Once on the bubble: How Democratic U.S. Rep. Susan Wild won re-election

The road back to Washington in the bellwether 7th Congressional District ran through Northampton County

By: - November 13, 2022 6:30 am
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild greets voters Tuesday as she leaves after voting at Calvary Temple, South Whitehall Township. Early the next morning, she declared victory to represent the 7th District for a third term. / Photo by Donna Fisher, contributor to lehighvalleylive.com

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild greets voters Tuesday as she leaves after voting at Calvary Temple, South Whitehall Township. Early the next morning, she declared victory to represent the 7th District for a third term (Photo by Donna Fisher, contributor to lehighvalleylive.com/Armchair Lehigh Valley).

By Robert H. Orenstein

The conventional wisdom heading into Tuesday’s congressional election held that the addition of heavily Republican Carbon County to the 7th Congressional District made it lean more red than blue.

Republican 7th Congressional District candidate Lisa Scheller (Contributed photo).

That was supposed to bode well for Republican Lisa Scheller in her rematch with Democratic Rep. Susan Wild.

But conventional wisdom and analyzing voter registration numbers and polling data don’t always play out as predicted.

Wild, 65, of South Whitehall won reelection to a third term Tuesday by 4,713 votes with nearly 51% of the total, according to unofficial returns.

Scheller, 63, of Allentown conceded the race Wednesday afternoon, tweeting that she called Wild to congratulate her.

Wild said representing the area in Congress has been an honor.

“This seat belongs to the people of our community, and so does this victory,” she said in a statement. “Together, let’s keep working to build a future worthy of the extraordinary promise of our commonwealth, and our country.”

She can thank Northampton County for her victory, where she tallied more votes than Scheller this time around and helped seal her victory.

Democrat Susan Wild declares victory over Republican Scheller in 7th Congressional District

In 2020, Wild won the race by 14,000 votes, driven mainly by Lehigh County’s numbers, but Scheller took Northampton County by 548 votes.

But whether Wild could pull off those numbers again was the big question in a midterm election year when the party in control of the White House typically takes a drubbing in congressional elections.

Republicans nationwide were looking at a red wave of victories by their House and Senate candidates.

With high inflation and a low approval rating for President Biden as well as a reconfigured district that included red-leaning Carbon County, Republicans were encouraged by the possibility of Scheller flipping the 7th District from blue to red.

A Muhlenberg College/Morning Call Poll taken three-plus weeks before the election underscored Wild’s vulnerability, showing the race to be a virtual tie, not Wild with a healthy lead.

But that red wave never materialized and neither did a Scheller victory.

Wild was able to collect enough of a vote advantage in Northampton and Lehigh counties (14,187) to overcome Scheller’s victories in Carbon County and the small section of Monroe County (9,474). Instead of losing Northampton, she bested Scheller by 3,379 votes.

(Pa. Dept. of State/Armchair Lehigh Valley)

Several factors contributed to Wild’s victory.

First, as a strong pro-choice advocate, Wild benefited from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 50-year precedent of Roe v Wade that gave women a constitutional right to an abortion.

In the Muhlenberg poll, respondents said abortion was the second most important issue behind inflation and was also ahead by a large margin over crime and immigration, two concerns that polled higher than abortion in some national surveys.

Matt Munsey, chairman of the Northampton County Democratic Committee, said the fight over abortion rights was a major factor in motivating women to vote for Democrats.

“Most people feel that it’s a personal decision a woman needs to make,” he said. “That maybe woke people up from their complacency … that people realized this is an important election.”

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Second, Democrats also reversed a trend that saw them losing voters while watching Republican post gains in voter registration in the district.

Democrats had the bigger gains, growing by 5,998 since Aug. 1 to 233,100 as Republicans saw their rolls grow by 4,067 to 192,312, according to statistics as of Oct. 31.

A third factor lifting Wild to victory was the youth vote. Two groups conducted nationwide exit polls Tuesday and concluded that people ages 18-29 voted for Democrats —  63 percent, according to Edison Research, and 53 percent, according to AP VoteCast – the Washington Post reported.

Kadida Kenner, CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project, a voting rights organization, said in an email that the organization focused part of its efforts in the Lehigh Valley, targeting younger voters at the area’s two community colleges. It registered 1,000 new voters in its year-long effort in Northampton County alone.

“Voter registration efforts and the turnout of those newly registered made all the difference –  especially on the college campuses. We spent a lot of time on Lehigh and Northampton community college campuses,” she said.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, a Democrat, said Scheller’s role as CEO of Silberline Manufacturing, based in Schuylkill County, posed a problem for her.

“Not only that she closed plants here, but that she’s building new plants in China. While it’s absolutely true that China is our biggest geopolitical rival, the Republican Party has also made China its chief boogeyman. In this case, it meant that Scheller was out of step with their own base,” he said in an email.

In an interview, Munsey said a back-to-basics approach also helped Wild win in Northampton County. The county committee increased its ground game, going door-to-door to talk directly with voters.

That was lacking in 2020 during the covid pandemic when personal contact was discouraged. There was also an added emphasis to contact people in the northern tier of the county –  from Northampton in the west to Bangor in the east  – that had been missing.

“We really had a lot of outreach in areas connecting with Democrats who maybe felt left behind, a much more robust program to make them feel valued, that their votes were important,” he said.

Finally, local Democrats made a point to spread the message that Wild and Democrats passed significant legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which among other things will allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for certain medications; the CHIPS Act to jumpstart U.S. semiconductor production; and medical care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

“We knew from the start this district would make things tougher, specifically by adding Carbon County. And so we pretty much knew from the start we had to do better, better than the numbers in 2020,” Munsey said. “We had to make sure we got a win for Susan in Northampton County.”

Robert H. Orenstein is a reporter for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a political newsletter, where this story first appeared.

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