Carbon County could decide Lehigh Valley race for Congress
One of the most closely watched races for Congress in Pennsylvania could be determined by a lightly populated rural county just north of the Lehigh Valley.
Carbon County, population 63,964, became part of the 7th Congressional District when new district maps were drawn nationwide in 2020. The county leans conservative, making reelection an uphill battle for Democratic incumbent Susan Wild, who is running for her third term.
The 2022 race is a rematch with Lisa Scheller, chair and president of Silberline Manufacturing, who lost to Wild by 14,000 votes in 2020.
The addition of Carbon County could spell victory for Scheller. It is solidly red; Republican voters outnumber Democrats 3 to 1, and 66% of voters chose Donald Trump in 2020. But it wasn’t always that way. Before 2018, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county.
The race for the 7th District is one of the most consequential House races in the U.S. Election forecaster FiveThirtyEight called it one of the 10 races that could determine which party controls the House of Representatives.
It’s also the most expensive congressional race in Pennsylvania, with a combined $8.8 million raised by both candidates.
A recent Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll called it a statistical “dead heat” between Wild and Scheller.
So, what will it take to win?
Standing in front of metal wire gates on a rural Lansford road, Wild threw her thumb over her shoulder, gesturing to the building with a faded “Silberline” insignia behind her.
“Behind us, that’s a shuttered factory, folks,” Wild said. “There is nothing being produced there, there are no workers that are working there that are earning good union wages.”
With inflation polling as a No. 1 concern among Pennsylvania voters, both Wild and Scheller have courted Carbon County votes by exchanging attacks on each others’ economic record.
Wild, her campaign staff and several representatives from steelworkers and electricians unions were on Silberline’s doorstep in mid-October as part of escalating attacks against Scheller. Wild accused her opponent of shutting down Silberline’s Lansford factory in 2016 and outsourcing those jobs to China.
Silberline operates two plants in China with plans to open a third by the end of the year.
Wild has been focusing efforts on Scheller’s company and touting her pro-union record to win over voters in the working class area. Wild has been endorsed by the United Steelworkers Union and several other labor groups.
It’s a message that ought to resonate with rural Carbon County voters, advocates said.
“We’ve lost so many jobs,” said Randy Beightol, a Steelworkers Union member from Williamsport who traveled to Lansford for Wild’s news conference. “A lot of people don’t have income coming in. They have to travel so far to get a job it’s hardly worth it in the end.”
Wild has good reason to be highlighting the loss of jobs in Carbon County. According to U.S. census data, employment in Carbon decreased by 6.3% between 2019 and 2020. In Lehigh and Northampton, employment increased by 1.9% and 1.3%, respectively.
Since Scheller took over Silberline in 1997, the company’s American workforce has shrunk from 360 workers to 142, according to public records.
Scheller, aiming to counter Wild’s attacks, held a rival news conference in front of her former factory just a few days after Wild’s to highlight Silberline’s record of creating jobs in the region.
“If I wasn’t running against her, she would be knocking on my door for a promotional tour to show off the great union manufacturing jobs and investment we have made here in Pennsylvania,” Scheller said.
She disputed Wild’s continued claim that Silberline shipped jobs to China; the plant was shuttered to consolidate Silberline’s operations to its facility in Hometown, and Lansford workers were offered their choice of a job there or an early retirement package, Scheller said. She touted a $20 million expansion planned for Silberline’s Hometown facility which will add 15 jobs.
Scheller also pinned blame for economic woes squarely on Wild and other Democratic leaders.
“In addition to record-high inflation, the high cost of goods in a dismal job market, our residents are feeling the negative effects of the Biden/Wild economy in more ways than one,” Scheller said. “Enough is enough. I’m running to break the cycle and support policies that will lift families up, not tear them down.”
To Doyle Heffley, a Republican state representative in Carbon County, Wild’s attacks on Scheller are just another way that Democrats are out of step with rural voters.
“This is a blue-collar, working-class region rooted in coal,” Heffley said. “The Democratic Party left them behind, their policies crushed industries in the community.”
Democrats’ opposition to natural gas pipelines and coal energy has put a strain on Carbon County residents, he said.
Carbon County is part of nationwide trend that saw rural voters flock to the Republican Party over the past decade, culminating in Donald Trump’s election in 2016. That trend does not show any signs of letting up, political experts say.
“Trump did a lot to bring those people into the Republican Party, and they continue to be pretty loyal to him,” John Kincaid, professor of political science at Lafayette College, said. “I wouldn’t expect a big swing in this election. Particularly if they are looking at the economy, and feeling that the Democrats and Joe Biden are responsible for inflation.”
[ Ad Watch: Lisa Scheller attacks Susan Wild, Democrats for inflation, but doesn’t tell full story ]
Several Carbon County residents and prospective voters shared their thoughts on politics and the election with The Morning Call. Rather than loyalty to a specific candidate, many expressed disillusionment with politics in general and a desire for real change — whatever that might look like.
Holly Lang is a Berks County resident who grew up near Jim Thorpe, the Carbon County seat. A public special education teacher, she said education issues are being neglected this election season, and fears the Republican agenda involves defunding and destroying the public school system entirely.
“No one’s thinking about public schools,” Lang said.
Though she won’t be voting in Carbon County this election, she calls the region a “step back in time” because of residents’ tendency to reflexively support Republicans and admonish Democrats.
She attributes this to the fact that many Carbon residents are entrepreneurial landowners who fear rising taxes, and think Democrats would be more likely to enact a hike.
Tina Henninger, chair of the Carbon County Democrats, has experienced that aversion to Democrats first-hand. She said her home has been shot at and her car vandalized, which she attributed to her leadership with the Democrats.
“It’s a small section of the MAGAs, but it it’s a very violent section of the MAGAs,” Henninger said. “I think a lot of the true Republicans are trying to disassociate themselves from that rather small violent clique.”
But in spite of the hostility, she said Carbon County Democrats have seen an influx of volunteers. Many of them are younger voters motivated by Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which took away the constitutional right to abortion.
“We are seeing a lot of people writing letters, writing post cards, knocking on doors,” Henninger said. “People are coming out of the woodwork to volunteer.”
The 7th District race could come down to whether or not voters are more motivated by inflation or by abortion when going to the polls. According to a Muhlenberg/Morning Call poll, voters who see inflation as their No. 1 issue are much more likely to support Republicans, while those most concerned about abortion lean Democratic.
Inflation remains on the minds of many voters as a No. 1 priority.
David Brenning, who is in his 80s, moved to Carbon County from Virginia four months ago to live with his daughter. He was not familiar with Scheller as a candidate, but said he is more likely to vote Republican this November because he believes a change in House leadership is needed to tackle inflation.
“With the economy the way it is, it affects everyone,” Brenning said. “I’m pretty well convinced it’s about time for a change.”
Kevin Palmer and Chris Barnes of Nesquehoning, who are dating and members of a local AC/DC cover band, felt similarly. They said they had both fallen on hard times recently.
Palmer is a Democrat, but said he’s leaning toward Republicans.
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“We don’t have many good things to say about the way things are,” Palmer said.
The two attribute their financial struggles to COVID lockdowns that have led to labor shortages and what they see as a diminished work ethic.
“We should never have been locked down,” Barnes said. “Nobody wants to work anymore.”
Winning Carbon County would be a major hurdle for Wild to overcome this November. Likely she will need strong voter turnout in Democratic strongholds such as Allentown and Bethlehem to overcome Scheller’s advantage in Carbon.
“I believe we have got the hammer in this race,” said Lee Becker, chair of the Carbon County Republicans. “I think Carbon County can swing this election for Lisa Scheller.”
“Up in Carbon County, and in general, the Democratic party has to … start making more noise,” Henninger, the Democratic chair, said. “We do have a long way to go to get past the [Republican] stranglehold up there, but every step forward is a step forward.”
Morning Call reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at 610-820-6681 and firstname.lastname@example.org.