A view of the skyline in Allentown, Pa. (Getty Images)
By Robert H. Orenstein
Lehigh Valley voters as a group show that political party loyalty doesn’t always influence how they vote.
The area is the ultimate swing region, switching between Republican and Democratic representatives in the U.S. House.
Starting in 1978, voters have chosen Republican Don Ritter; Democrat Paul McHale; Republican Pat Toomey; Republican Charlie Dent, who resigned in the middle of his final year in office; and Democrat Susan Wild. Wild filled the remainder of Dent’s term in the 15th District and was elected twice to represent the new Lehigh Valley-based 7th District.
When results from Tuesday’s election are counted, we will learn whether voters stick with Wild or switch to Republican Lisa Scheller. The race, a rematch of their 2020 contest, is a virtual dead heat, according to polling.
You have to go back to Fred Rooney, the Bethlehem Democratic congressman before Ritter, to see how the politics changed and the area became a swing district.
Unions, which helped Rooney get elected, no longer are the political power they once were. And the days when a member of Congress lived full time in the nation’s capital are gone; voters want to see their representatives in their districts.
Rooney succeeded Francis E. Walter, a Democrat from Easton who was first elected to Congress in 1932, and died several months into his 16th term in 1963.
A state senator from Bethlehem, he won the special election that year with 53 percent of the vote, defeating Robert Bartlett, a Bethlehem Steel executive, to represent the 15th District. At that time, the district was comprised of Northampton, Carbon, Monroe and Pike counties, but not Lehigh County.
That special election was targeted as a must-win race by President John F. Kennedy, T.J. Rooney, Fred Rooney’s nephew, told Armchair Lehigh Valley.
Members of Congress representing Lehigh Valley, 1963-present
Fred B. Rooney
Nearly 8 terms
Lost election, 1978
Lost election, 1992
Declined to seek reelection
Elected U.S. senator, 2004
Resigned May 2018 during 7th term
Seeking reelection, 2022
Earlier that year, Democrats lost two special U.S. House elections and the president was determined that a Democrat not lose the third.
“I think they spent $1 million in cash in the race,” Rooney said, noting that Kennedy “was personally invested.”
Labor’s support was a major part of Fred Rooney’s success in that election and in his future campaigns as well.
“Not only did you have a tremendous number of union households, but also they tended to follow the script. So, sure, unions were for Democratic candidates,” said Rooney, who followed his uncle into politics.
The younger Rooney was a Bethlehem state representative from the 133rd District from 1993-2006, and the state Democratic Party chairperson from 2003-10. He is a partner in Rooney Novak Isenhour, a government strategies firm in Harrisburg, and founder and president of Tri-State Strategies PA.
Despite being deeply entrenched in Congress, Fred Rooney lost in 1978 in a huge upset to a political novice, Republican Don Ritter, a research director at Lehigh University.
“He got wiped out in ‘78, but it was the precursor,” T.J. Rooney said, adding that Ritter criticized the incumbent for spending little time back home in the district.
“One inescapable truth was Freddie never came home … Ritter was wringing his neck with that, and then set the bar and, ever since then, we’ve had a commuter Congress. … And I think that’s the way they all pretty much are nowadays.”
Ritter could not be reached for comment. Fred Rooney died in 2019 at the age of 94.
In the Lehigh Valley the congressional district changed from the 15th to the 7th starting with Wild’s 2018 election. But one thing didn’t change: The Lehigh Valley remains a swing district.
Robert H. Orenstein is a reporter for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a political newsletter, where this story first appeared.
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