ‘Ozark.’ You’re just that close to losing people; I’m terrified all the time.”

While O’Mara said that her experience canvassing has led her to believe a “blue wave” is indeed coming, Perrapato doesn’t want to jinx anyone’s chances with premature optimism. “The wave is the people, and if people don’t show up there’s no wave,” said Perrapato. “It’s not something that’s inevitable. Some days I feel like we’re going to pick up all 20 [targeted state legislature seats] and other days I feel like we’re going to lose every single one. It’s a very precarious thing.”

A line of voters stretches around a corner outside a polling place in West Philadelphia on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Innamorato voices another concern about the “blue wave” talk: that it implies candidates can passively surf to victory, instead of working for it. “We still have so much work to do as a party,” said Innamorato, “and I think what November is going to show us is we’re going to see some really great wins that we should celebrate, but we should say, ‘That is only the beginning.’”

And even if the Democrats win these races, plenty of work will be needed to keep the energy high into 2020 and beyond.

“It’s just a matter of time before the old way of Democratic establishment crap is gone, because we’re not going away,” said Muth. “Win or lose, we’re not going away. We just move on to the next thing we can help step up and change because there’s so much work to do in this state.”

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