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Matt Cartwright’s battle for Northeastern Pennsylvania could be a case study for whether Democrats can hold onto control of the House.
The Democrat representing Joe Biden’s hometown is gearing up for a tough fight to stay in office.
In one of the purplest parts of plum-colored Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright is running more like a small-town mayor, touting money he’s brought home to the district for projects underway and yet to come.
His opponent, though, casts Cartwright as Biden’s congressional doppelgänger. Jim Bognet, who narrowly lost to Cartwright in 2020, sees opportunity now in a friendlier atmosphere for Republicans on turf where the GOP has grown as Biden’s popularity has dropped.
“Northeast Pennsylvania was crushed by President Biden’s inflation,” Bognet’s first ad says, as a photo of Cartwright and Biden flashes on the screen. “Your congressman should stand up to Joe Biden, not hang out with him.”
This battle for northeastern Pennsylvania could be a case study for whether Democrats can hold on to control of the House. Cartwright, the incumbent Democrat, keeps winning in a district Trump won in 2016 and 2020. The 8th District is listed as a toss-up by most political prognosticators, and internal polls from both campaigns put the race within about 5 points.
Cartwright, first elected in 2012, is holding on for dear life — even if he doesn’t show it, with the easygoing demeanor of a high school history teacher who likes to quote Mark Twain and a dose of self-deprecating humor. He is much more likely to be talking at a local parade about his golf game than on CNN about inflation reduction. And that might be by design, as he runs a hyperlocal campaign built on his own brand.
“I’ve never run a campaign where I was jumping on someone else’s coattails,” he told The Inquirer.
But he’s not about to denounce Biden, his friend of 30 years, either.
“If you think that I’m gonna abandon my friend because he’s a few points down in the polls, you’ve got the wrong guy,” said Cartwright, who will appear with Biden at an event Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre.
Bognet banking on Republican momentum
The 8th District, which includes the recently more conservative Luzerne County and Scranton’s more Democratic Lackawanna County, has a good number of Trump Democrats and a growing list of registered Republicans.
On Saturday, Trump will hold a rally in Wilkes-Barre, one of the district’s two larger cities, for his endorsed Pennsylvania slate, which includes Bognet, Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.
Bognet, who lost by about 3 points in 2020, will have more national money behind him this time. Polling shows a slide for Democrats in favorability since 2020, something Bognet thinks will be hard for his opponent to overcome, even as the congressman touts investments in the region.
“Matt Cartwright’s jig is up,” Bognet said in an interview. “He’s trying to bribe the people of NEPA with their own money and say it’s his money. The power of incumbency is hurting him because he’s voted with Biden 100% of the time.”
Bognet, a former Trump appointee from Hazleton, is running as a conservative in the image of Trump. He’s an antiabortion, anti-illegal immigration candidate, who previously said he wanted to run “to fight against the Democrats’ witch hunt to remove President Trump from office” and attempts to “rig the election.” He’s toned down his election denialism and Trump references since his primary, focusing largely on national discontent with Democrats.
“People in NEPA have turned against Joe Biden’s high-tax, high-spend policies,” Bognet said. “They’ve turned against the Biden-Cartwright agenda of the Green Raw Deal, where they want prices to go up. … There is tremendous dissatisfaction with the Biden economy resonating across the district.”
John Lombardo, of the Luzerne County GOP, said a lot of Democrats in northeastern Pennsylvania are very conservative.
“They have a lot of those family values, they’re very religious, a lot of them own guns, so they don’t really identify with a lot of the social issues that the Democratic Party seems to be putting at the forefront of their campaign,” he said.
Even Democrats acknowledge the tide has turned in the region in the last decade.
“We have a lot of work to do down here as a party,” Democratic State Sen. Marty Flynn said, though he added he thinks Cartwright has managed to break through some of the partisan gridlock by focusing on issues important in the region like senior housing and health care.
As Bognet casts Cartwright as too progressive, he also has the challenge of appealing to moderates, particularly on the issue of abortion rights. Bognet said he supports a ban on abortion except for instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, and he has backed a proposal to deem life as beginning at conception. Recent polling in Pennsylvania found a majority of residents support some access to abortion and the number who support few or no restrictions is the highest in a decade.
Lou DeMarco, a Republican who works in logging and voted for Trump in 2020, is leaning toward Cartwright in the congressional race, and abortion access is one reason.
“I believe in women’s rights,” DeMarco said. “I think Republicans have gone a little too far right on that.”
‘They know where I’m running’
Cartwright, who is on the Appropriations Committee, thinks being able to bring home community project funding (once called earmarks) is hugely helpful in his district, which has struggled with disinvestment and population loss since the collapse of coal and steel.
“They measure the effectiveness of a member of Congress around here with the amount of money you bring home,” Cartwright said.
Even Republicans like Lombardo acknowledge Cartwright’s strategy can be effective, but he thinks it has its limits.
“At the end of the day, if you’re hurting the citizens with the economic policies you support or spouting off about social issues that maybe aren’t relevant to your constituents, it’s hurtful,” he said.
There are also the built-in advantages of incumbency. On a recent campaign swing through Scranton’s Irish River Fest, a woman came up and thanked Cartwright for helping her mother escape Ukraine when the war started. An older woman stopped him in front of his campaign office, grabbed him by the hands, and thanked him for protecting Social Security.
As he marched in the Pittston Tomato Festival parade, a woman yelled his campaign slogan out at him: “I work for you!”
“He generally cares about people, and he shows up for everything,” said Mike McDermott, 51, business manager for the Scranton electrical unions, who also attended the festival. “What ya see is what you get. He’s an everyman.”
Bognet, though, has tried to cast Cartwright as more liberal than his low-key vibe may suggest and wealthier than his modest flannel shirt and loose-fitting pants project. Cartwright was a lawyer before going into politics, owns a private plane, and has an estimated net worth along with his wife of about $3 million.
While Cartwright has supported all of Biden’s major initiatives in Congress, he highlights more bipartisan issues — like a bill he wrote to help veterans sue and recover damages for harm from exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. A Marine with cancer who had claims for radiation denied is the subject of one ad.
“Matt Cartwright is not a politician. He’s a fighter, and he’s fighting for me and all other veterans,” the veteran, Sam Kuchwara, says in a direct-to-camera ad dropping next month.
Cartwright is extremely aware his district is divided.
On the drive to a campaign event, he pointed out the gun shop where he bought his hunting rifle and later, he paused to text back a Trump voter he met at the local auto parts store.
“You don’t have to break through with everybody,” he said. “Just some people.”
His stories about Congress often have a theme of bipartisanship.
After the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, for instance, Cartwright said there was a movement among some Democratic members not to do business with the 147 Republicans who refused to certify the election. Cartwright was in the chamber when rioters nearly breached it but told his staff he wouldn’t join any freeze-out.
”I didn’t even think about it … because that’s how we get back on track in this country, is that we treat each other with respect as a default position,” he said.
He said progressive Democrats have not criticized him over it.
“Nah,” Cartwright said. “They know where I’m running.”
Published Aug. 28, 2022