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Infrastructure success could help keep swing Pa. districts — and the U.S. House — blue

Democratic Reps. Matt Cartwright and Susan Wild are top GOP targets. Their political future could hinge on the success of President Joe Biden's infrastructure package.
President Biden Delivers Remarks On June Jobs Report
President Biden departs after speaking in Washington on July 2, 2021.Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, if it ever becomes law, won’t just construct new bridges, tunnels and highways — it could also help cement the Democrats’ House majority for another two years.

This dynamic is particularly pronounced in northeastern Pennsylvania, where Republicans see a pair of seats held by vulnerable Democratic incumbents as ripe for pickup and redistricting threatens to inject additional uncertainty into the high-stakes midterm elections.

Reps. Susan Wild, whose 7th Congressional District encompasses the Lehigh Valley and its cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, and Matt Cartwright, whose 8th Congressional District includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, each won re-election in 2020 by fewer than 15,000 votes.

Both are banking on the passage of Biden’s revised, bipartisan infrastructure plan, which would bring critical projects and jobs to their districts that the lawmakers, as well as political strategists, say will bolster their chances at keeping the seats — and the House — blue in 2022.

“I don’t mean to sound too quaint about this but I honestly believe the way I navigate my race is by producing results,” Wild said. "That includes infrastructure projects.”

Shane Seaver, a political strategist who previously worked as a campaign manager and staffer for Cartwright, said government initiatives that make the "business base" stronger in northeastern Pennsylvania will get voters' attention.

“The main focus in these districts has always really been jobs and investments in the districts," he said. "That will now prominently include infrastructure.”

Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, elected twice by Pennsylvania voters, said: “The [Covid-19] relief bill was popular in these districts. The infrastructure bill will be popular in these districts. They just need to get it through.”

But if the bill dies — and worse yet, if redistricting cracks either of these districts — Wild and Cartwright could lose. Because Republicans need to flip only a few seats across the country to take control of the House, that could result in the Democrats losing their narrow majority.

Vulnerable incumbents

The GOP is already targeting the districts.

Wild won re-election to her district, a mix of small cities, suburbs and farmland that is mostly white but has a growing Latino population, by just 14,000 votes (51.9 percent to 48.1 percent) in 2020. Biden carried the district. Cartwright, whose majority-white district includes large stretches of farmland and rural areas, won his by just 12,000 votes (51.8 percent to 48.2), even though then-President Donald Trump carried his district, which Biden claims as his birthplace, 51.7 percent to 47. 3 percent. (The nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s 2021 partisan voter index rates the 7th District as “even” and the 8th as “R+5,” meaning the GOP has the advantage).

Susan Wild
Then-Democratic congressional candidate Susan Wild in Bethlehem, Pa., on September 18, 2018.Matt Rourke / AP file

The National Republican Congressional Committee promptly included them on its list of districts to target for flipping in 2022.

“Between redistricting and House Democrats having to defend Biden’s toxic agenda, these seats are ripe for us to pick up,” Samantha Bullock, a spokeswoman for the committee, said in an interview.

She said Democrats in close races, such as Wild and Cartwright are expected to face, will have a lot to answer for, whether or not the infrastructure package is enacted.

“They’re signing on to all of this legislation blindly. They’re out there touting the American Recovery Act, and the American Jobs Plan, but the real-life impacts have been, and will continue to be, a worker shortage, higher taxes and rising costs on everyday goods.”

In any case, Bullock added, infrastructure is “far from a done deal.”

Historically, the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. This cycle could be no different, and several different factors will shape how the two races in northeastern Pennsylvania affect the outcome.

Infrastructure looms large — if Democrats can pass it

Biden’s American Jobs Plan— currently bogged down in partisan bickering and fragile negotiations — would, if signed into law, authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for new infrastructure projects across the United States.

In the 8th District, that would likely include a substantial upgrade to the district’s beleaguered sewer and drainage systems, whose faultiness has played a role in increasingly frequent and devastating flooding in the region. In the 7th, it would likely include an expansion of broadband access to the rural areas of the district.

In both, it would likely include improvements to roads, tunnels, bridges and, most notably, the possible construction of long-talked-about Amtrak passenger lines that would connect, separately, both Scranton and Allentown to New York.

Cartwright, in an interview with NBC News, made no bones about how much that would help him.

“There is sort of an institutional memory in my area of what it means to have someone high up in the House Appropriations Committee and having someone being able to secure our fair share of federal funding for northeastern Pennsylvania,” said Cartwright, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. “It's a playbook I’ve been following. It puts me in a position to help out here, to make sure northeastern Pennsylvania gets its fair share of money, for infrastructure or social services or education, including passenger rail.”

“It’s a kind of clout our area hasn’t had in a few generations and I think people in our area appreciate it,” he said.

Both rejected that arguments made by Republicans tying the large spending bills pushed by Biden to inflation will resonate with voters.

“A year-plus of pandemic has reset voters’ thinking about the role of the federal government in producing solutions. It has redirected people away from conventional talking points about excessive government spending,” Wild said. “The cost of infrastructure is so easily recouped by the good that it does in the community and the jobs it creates and the advantages to our local economies.”

Those advantages, however, will only be seen if the bill works out.

“Bringing home the bacon has a lot of value in it,” acknowledged Republican strategist Mark Harris, a veteran of Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s successful 2010 and 2016 campaigns.

“That said, government spending is tied to inflationary pressure. So if inflation continues to rise, it doesn’t matter how many highway interchanges and passenger rail connections you build, people will be livid they’re paying more for milk and bread and gas and coffee.”

Harris added that electoral success in the two districts will likely, as it did in large part in 2020, go to the party that can best reach suburban voters.

Redistricting a major open question

Further complicating the two races is how redistricting might reshape the political landscape. Because the 2020 census identified a decline in its population, Pennsylvania will lose a House seat before 2022.

In Pennsylvania, the new congressional district map will be proposed by a state legislative redistricting commission and then must be passed by both of the state Legislature’s Republican-controlled chambers and signed by its Democratic governor. There is no explicit deadline for passing a new congressional map, but experts say it must occur before a March 2022 candidate filing deadline. If lawmakers can't reach a compromise, the state Supreme Court is likely to get involved, experts said.

Rep. Matt Cartwright during a hearing in Rayburn Building on the FBI's budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 on April 4, 2019.
Rep. Matt Cartwright during a hearing in Rayburn Building on the FBI's budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 on April 4, 2019.Tom Williams / AP file

While it remains unclear how the districts will be redrawn, making them cover more ground — a likely outcome, given that the state is losing a seat — would likely be advantageous to Republicans.

“The fact that Pennsylvania is losing a seat puts Democrats at a disadvantage, period,” Bullock said.

Republican strategists said several prospective candidates were waiting to see how the districts changed before they decide to run. In the 7th, businesswoman Lisa Scheller, who narrowly lost to Wild in 2020, has already declared her candidacy and is likely to remain the front-runner for the GOP nomination, politics-watchers said. (Scheller’s campaign declined to be interviewed). In the 8th, only Teddy Daniels, a retired police officer and Trump acolyte, has so far jumped in for Republicans.

Regardless of who formally opposes the two incumbents, Democrats maintained the races will come down to whether infrastructure projects were delivered.

“These are cities like many other areas across the country that have aging infrastructure, areas where the economic future is directly tied to how much we invest in things that help deliver basic needs to our residents,” said Matt Tuerk, a Democrat who upset Allentown’s incumbent mayor and the city’s all-but-certain next leader. “Anyone around here understands the need for better infrastructure and the simple idea of supporting the people who help deliver it.”