With less than three weeks left until the midterm election on Nov. 6, Cumberland County is poised to experience its most competitive congressional race in decades, one with potential national significance.
Polls say Democratic challenger George Scott is within striking distance of GOP incumbent Scott Perry in the race for Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, a race that will play a role in the Democrats’ push to reclaim a House majority in November.
Cook Political Report, a national election tracker, has Perry leading by 6 percent. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning poll, has him leading Scott by a single point.
Democrats are predictably enthusiastic, although the fight is uphill, with Scott attempting to run a moderate playbook against Perry, a far-right conservative who has occasionally captured national headlines for some of his statements.
Perry owns the most conservative voting record in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation, according to American Conservative Union ratings, and has among the most conservative voting records in the House.
“I think some of our folks in Carlisle already knew who Scott Perry was, and not in a good way,” said Sean Crampsie, a Carlisle Borough Council member and a local Democratic activist. “It’s an easy transition for folks to stay motivated and get more motivated because in this district, we actually have a chance to win.”
Pennsylvania is in uncharted territory, with entirely new congressional districts resulting from the state Supreme Court’s anti-gerrymandering decision this year. In many districts, including the 10th, the redrawn maps give Republicans much less of an advantage than they had in previous years. GOP candidates still remain favorites, albeit by smaller numbers.
Perry’s old district carried him by 25-plus points in 2012, 2014 and 2016. But the new 10th has a decidedly smaller GOP lean — it would’ve voted for Trump by about nine points, as opposed to the 21-point margin Trump carried in Perry’s old boundaries.
Perry has argued that his opponent is a leftist in a moderate’s costume. At a Carlisle Barracks Oktoberfest event this month, Perry said his opponent was involved with the “West Coast liberal elite” and compared his politics to high-profile progressives and Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, George Soros, Bernie Sanders and even filmmaker Michael Moore.
“The Democrats are trying to run the Conor Lamb playbook again, but this guy is not a moderate, he’s an extremist,” Perry said of Scott.
Scott disputes that he’s an extremist but not that he’s running a campaign akin to that of Lamb, the Democrat who won a special election this year in a western Pennsylvania district Trump carried in 2016.
“How did he do that?” Scott mused about Lamb’s victory, during a recent interview with The Sentinel. “He reflected the people of the district, and I think the same thing is unfolding right here.”
Politics of extremes
Scott’s stance on guns is an example of his strategy that has garnered much media attention.
After an eye-popping primary ad in which he burned a military-style rifle to make a point on gun control, Scott has pulled back on the issue, although he said he doesn’t regret the ad.
“It helped in the primary for voters to understand that I was willing to stand up on an issue that people often hesitate to take a stance on,” Scott said. Much like former President Barack Obama, Scott often compares gun safety to automotive safety — advocating the gradual implementation of stricter safety features, licensing and training requirements.
“All of those things have made driving a car a much safer experience and reduced the deaths and injuries,” Scott said. “We need a similar dialogue as it pertains to weapons and to gun violence.”
Scott’s health care stance is much the same, straddling a line between the moderate and progressive wings of his party. He’s called for Congress to shore up the Affordable Care Act and turn around the Trump administration’s efforts to de-fund it, before transitioning to a single-payer system.
“In the short term we’ve got to figure out a way to repair and to stabilize the Affordable Care Act,” Scott said. “In the long term, most, in fact, all other western industrialized democracies, not just western but industrialized democracies, have some type of health care system that is universal in nature. I think in the long term that’s where we’ll end up, but I don’t see a path to get there overnight because it’s too big of a jump in this political environment.”
Perry was a supporter of the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s Obamacare replacement, which passed the House last year but failed in the Senate.
The AHCA drew an approval rating of 21 percent according to a Quinnipiac University poll at the time. Most problematic, according to poll data, was the AHCA’s language that would allow states to modify or lift premium limits for patients with pre-existing conditions, something which has figured heavily into Scott’s attacks on Perry.
Perry has defended the AHCA as a cost-saving measure that gives more power to the states.
“We want the people to have a lifeline and a safety net, and we want the states to manage it, and we want the states to manage it as best as suits them, not a one-size-fits-all prescription out of Washington, D.C.,” Perry said.
The GOP contender has support that attracts single-issue voter blocs — endorsements from the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life — as well as the most conservative voting record of any Pennsylvania congressman as rated by the American Conservative Union.
This gives Perry a significant built-in advantage, given that GOP voters in his district outnumber Democratic ones by 24,800 registrations, as of June 18, according to state voter data.
Further, at least in Cumberland County, Republican voters are more likely to show up and vote along partisan lines in the midterms. In 2014, of the 77,153 Republican voters in the county, 26,970 cast straight-ticket ballots versus 10,078 straight-ticket Democratic ballots out of 50,157 registered Democrats.
“In the end, it’s still a solidly Republican district,” said state Rep. Greg Rothman, chair of Cumberland County Republican Committee.
“George Scott has a lot of signs up and has been more active than any other Democrat we’ve had in a long time,” Rothman said. “But at the end of the day, we’re confident Republicans will come home and vote for a strong economy and tax cuts.”
But Perry’s conservatism has also veered into the conspiratorial. In January, he earned a rebuke from Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller, among others, after saying in a Fox News interview that he had “credible evidence” that the October 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting was an Islamic State plot.
Investigators concluded the shooting was carried out by a lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, whose use of a “bump stock” to give his rifle a higher rate of fire sparked a national gun control debate.
Perry also attracted national headlines in October 2017 when he attempted to defend the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico after CNN host Chris Cuomo pointed out the delay in restoring the territory’s utilities.
“If half the country didn’t have food or water, those people would be dying, and they’re not,” Perry said. Puerto Rico is not a separate country but part of the United States.
At the time Perry made the statement, Puerto Rico authorities had already logged four deaths from suspected drinking water contamination caused by the hurricane, according to the Associated Press.
Scott has also gone after Perry in debates for Perry’s membership in the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hardline conservative legislators who Democrats — and some Republicans — have blamed for congressional roadblocks.
In May, for instance, Perry and the Freedom Caucus scuttled the GOP’s farm bill, voting with Democrats to tank the agricultural finance legislation in order to force Republican leadership to call a vote on the more conservative version of the immigration bills written by Rep. Bob Goodlatte.
That bill failed, but would have cut legal immigration by about 25 percent, ended diversity visas, provided funding for Trump’s proposed border wall, and created a three-year renewable status for DACA recipients — immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children — instead of the path to citizenship legislation that Democrats and moderate Republicans had sought.
Although some Freedom Caucus members voted for the farm bill when it came up again in June, Perry did not vote, according to congressional records.
In an interview with the Sentinel, Perry said the immigration bill was an attempt to make immigration more economically efficient.
“What we want to do is have an immigration policy that supports employers and quite literally supports the needs of the United States and is based on merit,” Perry said. “It seeks to provide the flexibility so we don’t end up in this situation where employers don’t have the people they need but we have a bunch of other folks coming based on things that are irrelevant to what the employers’ needs are.”
It’s the economy, stupid
Perry’s key campaign issue, particularly as an incumbent, is the strong economy.
Base-rate unemployment fell to 3.7 percent in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest since 1969. Gross Domestic Product growth was pegged at a 4.2 percent annualized rate in the second quarter of this year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the highest since a 4.9 percent measure in the third quarter of 2014.
Perry has emphasized these numbers during his campaign.
“Every single metric regarding economic growth and prosperity is going in the correct direction and that is directly attributable to the ... Republican Congress and the tax cuts,” Perry said in a recent interview.
But numbers can leave room for nuance.
Average hourly earnings for “production and nonsupervisory employees” — i.e. the average worker — have barely outpaced inflation for much of 2018, with the mean worker seeing only about a quarter-percent more than they were making a year ago for most months, according to the BLS.
Those numbers actually started to trend negative over the summer, with the average worker earning 0.12 percent less in inflation-adjusted pay in July, according to the BLS, before tipping back into the positives.
Further, these gains haven’t been weighted toward sustainable labor. The median full-time worker was earning about 2 percent more in the second quarter of 2018 versus 2017, but inflation rose 2.7 percent over the same period, according to the BLS. Those numbers flipped to a 3.3. percent pay gain and 2.6 percent inflation in the third quarter, a positive sign, but a far cry from President Donald Trump’s promise that 70 percent of the value of the GOP tax cuts would go to workers.
Scott also frequently points to soaring stock buybacks and low capital expenditure as a sign that the Trump economy is inefficient for everyone but the super-wealthy. Stock buybacks by S&P 500 companies will top $2.5 trillion this year, $1 trillion more than last, according to UBS bank estimates.
“We were told that those who would see the most benefit from that bill would invest that money in a way that would grow the economy,” Scott said. “What have we seen? We’ve seen that stock buybacks in 2018 have broken records month after month after month and investor dividends have been tremendous. Those are not things that help your average voter.”
While it’s a slow burn, voters’ views on the economy can be just as political as their views on other issues.
Base partisanship is becoming an increasingly better predictor of voters’ views, said David O’Connell, a political scientist at Dickinson College.
This has created a chicken-egg debate — do voters’ experiences cause them to pick a certain political alignment, or do they pick a team and then mold their views on the economy, or any other topic, to support that identity?
“Increasingly, we find that people align their opinions based on the team they choose,” O’Connell said. “So I don’t know that [the economy] is as strong an advantage for the Republicans as it may have been, and I do think it makes being an incumbent a little less valuable.”
Perry has defended the GOP tax cut with the argument that it will pay for itself by spurring growth. But he frequently does so by erroneously insisting that federal revenues are up, despite the government’s own data to the contrary.
“Federal revenue is up, and you can’t dispute that. No one can dispute that. It’s simple arithmetic and the facts,” Perry said in a recent interview.
Federal revenue for September of 2018 was $343.6 billion, versus $348.7 billion in September 2017, according to US Treasury Department data, the fifth consecutive month of decreases since April.
Year-to-date revenue is also down for 2018, while the year-to-date federal budget deficit stands at $554 billion as of September, versus $456 billion from January to September 2017.
Perry later said his assertions were based off information from the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“I have been a champion for debt and deficit reductions,” Perry said.