DePasquale, 49, the state’s auditor general for the past eight years, is not a liberal, but he is a Democrat running for Congress in a district represented by a conservative, unapologetically pro-President Trump lawmaker whose politics no longer match large swaths of Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reconfigured the state’s congressional districts in 2018, setting boundaries for Rep. Scott Perry’s once solidly Republican seat that he won by 32 percentage points in 2016 to include more Democratic areas, including Harrisburg and York.
The district retained enough of the rural heartland for which south central Pennsylvania is known to still have a slight Republican advantage, but the inclusion of urban and suburban areas has made it one of House Democrats’ greatest pickup opportunities after their 41-seat gain in the 2018 midterms. Democrats are heavily favored not only to keep their majority in the House, but expand it. The party has a 232-to-197 advantage with five vacancies, and nonpartisan, independent analysts predict gains of seven to 15 seats, with the race in the 10th Congressional District rated a toss-up.
In DePasquale, the Democrats have a candidate with broad appeal. Self-described as socially liberal and fiscally moderate, he embraces his grittier, blue-collar upbringing. His biographical ads include one of him doing push-ups as weights are added to his back and another of his father in handcuffs, having been jailed for selling drugs. The elder DePasquale served eight years in federal prison.
In 2016, DePasquale won reelection statewide by five percentage points, while the Democrat at the top of the ticket, Hillary Clinton, lost Pennsylvania by one percentage point.
“They see me as one of them; I’m a blue-collar kid. And they think the D.C. crowd isn’t them,” DePasquale said later at a downtown York coffeehouse, reflecting on why there were so many crossover votes for him and Trump four years ago.
Democrats hope enthusiasm for a candidate like DePasquale could benefit presidential nominee Joe Biden, as could strong turnout in other districts where Trump did well last time but Democrats now hold the seats in Congress. They include Rep. Conor Lamb in western Pennsylvania and Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, Madeleine Dean and Chrissy Houlahan in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs.
Pennsylvania is ground zero in the presidential race, a state both the Trump and Biden campaigns view as integral to a path to victory. The rural middle of the state has long been reliable Republican country, leaving statewide candidates to duke it out over suburban Philadelphia voters and Democrats to rely on high turnout in the city to outperform the Republican votes across the rest of the state.
Trump held four rallies in Pennsylvania on Saturday. Biden campaigned in Philadelphia on Sunday and then he, his running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and their spouses were set to fan out across the state on Monday.
“I think everything is driven from the top in this election, but you certainly have in Perry and DePasquale, you really have two compelling candidates who, by the way, mirror in many ways the candidates at the top of their ticket,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based Democratic media consultant. “Eugene’s a nice guy, same Biden demeanor. I would characterize Eugene as moderate, center-left like Biden, and I think with Perry because he’s a member of the Freedom Caucus and when you look at that QAnon vote, that sort of lines up in a way with Trump.”
Perry was among 18 House Republicans to vote against a resolution condemning QAnon, the conspiracy theory that Trump is fighting a war against a satanic, child sex trafficking ring run by the “deep state.” The FBI has labeled the online movement a potential domestic terrorist threat; Trump has declined to denounce it.
Perry has built a solid conservative record in the House since his election in 2012, favoring repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and backing Trump’s 35-day partial government shutdown in 2018-2019 to get money for construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Perry, 58, served in the military for decades, enlisting in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and spending a year in Iraq, where the helicopter pilot flew 44 combat missions and retired at the rank of brigadier general.
He focused on his military service in a recent campaign ad that linked DePasquale to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“When I fought for our country it was to protect American values and freedom, not turn us into a socialist nation,” Perry says in the commercial that accuses DePasquale and Ocasio-Cortez of supporting a “radical socialist agenda.” The DePasquale campaign has called the ad a baldfaced lie.
Mark Harris, a GOP consultant in Pennsylvania, said the race will be close, and that Perry needs the Trump base to turn out and vote down-ballot. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signed legislation last year eliminating the easy alternative of a straight-party vote.
Money has poured into the race, with DePasquale raising $3.7 million to Perry’s $3.4 million.
In addition to a coup for Democrats if they pick up a central Pennsylvania seat and possible vote boost for Biden, a DePasquale win could have major implications for the presidency in the wild scenario that the House chooses the victor.
Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation is currently split — nine Republicans and nine Democrats. Assuming Republicans don’t flip any seats in the state, a DePasquale win could give Pennsylvania Democrats a delegation majority.
If neither Trump nor Biden is a clear winner in the electoral college, the decision would go to the House of Representatives and each state delegation would get one vote. For this reason, flipping state delegations has been a priority for Democratic leaders.
In a briefing with reporters, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois was speaking broadly about Democrats’ efforts to deny Republicans a majority of delegations.
“We absolutely have been focusing on that. The speaker has been talking about that with supporters all over the country,” she said, adding: “Pennsylvania, we’ve got critical races there. Eugene DePasquale is doing great.”
Chris Borick, a political polling expert at Mulhenberg College in Pennsylvania, said he believes Perry, as the incumbent, who beat back a challenger in the 2018 Democratic wave, still has a slight edge. But DePasquale, with his strong name recognition, is a more formidable opponent with a real chance of flipping the seat.
And that, he said, could bode well for Biden.
“When I look at that district, it’s a little microcosm of [Pennsylvania]; you’ve got an urban core, you look at that area, there’s lots of suburbs, drive 10 miles out and you’re in rural Pennsylvania,” Borick said. “On Election Day, if I found out who won that race, if DePasquale wins, I’d be pretty confident Joe Biden won Pennsylvania.”