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With Sights On A 'Blue Wave,' Scott Wallace Hopes To Turn Pennsylvania's First District Left


We are, of course, following the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh today. We will have more later in the program. But first, let me tell you why we're in Philadelphia. You may have heard other colleagues from NPR on the road this week. Like them, we've spent the week traveling and talking with people about the midterm elections just 10 days away now, visiting pivotal states and counties. We decided to come here because Pennsylvania, the keystone state, went for President Trump in 2016, breaking a winning streak for Democrats that stretched back to 1988.

Now, Pennsylvania was supposed to be part of that blue wall from Pennsylvania to Michigan to Wisconsin that Democrats thought would secure the White House for them. And all of those states went for Trump on election night. Now, though, Democrats are banking on a comeback here in Pennsylvania in their quest to retake the House. So we've been talking with candidates, business owners, students, working folk, people we found because they are really into politics and people who are really not. And we've been asking all of them what's on their minds this election year.

And, to help us understand what we've been hearing, we asked WHYY's Dave Davies to join us. He's covered politics in this region for more than 30 years, and he's with us now.

Thank you so much for hosting us, and thanks to all the people who offered us pumpkin bread and cookies...


MARTIN: ...And cider, which we were not expecting. So thank you for that.

DAVIES: It's great to have you all.

DAVIES: So, nationally, Dave, Democrats need to take back 24 seats to win the House. And analysts say they could pick up a quarter of those seats, give or take, in Pennsylvania. And a lot of that has to do with a new congressional map here in the state. Can you just tell us how that came about and what that has meant to this election?

DAVIES: Yeah. This is a seismic shift in the politics of this state. I mean, for the last six years, Pennsylvanians have had congressional maps that were pretty bizarrely shaped and generally acknowledged to be gerrymandered to favor Republicans. We have 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania. Democrats have only won five of 18 seats.

This was challenged last year in a lawsuit that was aimed not at federal court, where some of the gerrymandering suits have stalled, but at state court. And, in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court, five of them elected Democrats, not only ruled the map an unconstitutional gerrymander and ordered new districts but said it had to happen immediately, for this election. And it created some confusion and controversy, but it really opened up opportunities for Democrats.

MARTIN: Are there big themes playing out in congressional races across the state? And I ask because we've been watching the ads all week, and I get the sense that both major parties are trying to push specific themes in these races. So do you see that?

DAVIES: Sure, sure. I mean, for the Democrats, they're telling people that Republicans are tools of corporations and the wealthy who will strip away protections for people with preexisting medical conditions. The Democrats - the Republicans are casting the Democrats as friends of Nancy Pelosi - they can't say that name enough - who will spend and recklessly raise your taxes. And a lot of it, as you know, Michel, is just character assassination. If you have ever missed a tax bill, if you have done or said anything controversial, it will be exaggerated and amplified on television in hopes to undermine you.

MARTIN: Well, one of the races that we've been focusing on this week is the first district in Pennsylvania. It has attracted an enormous amount of national attention. It's drawn huge amounts of money. It's been one of the most expensive campaigns in the country. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that it's one of the 23 districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but was also carried by a Republican congressman - in this case, Brian Fitzpatrick. He's being challenged by a millionaire philanthropist named Scott Wallace who's never run for office before, and he's poured millions of dollars of his own money into his campaign. And I asked him, why?

SCOTT WALLACE: Well, because it's an extraordinary era - not just the policies that are being twisted around and turned toward the 1 percent and the corporations and away from the 99 percent, but just the moral tone of our country. I've got three kids. To raise a kid in this atmosphere, this influence coming from the White House - it's destructive of the fabric of our moral core in America and destructive of democracy. The assaults on the media, the assaults on the courts, on the rule of law, on the FBI, on our intelligence agencies, on the very notion of truth itself is under assault. And I've never encountered a time like this, and I just couldn't sit on the sidelines anymore.

MARTIN: What do you think the campaign here hinges upon? You know, I was watching a lot of the ads last night, and all very negative (laughter). So what do you think is the linchpin of it here?

WALLACE: The - on a specific level, the big issues here are health care and clean air and clean water. We have local issues with water pollution from a military base and air pollution. But the overarching issue that ties all of this together is money in politics. My opponent has taken a million dollars in corporate PAC money. I refuse to take a dime. He's got $7.5 million in super PAC contributions, a huge amount of corporate money in this. And I think people are fed up with that because that's what is blocking the people's business from getting done, and...

MARTIN: You really think people are noticing that?

WALLACE: When I explain this is why you're not getting clean air and clean water, when you want reform of Wall Street predatory lending, when you want gun control, the amount of money that flows in from the big corporate special interests stops - every single thing that the people want. You know, frankly, the situation with money in politics is outrageous. The amount of money it takes to run a district like this in a suburban district in an expensive media market like Philadelphia is ridiculous. Nobody can raise $15 million without going to the corporations and begging them. And, of course, their money comes with expectations, comes with strings attached. And so that's how the candidate votes.

So, yes, I am blessed to be able to do some self-funding here. I don't know how anybody could unless they take corporate money. So we have to fix that system. You know, the largest voting bloc in America that understands this problem is the people who don't vote at all. They are not crazy when they think that their vote, their voice is going to be drowned out by the voice of the big special interests.

MARTIN: How big of a factor is President Trump in your campaign?

WALLACE: He's huge. I mean, I don't bring him up when I go door to door, but people blurt out that they want change. They cannot stand the tone coming from Washington - even Republicans. Not that they want to throw him overboard, but they just hate the tone.

MARTIN: So he's not on the ballot, but is he on the ballot in a way? I mean, do you see your campaign, in a way - or this election as, in part, a referendum on Donald Trump?

WALLACE: It is becoming that, and largely through his own urging. He goes around the country saying, a vote for blank is a vote for me. He is saying this is, essentially, a presidential election. And, of course, interest is much higher in a presidential election. And the reality is, this is the first chance that voters in this district and everywhere in the country have to express their feelings about what they're seeing. And the last thing I think anybody wants to see is Trump doing a victory lap around the Rose Garden on November 7.

MARTIN: So let me - so, Dave Davies, let me ask you about both of the things that Scott Wallace just brought up. First of all, the money going into the race - tell me more about that.

DAVIES: Well, Scott Wallace has put at least $8 million of his own family fortune into the race - probably more when the final tallies come in. About $11 million has gone into the race from outside super PACs, most of that Republican super PACs to help Fitzpatrick because he doesn't have the family money, and all of it for negative ads - most of it.

MARTIN: And what about the Trump factor? We talked about that. Is the president a factor in this race across the state?

DAVIES: It's fascinating. Yeah. I mean, when I talk to voters and ask them what are they thinking about, they might mention jobs or taxes. But, pretty soon, you get down to some version of, I think the other side in this country has gone nuts, and they have to be stopped. And that really is about Trump, the feeling that Trump has to be stopped or that those who oppose him have to be stopped. I think it really is what's - it's the most motivating thing I see. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.