In W.Pa’s 17th Congressional District, a nail-biting race goes down to the wire

Republicans are looking for a referendum. They might not get it

By: - November 1, 2022 7:18 am

Then-Democratic 17th Congressional District candidate Chris Deluzio (R) rallies volunteers before an afternoon of canvassing in Mount Lebanon, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).

It’s a race that might get lost in all the personalities campaigning in Pennsylvania this season, but western Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, is not any less competitive, or less important when Congress reconvenes this January to legislate on abortion and the economy – among other critical issues.

Democrat Chris Deluzio and Republican Jeremy Shaffer are contending for the redrawn seat that incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb vacated to seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has called the race a Democrat-leaning toss up.

Here’s a look at the candidates, and the issues that are shaping the race. 

Shaffer is a father of five, engineer, corporate executive, and former Ross Township Commissioner and board president. He’s running in a year in which, as an ABC News poll showed, more voters are inclined to trust Republicans on the economy. 

“The economy we know is pretty much in the tank right now, so we need the Republicans in there to get us back on track again,” Renee Abbs, a nurse from suburban Franklin Park in Pittsburgh’s North Hills, told the Capital-Star..

“We always flourish under the Republicans and we were incredible under [former President Donald] Trump,” she added. “I’d rather have nasty tweets and good gas prices and a good economy than [President Joe] Biden, who’s completely ineffective.”

The poor shape of the economy is not just a talking point. The stock market is down from its pandemic high, hitting well-off suburbanites where it hurts: their 401(k)s.

Dave Honhold, another Franklin Park resident, told the Capital-Star that “the economy was much better [under Trump]. My retirement and all that was much better. It’s very far down right now. I’m 63 years old, retiring in two years and getting my social security that I paid in since 1972,” which will be worth less now that prices are inflated.

Dave Honhold, of Franklin Park, Pa., who’s supporting Republican Jeremy Shaffer in western Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, has the economy on his mind this campaign season (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).

Inflation is hindering Honhold’s roofing and tinning business. 

“We can’t get materials, the right materials,” he emphasized, noting 25 sheets of copper used to cost $189. “Now we’re paying $340 for the same sheet of copper.”

Consumers lose too, he added. 

“I try to be good to our customers,” but Honhold said he’s had to raise prices to keep up with inflated costs.

He blamed Biden in particular for reckless spending, taking particular aim at the Democratic White House’s student loan forgiveness program.

“Take a little bit of time instead of being an executive order person and ruin everything that was actually working,” he said.

With the economy down under Biden, GOP media consultant Dennis Roddy thought Republicans had the upper hand in the midterms, arguing that the race is “Jeremy’s to lose.”

‘Political gift of a lifetime’

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion access has also emerged as a top issue in the race – as it has in other congressional contests in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

“The Supreme Court gave Democrats the political gift of a lifetime with [Roe] being overturned,” Roddy said.

With some congressional Republicans eyeing a nationwide abortion ban, voters who might have swung towards Shaffer told the Capital-Star that they’re reconsidering their support for Republicans who oppose abortion rights.

“I’m Catholic, and I believe that abortion is is wrong. However, God gave us free will … That’s the person’s choice, and then they will have to deal with the consequences,” said Michelle B., of Wexford, who asked her last name not be used to protect her cousin’s career.

“The government shouldn’t have a role in it at all. That’s getting totally crazy, and scary actually,” she added.

Her cousin Maria B., who lives in Sewickley, said she’ll vote for Republicans this season because of the economy. But she also noted, glancing at her cousin, that “there’s a lot of people that are gonna be undecided, and then they’re gonna end up not voting.” 

While abortion could hurt turnout for Shaffer, it’s hardened some suburban Democrats in their support of Deluzio, whose signs contoured the lawns of the South Hills suburb.

“My daughter was born on the day that the Dobbs verdict came back,” Monet Sulkowski said, as she cradled her newborn in her arms. She worried that her daughter “has in fact less rights than I have had in the course of my life.”

Monet Sulkowski cradles her newborn in Mount Lebanon, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).

Though always a Democrat, Sulkowski said she felt “even more conviction in voting for Democratic candidates. It just seems that things have swung so radically … on the right that it feels all the more important to vote.”

The mental health therapist hoped Republican voters would reconsider their decision to prioritize the economy.

In mid-October, Shaffer ran an ad featuring his geriatrician wife, Stacey, who said, “Jeremy knows the importance of decisions between patients and their doctors” – a line often used by abortion rights advocates.

The ad ended: “Jeremy will stand up for women’s healthcare in Congress.”

“I don’t trust any of that at all,” said Hadley Haas, of Glen Osborne, referring to the ad. 

“I think [he’s] trying to say the right things as much as possible in order to win this election, but in the end will govern like a far-right Republican,” she explained.

Democrats criticized the ad, calling it misleading because Shaffer opposes abortion rights, making exceptions only for incest, rape, and threat to the life of the mother, according to WESA-FM.

Haas thought various social issues had re-sorted the parties over the years. The issue of reducing gun violence has made her a more fervent Democrat, co-leading her local chapter of national gun safety group Moms Demand Action, which helped canvas and organize for Deluzio.

“You would expect these to be Republican areas,” Roddy said about the “bedroom developments” in the suburbs to the north and west of Pittsburgh. However, he added these higher-income voters in their 30s and 40s “can be reached by Democrats on a number of issues.”

The Race for the Center

Deluzio is a father of three, an Iraq War veteran, and a lawyer who’s most recently worked as the policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.

Rather than ignore the economy, Deluzio has reframed the issue in terms of bringing jobs and industry to Pennsylvania.

“We are in this fight for economic dignity, for union jobs, reproductive freedom, [to] bring our supply chains back home and start making more stuff and to keep our democracy strong,” he told a crowd of volunteers in Mount Lebanon on Oct. 22. 

In his interview with the Capital-Star, he distanced himself from Biden.

“I think this president, this administration, has been considering weakening tariffs on China. I strongly oppose that,” Deluzio told the Capital-Star. “Whether it was letting them in the World Trade Organization or signing on to other bad trade deals that let them take our manufacturing and undercut our workers, it’s been a big mistake.”

This emphasis on re-shoring manufacturing jobs and supply chains might sound like economic populism, but Deluzio said he is just “a Western Pennsylvania Democrat.”

In an ad released Thursday, he painted his opponent as a traitor to the region.

“Jeremy Shaffer made his fortune from a corporation creating jobs in China, ripping off Western PA families, and lying about it,” he said.

Shaffer co-founded a bridge maintenance and inspection software startup as a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. He sold this company to Bentley Systems where he currently is a vice president for the global infrastructure solutions company, which has offices in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, a Republican super PAC ran an ad calling Deluzio a “radical socialist professor.” 

Mudslinging is to be expected in such a competitive race, Roddy said, even if Deluzio and Shaffer don’t seem that far apart on many of the issues.

Deluzio’s website indicated his desire to transition the country towards renewable and clean energy, but believes energy security through natural gas and fracking is necessary.

“Our region’s one that’s kept the lights on for folks,” he said. “We have strong union jobs at the new nuclear facility in Beaver County. We have natural gas jobs that are in fracking. We have growing renewables…We have to be doing all these things,” he told the Capital-Star.

Shaffer’s website suggests he too is hawkish on Chinese offshoring, concerned with corporate power, and supports an “all of the above energy plan that protects our environment without hurting our economy.”

The difference between them lies with their preferred policies: government leading the way for Deluzio, or cutting spending and red tape for Shaffer.

This appeal to the district’s broad center is why you “can look at this in some ways as slightly analogous to the Conor Lamb-Rick Saccone race,” Roddy said, referring to the 2018 campaign that sent Lamb to Washington.

Deluzio’s pro-labor pragmatism may even resonate in red-collar Beaver County.

Roddy called Beaver “an old industrial county” from when steel mills abounded and coal was [plentiful]. After industry pulled out and unions collapsed, those longtime Democrats who didn’t leave started voting for guns and Jesus in the GOP. 

“That will be a place where Shaffer will get votes,” Roddy said.

However, “we’re spending a ton of time in Beaver County,” Deluzio’s senior campaign advisor, Caitlin Handerhan, told the Capital-Star.

Deluzio supports the PRO Act, which would strengthen the legal right of employees to join a labor union and weaken “right-to-work laws” touted on the right.

“I have the support of unions and workers whose jobs are in energy in my region. The building trades across the border [are] with me in this race. They support Democrats, Republicans in prior elections. They are with me,” he said.

Even if Beaver County goes for Shaffer on Election Day, its population pales in comparison to the rest of the district, which has become more blue since redistricting after the 2020 Census.

“We lost Cranberry in Butler County and picked up municipalities east of Pittsburgh,” Handerhan explained. Biden would have won this redrawn district by an additional 1.6 percentage points in 2020 against Trump, according to Census data.

“Allegheny County is where this election is going to be fought at the margins,” Roddy emphasized.

That’s where field operations may favor Deluzio who’s backed by public-sector unions and activist groups.

“Republicans in [Pennsylvania] do not have the ground troops or supporters that go out and knock on doors,” Roddy added.

However, the race is close.

Republicans need to win just six seats to take control of the House, so both party machines have flooded the district with cash.

Both candidates have amassed campaign war chests upwards of $2 million, though Deluzio outraised Shaffer by $200,000 as of Sep. 30.

Total spending in the race has reached $18 million. One side is going to be disappointed.

“This was supposed to be a year when the Republicans sweep,” Roddy noted. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

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Ethan Dodd
Ethan Dodd

Correspondent Ethan Dodd covers western Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @ethandasaxman.