The Democrats’ Battle Plan for the Philly ’Burbs

Nine months after being humiliated by Donald Trump, Democrats think they’re going to take back Congress by winning districts just like the ones outside Philly. Why on earth are they so confident?

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Ryan Costello is being a good sport. He really is.

The Republican Congressman is holding his second town hall this year in his suburban district. And it’s only April. (Compare that to Pat Toomey: He’s done nada, nowhere, since 2015.) Two hundred constituents slide into uncomfortable wooden benches at the historic Chester County Courthouse to participate in the airing of grievances; some have donned The Resistance uniforms. “How about that t-shirt!” Costello says to a light-haired woman in a “Nevertheless She Persisted” tee. “And my sweatshirt says the ‘Women’s March’!” she shoots back.

Costello, an uncharismatic ex-commissioner with slicked-back hair, a lanky frame, and a closet full of suits that look too big for him, greets the crowd like a diplomat. “There is a heightened element of activism by a lot of the constituency,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing.” The audience looks unconvinced.

Costello starts taking questions from residents and uses them as an opportunity to buck the party line. Building President Trump’s wall is “not the best way of enforcing the border.” Protecting essential health benefits is “extremely important.” The Paris climate agreement is something he’s “leaning in favor” of. When a man from Audubon says he’s worried about Trump’s austere budget, Costello replies, “Me too!”

Every once in a while, the Pantsuit Nation-friendly crowd applauds. But that’s the exception. A jeer erupts when Costello reveals that “at this moment” he doesn’t want to establish an independent commission to look into alleged ties to Russia. The booing rumbles louder when Costello says single-payer health care isn’t “appropriate” for the United States. “We’re the only industrialized nation that profitizes health care!” one woman says. “If we can’t have it, I want your health care!” yells another. Over the next hour and 20 minutes, Costello is shouted at 10 more times.

It’s this pent-up liberal rage in the Trump era — in this exact corner of America, actually — that’s made Democrats believe they have a real shot at taking back the House in 2018. Costello represents Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District, or what’s known to political junkies as one of the “Clinton 23.” These districts voted for both Hillary Clinton and Republican House members in 2016. If Democrats win them all next year, plus one more seat, the House is theirs. Costello’s district is also home to tens of thousands of well-off, well-educated suburbanites who dislike Trump — just the type of people Democratic leaders think they can win over.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put three seats in Philly’s suburbs, including the Sixth — covering parts of Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lebanon counties — on its 2018 target list. Rahm Emanuel, who led the DCCC when it stole the House from Republicans in 2006, calls them among “the most vulnerable” in the nation. “These districts tend to be mainstream in tone and interest,” he said in a recent Atlantic op-ed. “That’s a tough place to win the hand Trump has dealt Republicans of cutting student aid, denying climate change, and eliminating protections for pre-existing conditions.”

Are anti-Trump moderates in suburban districts the answer to Democrats’ woes? Or is that just more wishful thinking? After all, wasn’t the party’s path to redemption going to be paved with Panera Bread stores? Wasn’t Georgia’s Jon Ossoff supposed to be the suburban-mom whisperer?

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: You, dear reader of Philadelphia magazine, will be inundated with a mind-numbing glut of campaign ads in 2018.

“She’s just, like, a rock star! The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is talking about her as the strongest challenger in the entire country!”

This June, a DCCC staffer gushes to me about someone named Chrissy Houlahan. She’s one of a handful of Democrats hoping for the opportunity to run against Costello next fall. But she stands out, this aide swears: “She’s so accomplished. And a businesswoman. And a nonprofit executive.”

A couple days later, Houlahan calls me while visiting Stanford for her daughter’s graduation ceremony. My first question is a softball wrapped in cashmere: What’s her campaign message? “I’m not a politician, nor did I ever intend to be,” she replies. “I’m running because I really feel as though it’s time for representatives in Congress to really represent our values.” She calls Costello a “career politician” who has “no real-world experience.” She’s different, she insists: “I served in the military, built several different organizations in our community, and created hundreds of jobs.”

An Air Force vet, a business leader and a non-politician channeling the country’s contempt for Congress? It ain’t bad. It also happens to be almost exactly what Democratic leaders are looking for at the moment. In a memo released after the party’s bitter loss in Georgia’s Sixth District special election, DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján told his colleagues there’s “no doubt” they can take back the House with atypical candidates: “Let’s look outside of the traditional mold to keep recruiting local leaders, veterans, business owners, women, job creators and health professionals.”

But when I ask Houlahan which policies she supports, she responds with 42 words that could mean literally anything: “My background reflects what it is that I care about and what I believe our community also cares about, whether it’s about security and safety, or whether it’s opportunity and employment and the economy, or whether it’s about education or the environment.” Eventually, I figure out a little more: Houlahan doesn’t have a position yet on single-payer health care and doesn’t support tuition-free college, but she thinks expanding Medicaid and letting the government negotiate drug prices are “good ideas.” What she’s “very clear on,” she adds, is that Trump’s policies on education are harmful.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Hillary Clinton ran an anti-Trump campaign heavy on platitudes about American values and light on ideas for improving lives. Per one study, Clinton aired fewer policy-focused TV ads than any candidate in the past four presidential races. Not that it hurt her in the Sixth: Even though registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district, Clinton won — if only by .6 percent.

If Houlahan is the perceived front-runner in the Sixth Congressional District’s primary, with her kick-ass résumé and murky message, then Daylin Leach is the perceived primary front-runner next door in the Seventh with none of that.

Leach’s CV isn’t exactly made for the times: In an era in which voters look at political experience with severe side-eye, he’s been a state legislator for the past 14-plus years. Parts of the district he represents in the state Senate are in the (gerrymandered) Seventh, which includes most of Delco and parts of four other counties — and is another of the prized “Clinton 23” seats.

But it’s pretty clear where Leach stands on the issues. He says he wants to fight three crises plaguing America: Trump, income inequality, and the erosion of democracy due to gerrymandering and an avalanche of campaign money. He supports the Berniecrat platform of a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All and tuition-free college. In virtually every article written about him, Leach is described as one of the “most liberal” lawmakers in Pennsylvania.

Leach is also routinely called one of the funniest people in Harrisburg, even by his conservative colleagues. The week I talk to Houlahan, Leach holds a press conference to celebrate the fact that Pennsylvania has issued licenses to 12 medical marijuana growers. He and a Lebanon County Republican introduced the bill responsible for that. As he’s prepping, Leach turns to his aide. “[The mic] is on, so we don’t want to talk about anything important,” he says. “We can just talk about your love life.”

Is Leach too liberal for the area, home to 63,000 more Republicans than Democrats? Some insiders worry he is. Others, like Democratic consultant Neil Oxman, are more concerned that he’s too goofy.

According to Oxman, the DCCC is “really happy” with Houlahan. As for Leach, “The question is whether the DCCC will embrace him or thinks he’s the cartoon character he made himself into.” (Leach claims Oxman “doesn’t like” him because he fired his ad company after it briefly worked for him in 2008; Oxman says he doesn’t think about Leach enough to “like” or “not like” him, and that and has “heard a number of people say” Leach is goofy.) Asked about the races, spokesman Evan Lukaske said the DCCC does not make endorsements, but will “ultimately support and promote candidates who we believe fit their districts and are working hard to earn the trust of voters.”

Nine months after Democrats squandered an election to Donald Trump, they still don’t have an answer to the most basic of questions: What should their message be?

The party’s leaders recently took a baby step toward solving their identity crisis when they unveiled a new slogan and economic platform, but they’re still arguing over health care and sending mixed messages on abortion.

The fact that high-stakes Congressional races are around the corner is making this more difficult, not less. The defeat of Jon Ossoff, the carpetbagger in Georgia’s special election who promised lukewarm technocracy and no income tax hikes, further convinced the party’s left wing that there’s no future in selling centrism to Never Trumpers in the red suburbs. These Democrats tend to think the answer lies in a Sanders-like message that will excite young people and working-class voters, including some who cast ballots for Trump.

More establishment Democrats see things differently: They believe, as ex-Clinton aide Jesse Ferguson wrote in Politico, that their “secret weapon” is winning well-educated, suburban moderates who voted for both HRC and Mitt Romney.

Most of these debates happen 30,000 feet up. Look closely, and things get more complicated. For instance, the three Congressional seats in the Philly suburbs that the DCCC thinks it can win — the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth — are much more purple than red. Some of these districts went, not just for Clinton, but for Tom Wolf, Bob Casey and Barack Obama, too. And in Montgomery County, the Democratic Party dominates local government. Democrats argue that one of the reasons Costello and Philly Republican reps Pat Meehan in the Seventh and Brian Fitzpatrick in the Eighth (Bucks and Montco) are vulnerable is because they haven’t all been acting like they’re from swing districts: As of July, they’d voted with Trump 92, 87 and 81 percent of the time, respectively. Then again, Romney won their districts, and Toomey outperformed Trump in the southeast by nearly 80,000 votes. Again: It’s complicated.

One thing the Berniecrats get right is that many party elites have taken it as a fait accompli that they can’t win back blue-collar Democrats in Western Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that registered Democrats actually outnumber Republicans in the 12th and 18th Congressional Districts out west, neither seat is on the DCCC’s list of targets. The same goes for Charlie Dent’s 15th District — also home to more Democrats than Republicans — which Casey won and Wolf lost by less than one percent.

DCCC spokesman Lukaske says this could change: “Every day, more races are coming online for us.” But that seems unlikely barring a major shakeup: Nearly every Democratic insider I spoke with argued that many Democrats in Western Pennsylvania love Trump, have been voting Republican for years, and merely haven’t changed their registrations. They also believe Dent, leader of the center-right “Tuesday Group” in the House, is too attuned to his moderate district to beat. “I’d bet 100 to one he keeps his seat,” says former governor Ed Rendell. “He’s just done a wonderful job [standing up to] Trump.” Has he? Per FiveThirtyEight, he’d voted with Trump 92 percent of the time as of July.

Matt Cartwright, who represents Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, is the state’s only Democratic Congressman who has held onto a purple seat since 2012. Trump won his district by 10 points. When I ask Cartwright why he thinks he’s survived, he says, “I don’t think there’s a secret sauce. You have to have a candidate who is really used to hard work.” Cartwright describes himself as a “Roosevelt Democrat” and has co-sponsored a single-payer health-care bill because he’s “leaning toward it”; he’s also voted to slash funds from sanctuary cities.

There is one atypical Congressional race in Democrats’ sights: Lancaster’s 16th District. It’s on the DCCC’s list, and state party boss Marcel Groen thinks it can be won. But Christina Hartman, the Democrat who lost there by 11 points in 2016, says no one took the seat seriously until she started making inroads. “That was off everybody’s radar [because] it’s a seat that’s primarily in Lancaster County,” Groen admits.

You have to wonder how much of the party’s strategy is rooted in cultural differences. Do Democratic leaders see the suburbs as winnable because many of them live there? Because they know some Clinton-Romney voters but don’t know any Trump-Obama voters? Because a guy like Ossoff is so familiar but a less plastic, more progressive pol like John Fetterman maybe isn’t?

If Democratic leaders have subjected themselves to the level of self-reflection required to answer such questions, there’s no sign of it. The party still hasn’t released an autopsy report on the 2016 election.

Despite all this chaos, many Democratic insiders are confident they’ll taste victory in 2018. “I think we’ll steal the House,” says Oxman. “[Trump] has lost a quarter of the Republicans in the latest polls. Like 2006 was a way to say to Bush, ‘You’re ridiculous,’ this is the only way to say to Trump, ‘You’re ridiculous.’” Even Corbin Trent, co-founderof the anti-establishment progressive group Brand New Congress, told the Guardian, “I think the tide is in our direction and we’re going to see a sweep election.”

There are fewer than 500 days until the Congressional races. And hey, a lot could happen between now and then. Nancy Pelosi could be tossed overboard. Sanders could unleash his own party. Trump could fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

But the fact that party elites are talking about a wave election as if it’s inevitable — the same way Brexit’s defeat and Hillary’s landslide were inevitable — almost seems to be tempting fate, doesn’t it?

Published as “Power: Battle for the ’Burbs” in the August 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.