That shows in the seat’s income, race and education demographics. The median income is only $53,000, well behind the nation’s roughly $60,000 median. Roughly 64 percent of the 8th district’s adults older than 25 are whites without a college degree. Whites overall make up nearly 84 percent of the seat’s citizen voting-age population. White, blue-collar, economically left-behind — it’s no wonder the district is a classic example of an “Obama-Trump” seat.
President Trump won this district by nearly 10 points, reversing Mitt Romney’s 12-point loss here in 2012. That massive 22-point shift in the margin is larger than that in all but two districts in the nation. Those seats — Minnesota’s 8th and Ohio’s 6th — are also ancestrally Democratic areas with declining economies, rusting factories and closed mines. Minnesota’s 8th was one of the GOP’s only two pickups in 2018, suggesting that this enthusiasm for Trump transfers to Republicans overall.
The Republican nominee in Pennsylvania, Jim Bognet, fits the district like a glove. He’s a local boy, having grown up in Hazleton and starring in the Hazleton High football team. Bognet’s grandfather was a coal miner and his dad started a construction business, giving him a classic blue-collar background. He left Hazleton to go to Penn State; from there, he got an MBA and a JD from UCLA, and was an economic development adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). He was also a Trump administration official, but resigned to return to his hometown and make his run.
Bognet’s television ads during the primaries show that he and his team understand the district and its voters. The first ad was shot at his dad’s company after the lockdowns began. Showing trucks stuck on the lot because of the pandemic, Bognet promised to “make China pay — for the lies they told, the jobs they stole and the lives we lost.” His second ad emphasized his local roots, showing old film of when he kicked the winning field goal at the first game played at Hazleton High’s new stadium. It also emphasized his hawkishness on China, opposition to illegal immigration and support for Trump. Bognet’s bio, the issues he talks about and his Trump ties are exactly the combination that could unite loyal Republicans with Trump-loving former Democrats.
I spoke recently with Bognet about the campaign, asking him how he plans to contrast himself with Democratic incumbent Rep. Matthew Cartwright. He noted two main areas of difference: background and issues. Cartwright attended a Canadian boarding school and went to college in London, leading Bognet to tell me, “My family came from a coal mine and Matthew Cartwright came from a country club.” He slammed Cartwright’s vote for impeachment and alleged the incumbent backs illegal immigration; “bad trade policies that shipped our jobs to China”; and the “Green Raw Deal” from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). It’s hard to unseat an incumbent, but this is exactly the sort of contrast for a Republican to draw to win a blue-collar, Obama-Trump seat like this.
Nevertheless, it’s still unclear whether House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the National Republican Congressional Committee will invest much in Bognet in the fall. McCarthy endorsed one of Bognet’s opponents, Earl Granville, in the primary. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the allied House Majority PAC have already reserved $1.4 million in the Scranton media market to defend Cartwright, neither the NRCC nor its allied super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has followed suit. This is mind-boggling as the Scranton media market is one of the cheapest in the country, with ads likely costing only $50 to $65 per gross rating point this fall. That’s a fraction of the cost in huge media markets such as Houston, Philadelphia and New York, where the CLF has already reserved millions in ad time to flip seats that Hillary Clinton carried.
The NRCC failed to back candidates in seats like this in 2018 only to find the underlying partisan trends still made for close races. Republicans should hope they’ve learned from that mistake and back Bognet to the hilt.