OZY on the Trail: Her Race Is a Bellwether for the White House

OZY on the Trail: Her Race Is a Bellwether for the White House

Candidate for U.S. Congress Christina Hartman, D-Pa., speaks during the Democratic nominee for Vice President Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., campaign rally at the Boys & Girls Club in Lancaster, Pa., on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016.

SourceBill Clark/Getty

Why you should care

Because it’s less than a month until the election, and as this rural county goes, so goes a crucial swing state?

Few states will be as influential in selecting the next president as Pennsylvania, and few places within this swing state could be as revelatory as the hotly contested 16th Congressional District. One could be forgiven for missing the signs of a nascent insurrection in favor of Hillary Clinton among its dusty cornfields and oil rigs. But it could happen thanks to Christina Hartman, a 39-year-old human-rights organizer running to steal the show in this historically red region. “Knock on that extra door please,” Hartman tells her supporters, insisting that Donald Trump’s values aren’t aligned with those of Lancaster County. “Call that extra voter, and stick it through.”

The Democratic Party needs every bit of that help. After this district’s incumbent, Joe Pitts, announced his retirement, his seat was expected to be up for grabs yet again by Republicans — the district hasn’t gone blue since it was created 16 years ago. But the race has become a referendum for many locals divided on whether to support Trump or Clinton, and a neck-and-neck race between Hartman and her opponent: Republican state Sen. Lloyd Smucker. If Hartman wins, it could presage a massive win for Democrats angling to get another crack at the White House. “If it does go blue, that’s a landslide for Hillary Clinton,” predicts Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist. But, he adds, “that district is not going blue.”

Democrats, of course, beg to differ. When Hartman was planning her run almost two years ago, the first-time candidate was told by one political scientist that it would “never happen in her lifetime.” But she believed enough to move back to Manheim Township from New York City, with a plan to run for office and care for her ailing mother. And, slowly, the perception changed.

  • In May, an internal poll showed Hartman within five points, a result that no modern-day Democrat has seen in these parts.
  • In July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added her as someone in an “emerging race,” then bumped her odds again, to their “red to blue” list.
  • Over the summer, the Cook Political Report changed its take on the race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”
  • By September, the influential pro-choice lobby Emily’s List had endorsed Hartman, citing her leadership on issues from criminal justice reform to higher education affordability and raising the minimum wage.
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Can Hartman turn Lancaster County from red to blue?

Source Tom Williams/Getty

Now, Hartman says her polls are tracking closely with Clinton’s. “I don’t perceive it as the challenge other people perceive it to be,” she says the day after her speech, her pumpkin-orange pullover in sharp contrast to the black couch she sinks into. As momentum continues to build, there’s a feeling that liberal hopes here, and across Pennsylvania, are better than most initially imagined. And that’s led to endorsements from Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray and Gov. Tom Wolf. “It’s a long shot, but she’s energized the area, the residents and the voters,” Gray says.

When asked which issues she’ll find compromise on, she hesitates.…

While working for Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, the George Washington-slash-Fordham grad parachuted into treacherous political situations overseas. She was used to taking on oppressive regimes, sometimes with only days to assess a political situation and figure out how to work with a local government to push change. Perhaps it’s that training that makes Hartman sound more like a hard-boiled strategist than a typical candidate. “I knew that this area had never been cultivated before for donors, for fundraising,” says Hartman, who now consults with local nonprofits and businesses while promising to “build coalitions” and cut through “petty partisanship” via her website.

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Hartman says her region is a “mini America.”

Source Tom Williams/Getty

When asked which issues she’ll find compromise on, she hesitates: It’s hard, it seems, because so many progressive causes are “basic things” to her, from refining the Affordable Care Act to ensuring living wages and bolstering Social Security. “We should cut red tape to small businesses,” she finally offers as a consensus builder. As director of development at the Joyful Heart Foundation, Hartman raised millions of dollars while working on policy issues related to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse — a platform palette that doesn’t get much attention but is ripe for her to tackle. Despite being a freshman, if she wins, Hartman thinks she could also help lead the charge to make tech a bigger priority in Congress. Her opponent, Smucker, has been in the state Senate since 2009, but Hartman points out that the assembly didn’t pass a budget last year. “I’m a little dubious as to how good at navigating the legislative process he is,” she says.

Smucker didn’t respond to requests for comment, but he’s been a vocal proponent for Trump, who some in the area respect for his perceived business acumen and willingness to shoot from the hip. This region is diverse, with small cities and townships connected by highways through the world’s largest Amish population — in short, “it’s a mini America,” as Hartman puts it. And if the 16th goes to her — or even comes close — it could be a sign that the nation is also set on choosing another woman to lead.

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.