PIKE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
Matt Cartwright understood he might be walking into enemy territory.
“I’m a Democrat, but I stick up for you guys,” Cartwright said, extending his hand to a potential voter, who was sitting next to a cow at an agricultural fair the Democratic congressman was visiting.
If Cartwright sounds defensive, he has reason to be in this working-class part of northeast Pennsylvania that makes up the 8th Congressional District. This area had long been a union-heavy bedrock of the Democratic Party, but Donald Trump won it by 10 percentage points — part of the reason he was the first GOP nominee since 1988 to win the state.
Now, two years later, Republicans are trying to show that the president’s victory was no fluke, mounting a serious challenge with the well-funded John Chrin. It’s one of the rare Democratic-held House seats the GOP is contesting this election, and the party is hoping a breakthrough in blue-collar, Trump districts like this can ameliorate likely losses in suburban areas that have been trending more liberal.
That explains why Cartwright was here one humid September afternoon, at a fair of carnival rides, funnel cakes, and monster trucks. (“It takes a big man to handle that!” the congressman told me as he pointed to one of the trucks.) He’s trying to show — as he has throughout his campaign — that he’s a different kind of Democrat, one not beholden to his party’s increasingly liberal and cosmopolitan leadership.
For both parties, the race is a chance to prove which side is better suited to claim the populist mantle.
“If you want to call me a populist, that’s a definition that fits if you mean somebody that really likes people and cares about them,” Cartwright said during an interview in which he drew a few favorable comparisons between himself and Trump.
As the Democrat was shaking hands, Chrin was a 30-minute drive to the east, meeting voters at a local rodeo. The Republican rode a bull, posting pictures on Facebook in which he smiled and clasped his hands on top of the saddle.
Chrin proudly embraces Trump, calling him “beloved” by many in the district while offering mostly effusive praise of the president’s time in office. And even if he worked for decades as an investment banker, he’s quick to highlight his working-class background of urban public schools and manual labor.
“I would say that i’m a real person, somebody who grew up, from a working-class family, did well, and has come back home,” he said when asked what message he’d like most to deliver to voters.
But Chris too has come under attack, for everything from his residency to his career on Wall Street and his positions on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The attacks touch on a familiar theme: he simply isn’t a real populist, just a tool for out-of-touch, out-of-state Republicans.
In an election year that increasingly looks like a referendum on Donald Trump, this Cartwright-Chrin contest offers an exacting look at two parties trying to become more populist — and the limitations each faces in trying to do so.
John Chrin earned an MBA from Columbia University. He had a more than 20-year career as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase on Wall Street. He even taught at the business school at Lehigh University, where decades earlier he had earned a dual economics and engineering degree.
And now the 55-year-old Republican is explaining to me that Trump is right to risk a trade war with China.
“You want to have free trade, but what you really want is fair trade,” said Chrin, who also supports renegotiating NAFTA. “Because some countries will say things but act in a different way.”
This is how it goes for Chrin: He has the resume of a traditional free-market, fiscally conservative Republican, but when he talks policy, he usually (though not always) sounds an awful lot like Trump. No race in 2018 is a better test of whether such such a transformation — business-oriented Republicans turning into Trump-style populists — can work.
Chrin is actively copying the Trump playbook, bluntly criticizing Cartwright’s position on sanctuary cities while painting him as a rich liberal who couldn’t possibly understand the values of a working-class area. He’s also eager to share details about his working class background, including working as a paperboy for The Allentown Morning Call. While in public schools and a college he paid his way through, he held jobs at a local snack manufacturer and the Teamsters union.
“You name it, I did it,” Chrin told me. “A lot of physical manual labor.”
Chrin’s career since then, however, has been decidedly less blue-collar. And when he talks — whether to me or to the voters he shook hands with at the rodeo — he’s eager to bring up his business expertise.
During an interview, he made special mention that he’s a certified financial planner.
“Nobody has ever had that in Congress,” he said. “And I’m actually prouder of that designation than I am of any of my other formal education.”
In a throwback to an earlier era of the GOP, when the party was defined by business-oriented, buttoned-up Republicans such as Mitt Romney and House Speaker Paul Ryan, Chrin also talked at length about the deficit.
When we sat in the stands to watch the rodeo, I asked whether he thought that the only way to reduce the deficit would be — as Romney and Ryan once proposed — curbing long-term entitlement spending. His answers were expansive.
He talked about how cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security didn’t exist until after the oil crisis in the 1970s. He emphasized that Social Security and Medicare are not solvent in the long term. And he floated a proposal for pairing mandatory minimum cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security (so beneficiaries would see increases even during times of low inflation) with annual increases in the program’s retirement age, indexed to rising life expectancy.
“By no way am I saying should we should increase the retirement age,” Chrin said, appearing to catch himself. “It’s part of a broad negotiation that you have to look comprehensively at everything in the program.”
I suggested he was looking for “tweaks” to entitlement programs.
“Intelligent tweaks, where you really understand the numbers,” he said.
Chrin has vowed repeatedly to protect Social Security. But it has become an issue in his campaign, something Trump — who at times during the campaign vaguely advocated for expanding the social safety net — managed to avoid.
Near the end of the night, Chrin was invited to the press box above the rodeo field to receive an introduction. He waited patiently for the public address as the cowboys finished below them.
“It’s a pleasure to introduce to you up here a fellow named Steve Chrin,” the announcer said.
“John,” two people interjected.
“John Chrin,” the announcer added quickly. “I’m sorry, John.”
At least two people would later joke to Chrin that “Steve” had their vote. Chrin took the jokes in stride.
Matt Cartwright was standing just a few feet from a John F. Kennedy presidential poster (adorned with a “Leadership for the 60s” slogan) when he received the question no Democrat — much less one from this area — wants to answer. Would he vote to impeach President Trump?
A member of Cartwright’s campaign joked that the question-and-answer session was now over.
“Well, what I am not going to do is rush headlong into something before we know all the facts,” Cartwright said, adding that if Democrats win a House majority, they could at least investigate the president.
For the incumbent congressman, any question about Trump is fraught. Trump won this district by 10 points just four years after Mitt Romney lost it by 11, and Cartwright is now facing a candidate trying to model himself after the president. Later in the day, when the congressman had changed out of his suit and arrived at the agricultural fair, he’d pull aside a voter and point to me, saying that I only wanted to ask questions about the president.
“I know you want to write about Trump,” Cartwright said. “I don’t want you to cry.”
If Chrin benefits politically from his party’s leadership in this part of the country, Cartwright has no such luck. Hillary Clinton fared poorly here, and Republicans have gleefully tried to link Cartwright with the head of the House Democratic Caucus, Nancy Pelosi. Focusing on Pelosi is not a new attack (here or across the country), but it’s proven effective before.
“They didn’t even need any words,” said former Democratic Rep. Chris Carney, who represented a district in northeast Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2011. “They just need a picture of me and a picture of Pelosi.”
Carney lost re-election, at least in small part because of the Pelosi criticism, during the red wave of 2010.
Chrin and the GOP haven’t just attacked Cartwright on Pelosi; in one particularly searing TV ad, they reference the rape of a five-year-old girl in Philadelphia by an illegal immigrant, blame the city’s status as a sanctuary city, and call the congressman a “disgrace.”
Cartwright called the ad “one of the ugliest” he’d ever seen. (The congressman was more blunt in a conversation with a supporter at the opening of his headquarters, when he said that he had to stop his campaign manager, Colleen Gerrity, from “punching this guy in the mouth” over the ad.)
Still, the congressman, a 57-year-old former trial lawyer first elected in 2012, takes some pains to separate himself from his party. In conversations with voters throughout the day, he continually brought up the funeral of John McCain, which he attended a day earlier with his son and how the former Arizona senator was an exemplary politician. He also mentioned the need for infrastructure spending and, whenever possible, emphasized the need to protect Social Security.
In an interview, he said his party struggled in 2016 because it lost its focus on economic issues.
“The Democratic Party needs to get back to bread-and-butter kitchen table issues and away from identity politics,” he said.
When I asked him to define “identity politics,” he answered: “Well this group and that group and the other group. We ought to be talking about regular working people as a whole in this country, and the government is not doing enough to help regular working people.”
Cartwright and I were among rows of farm animals at the fair, the smell of manure strong in the air. He had just finished talking to a farmer, explaining how he (unlike some other Democrats) strongly supported a pro-farmer agenda.
The congressman bristles at the suggestion his district has shifted to the right permanently, pointing out that Ronald Reagan also once won a lot of voters in northeast Pennsylvania before the area shifted back to the left.
As for Trump, Cartwright figures he has something in common with Trump because they’re both candidates of change, even though the Democrat has held office since 2013.
“And if you think about it, what kind of people are the ones a change candidate appeals to?” he asked. “It’s the people who are hurting, the people who are left behind. I stand up for those people, to my dying breath, it’s the core value to help people.”
Still, not everything for the congressman neatly comports with his new populist image. In 2012, when he first ran for office, he challenged incumbent centrist Democratic Rep. Tim Holden from the left, saying he was from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
The district had been drawn during redistricting to be heavily Democratic, a safe seat for any member of the party who claimed it, and Cartwright eventually became of the whip of the Progressive Caucus (Chrin mocked the position as proof Cartwright was in league with a candidates such as Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.)
He also surprised many people when, in a New York Times story published over the summer, he declared he liked to hunt. Cartwright defended the comments, saying he met many people in the district who helped teach him to appreciate hunting. He added that he took an online safety course for hunting while riding the Acela train.
“You should try it, because it’s the most peaceful thing,” he said. “It is absolutely soul replenishing to do that.”
Even Democrats were surprised. According to Carney, it wasn’t like Cartwright was talking about hunting six years ago, when he was taking on Holden.
“To be authentic, Matt should probably have joined a trap or skeet or clays club somewhere,” Carney said.
It’s easy for both parties to fall short of a pure brand of populism when their candidates are each wealthy. That’s the case in this race: Cartwright, an attorney, has been criticized for paying taxes late on his nearly $1 million home in Washington, D.C.
Chrin, meanwhile, has purchased a home in the district just this past year, in part because he vowed to live in the district and the district lines were changed earlier this year by order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (As we parted ways after the rodeo, in fact, he said movers were expected to arrive at his new home the next day.) Cartwright’s ads have focused heavily on the fact that the Republican had lived in New Jersey.
Back at the fair, Cartwright and the farmer had a friendly conversation about the upcoming election. And with me, standing next to a pig pen, he talked about Trump and how he’s different from other Democrats.
Then he shakes my hands and, after spending half the day with him, asks my name again before excusing himself to leave.
“I gotta go pet a goat!”