The 2016 presidential election was won and lost in three states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And Democrats’ hopes of retaking the White House ride right back through them.
The pivotal role those states play gives local elections there outsized importance, as the infrastructure built can then support a presidential candidate who comes through later. Had Hillary Clinton lost rural voters by the same margin that Barack Obama had lost them, she’d have won the White House. Getting back to those (not terribly impressive) Obama numbers — in 2012, he received 2.1 million more votes in rural areas than Clinton did in 2016 — doesn’t mean compromising a progressive agenda, but it does mean organizing in rural areas. And that means playing hard in those elections.
Local Democrats in northeast Pennsylvania say that’s not happening in an upcoming special election on March 12, despite the nearly endless opportunities the Republican candidate has given opponents to effectively disqualify him with everybody but hardcore Trump supporters. The state has three other special elections coming up in the next three months.
In the Scranton-area special election next week, Republicans are running a candidate who’s been blatantly racist and anti-immigrant, and frequently promotes wild conspiracy theories online. Organizers working for his Democratic opponent wish party leaders would put more of a spotlight on state-level races. “Republicans focus on these races, and Democrats simply don’t,” Alyssa Cass, director of politics and communications for Future Now Fund, a political strategy firm using crowdfunding to target state legislative races, told The Intercept.
Frank Scavo, president of the Old Forge School Board, is running to represent Pennsylvania’s 114th House District. The real estate investor has run several times for seats in the state legislature, losing most recently last year to Democrat John Blake in the 22nd District race for the state Senate.
He’s a useful case study because he is not an anomaly in Republican circles. Since at least 2009, diehard Republicans have drifted further and further from the mainstream in their approach to and analysis of politics. Democrats, too, have moved, but further left into popular policies such as free college, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal. Republicans, meanwhile, at their best-behaved have been clamoring for an unpopular wall, but more commonly have been sowing panic over nonexistent child sex trafficking rings at D.C. pizza places or flirting with out-and-out white nationalists. (While Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, has been accused by a judge of breaking the law in the process of protecting the leader of an actual child sex trafficking ring.)
The seat in the 114th was left open after the death last year of former Democratic state Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich. The district encompasses the Pennsylvania suburbs north and southwest of Scranton, including parts of Lackawanna County. Scavo has expressed personal support for President Donald Trump’s border wall, and is running on eliminating property taxes. Scavo’s opponent, Bridget Malloy Kosierowski, is a registered nurse also running on property tax reform. She supports universal health care, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and says she wants to address community opioid abuse, among other issues. Kavulich was staunchly anti-abortion and supported bills restricting abortion in the state, and Kosierowski has also described herself as anti-abortion, but says she respects women’s legal right to the option. Kosierowski’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The SEIU State Council endorsed Kosierowski this week. As did Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. Pennsylvania Rep. Connor Lamb told The Intercept that he hadn’t been following the race and had been focusing on a special state Senate election in the 37th District, his hometown. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey did not immediately respond to a question asking if he endorsed Scavo. Kosierowski’s also received endorsements from the Pennsylvania Nurse’s Association and the local chapter of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
In the 37th state Senate District, which covers parts of Allegheny and Washington counties in the southwest, Democrat Pam Iovino is running to retake control of a seat vacated by former Republican state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, who currently represents the state’s 14th U.S. House District. On April 2, Iovino, a Navy veteran who served as assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs under George W. Bush, will face Republican D. Raja, who chairs the Allegheny County Republican Committee and is treasurer for the state’s Republican Party. He ran unsuccessfully for the same seat in 2012, losing to former Democratic state Sen. Matt Smith. Smith left the district without a senator when he resigned in 2015 to take over as president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. Reschenthaler took his place. Iovino ran against Lamb — and lost — for the Democratic nomination in 18th Congressional District last year.
In another March 12 race in West Philadelphia, Democrat Movita Johnson-Harrell is running for a state House seat in the 190th District. She’ll face Republican Michael Harvey and two other candidates, Amen Brown and Working Families Party candidate Pamela Williams. Johnson-Harrell, who supervised Victim Services in District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office, would be the first Muslim woman to serve in the state House. Williams would be the first openly lesbian representative in the chamber. Former Democratic Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown resigned in November after she was convicted of taking $4,000 in bribes. Johnson-Harrell ran unsuccessfully against Lowery Brown in the 2016 primary nomination for the seat.
And on May 21, Democrat Marc Friedenberg is running to flip the U.S. House seat vacated by former Republican Rep. Tom Marino. Marino resigned in January, weeks after he was worn into his fifth term, saying he was taking a job in the private sector.
Four Democratic state legislators on Tuesday issued a joint statement declaring Scavo unfit for office. State Sen. John Blake, Rep. Mike Carroll, Rep. Marty Flynn, and Rep. Kyle Mullins, cited a Scranton Times-Tribune story reporting that Scavo had removed his previous Facebook posts in their decision. “After listening to Scavo’s attempt to clarify his positions” in a local radio interview, the statement read, “we have come to the conclusion that Frank Scavo is unfit to serve in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives — or in any other elected office.”
They said the statement was not something they “take lightly or make public for political reasons,” but that “in fact, this simple truth transcends party, politics, and ideology.”
Reached by phone, Scavo told The Intercept he thought the legislators issued the statement as retribution after he confronted them on their stance on eliminating property taxes, and asked why his posts didn’t come up during his 2018 state Senate race against Blake. “They didn’t like that, and they’re trying to use a 2015 Facebook post to say that I’m unfit. Well, think about this,” he said. “They had the post in 2018 — they’re there since 2015. Why didn’t they use the posts in 2018. You know why? They didn’t use the post because they didn’t think I was a threat.”
Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf regularly grapples with a Republican-led state legislature, and organizers are hopeful that Democrats can take control of both chambers for the first time in 26 years. Republicans have held the state Senate since 1994. They’ve controlled the House since 2011. Democrats would need to win at least five seats in the Senate and 11 in the House to achieve their first trifecta since 1993.
The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Pennsylvania called on Scavo to resign from his position as school board president earlier this month over numerous anti-Muslim Facebook posts over the course of several years. Scavo made an attempt to apologize last week, saying “there are good people inside that faith” but that Muslims are often victims of violence waged by others of the same religion. “Muslims have the same problems we do,” he said. The school board voted him out late Thursday night, as Scavo told members he would not resign.
“That faction that threatens peace, that’s an issue,” Scavo said. “So I think that’s what I was trying to point out. I didn’t do a good job of it.”
“ISLAMICS will use any excuse to kill!!!,” read one of Scavo’s Facebook posts from January, 2015. In another post, from later the same year, Scavo wrote that “Climate Change is not as dangerous as a Muslim with an IED.”
Scavo told The Intercept that the posts were “generally poking fun at Muslims,” which is “not fair,” he said. “And that’s why I took them down. Because I don’t know which one someone will think is fair, which one is factual. So I just took them all down.”
“Since the election of Donald Trump and the subsidence of the random attacks of terrorists,” Scavo said, referencing the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, “I haven’t really been commenting on that, because it’s subsided.”
Scavo said the characterization of him as racist was inaccurate. “Is Muslim a race?” he asked. “If anything, it’s religious intolerance. It is not racism.”
Asked if he could describe himself as religiously intolerant, Scavo said no. “Because I have friends that are Muslim, I have friends that are Sikh. I’ve had colleagues that are Wiccans, and some other crazy, crazy things. And as long as they’re not acting out, as long as they all work and pay taxes, it’s not an issue.”
In other, more recent posts from last year, Scavo called Stormy Daniels “America’s slut” and shared the GoFundMe page supporting a wall along the southern border. “I just donated $80,” he wrote. In another post from August, he boasted that he “started the #BUILD THE WALL CHANT” at a rally for Trump in Pennsylvania. “Ya, that’s what I do…lead,” the post read.
He also shared — and signed — a petition to help bring back InfoWars after Alex Jones and the show were removed from Facebook, Google, Apple, and Spotify for violating standards that prohibit hate speech. There is a free speech argument to be made in the case of Jones, but it’s not clear that was what motivated Scavo to defend the conspiracy monger. And while she’s likely too obscure to hurt him in a general election, Scavo “likes” Laura Loomer’s Facebook page, and called the racist conspiracy theorist “a patriot” in a video post he shared in which Loomer interrupts former FBI Director James Comey at an April book signing in New York City, yelling, “You’re gonna get prosecuted.”
“BREAKING NEWS: Illegals caravan to settle in Scranton School district. Collapse eminent!” Scavo wrote in a post dated April 3, 2018.
As recently as February, Scavo shared the post that originated the conspiracy theory that Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo, testified that he paid millions of dollars to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, and Hillary Clinton, writing that it was “not covered by the media.” Guzmán did not testify during his trial.
He shared another post in September supporting the conspiracy theory that Jenny Moore, the woman at the center of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory alleging that Democratic politicians were running a trafficking ring out of Washington, D.C., was murdered in an attempt to cover up the operation. The Pizzagate myth, debunked multiple times, led to the 2016 shooting at the district’s Comet Ping Pong. “Child trafficking is alive and well… I’ve heard reports of it as close as Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. Should I get into the Senate, it will be an expose on this bigger than that of the Catholic Church,” Scavo wrote.
“I address the problem of human trafficking,” Scavo told The Intercept, “although I’m not too sure the Clintons themselves were involved. Did you ever see the movie ‘Taken,’ by Liam Neeson?” Scavo asked. “I am addressing specifically human trafficking on that post,” he said, describing the plot of the movie. “OK, so be it. If one of my posts leads to the conversation about human trafficking and how it needs to be spotlighted and addressed, ’cause it’s a tragedy — yeah, OK, I’m gonna stand behind it,” Scavo said, clarifying, “I don’t author these, I just comment on them.”
Scavo recently made his Facebook page private, but Future Now Fund provided screenshots of several of his past posts to The Intercept.
Scavo told The Intercept that the comments were unfortunate but didn’t represent his legislative priorities. “They pale in comparison to what Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar states,” Scavo said. “Did this guy make some dumbass Facebook posts?” he asked. “Absolutely. But what’s the end result gonna be? Can we move forward? Or are we just gonna be stuck with inferior representation at $88,000 a year?”
“The district outside of Scranton is the exact type of place that cost Clinton the presidency,” Aaron Kleinman, who directs Future Now Fund’s research wing and its Give Smart state legislative fundraising co-venture with Data for Progress, told The Intercept. “If Democrats aren’t winning here, it’s a bad indicator for 2020.”
“In the 114th,” Kleinman said, “they went from supporting Obama by 18 points to going to Trump by almost 8 points.”
Kleinman touched on an issue that’s been something of a thorn in Democrats’ side since the 2016 election — that they don’t put half as much effort into controlling state legislatures as Republicans do. And that feeds a vicious cycle that sets the party up for failures at the federal level.
“If Democrats can’t win districts like this, it also means winning back the Pennsylvania House gets a lot tougher,” Kleinman said, “as they have plenty of similar turf to defend in 2020.”