Can a Progressive Populist Win in Trump Country?

Rep. Matt Cartwright is seeking reelection in a district that went for Trump in 2020.

Congressman Matt Cartwright (left) at rally in Luzerne County, PA, October 9, 2022. Jim Bognet (right) at rally in Wilkes-Barre Township, PA, May 13, 2022.
Congressman Matt Cartwright (left) at rally in Luzerne County, PA, October 9, 2022. Jim Bognet (right) at rally in Wilkes-Barre Township, PA, May 13, 2022. Photos: Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The race for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District pits Rep. Matt Cartwright, a populist Democrat, against Jim Bognet, a Trump-endorsed Republican. The district is one of a small handful nationwide that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 while electing a Democrat to the House of Representatives; it’s now a test case for whether a progressive candidate can win over enough Trump voters to prevail in a swing district in 2022. One such Trump voter is John Petrizzo, a local restaurant owner who’s supporting Cartwright this November. Petrizzo joins Ryan Grim to discuss the peculiar politics of the 8th District. The two are also joined by Rachel Bovard, senior director at the Conservative Partnership Institute.

[Deconstructed theme music.]

Ryan Grim: All right, I’m Ryan Grim, and welcome to Deconstructed.

In this midterm, progressive Democrats have been complaining that the party hasn’t done enough to reach people on a more populist, economic level, ceding that ground instead to Republicans. And while that might be true in a lot of races, that doesn’t apply to the race being fought in Northeast Pennsylvania, where incumbent Democrat Matt Cartwright is defending a Trump-voting seat against Jim Bognet, who is the first House candidate Trump endorsed in the 2022 cycle.

Cartwright, who represents Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is a useful case study for the potential of progressive populism because he’s among the few Democrats not to shy away from a boldly progressive agenda, yet he has managed to win the type of working-class voters bleeding out of the Democratic coalition.

Here’s Bognet in the debate trying to use it against him:

Jim Bognet: Our seniors worked for their Medicare, they deserve their Medicare. John Fetterman and Bernie Sanders are the two people he stands with for Medicare for all.

RG: Now, how Cartwright messages those progressive politics is telling. Here’s a major campaign ad he released this week, which the campaign provided first to The Intercept.

Glen: This is a great place to raise a family. But in order to do that, we need good jobs that can lead to careers.

You know who understands this? Matt Cartwright. That’s why he’s helping to bring a new plant, creating thousands of jobs and cheaper gas prices. He’s working to fix our supply chain and bring jobs back from China. He’s proven that he’s not afraid to take on big corporations.

Matt is not a politician. He’s a fighter, and he’s fighting for people like me,

Rep. Matt Cartwright: I’m Matt Cartwright, and I approve this ad.

RG: Now, Bognet has been running on what has become the standard Republican issues, while highlighting his connection to the area with at least two ads that show him kicking a game-winning field goal for a Hazleton Area High School in 1993.

A little fun aside here, I recently took my great-aunt Mimi to Hazleton for her 75th high school reunion. I did not see any statues of Bognet for his game-winning kick, but here’s that ad:

JB: Round here, we used to win a lot.

Newscaster: Bognet’s kick is up, and it’s good! [Cheers.] Hazelton: 10-7.

JB: But things have changed. China cheated us on trade and sent us the Wuhan flu; illegal immigrants took our jobs, spread crime, and sent taxpayers the bill. President Trump fights for us, but he needs teammates.

I’m running for Congress to fight for the Trump agenda; build the wall, and put America first. [Cheers and applause.] I’m Jim Bognet and I approve this message.

RG: Now, Bognet’s career has involved time on Wall Street and also working for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitt Romney, and John McCain — not exactly favorites of the MAGA faithful. He has also toiled in the swamp, doing communications work for the Democratic-leaning PR and lobbying firm Glover Park Group.

What makes Bognet so fascinating to me is that if even Bognet can reinvent himself as a MAGA Republican and sell it successfully, the movement really has no limits on the Republican side. Revolutions don’t just need diehard true believers; they need converts, too. Cartwright has tried to hammer Bognet for those D.C. ties. In the most brutal ad, this one from the House Democrats super PAC, he gets hit for his lobbying firm doing work for the Saudis against 9/11 victims.

CBS Newscaster: Newly declassified documents show links between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi nationals with connections to the Saudi government.

Ad voiceover: The Saudi Arabian government was implicated in the 9/11 attacks. So the Saudis hired Jim Bognet’s D.C. lobbying firm, paying Bognet’s firm over a million dollars to prevent victims’ families from suing the Saudis.

Jim Bognet — if he stood up for them, why would you ever think he’d stand up for you?

House Majority PAC is responsible for the content of this ad.

RG: So last week, Cartwright and Bognet for the first and only debate of the cycle, and it was a case study on what the politics of dueling populism would look like if both parties fully embraced it.

To dissect the debate, I’m joined by Rachel Bovard, who is the senior director at the Conservative Partnership Institute, and was sometimes my co-host and counterpart back when I was doing Hill TV’s show “Rising.”

Rachel, welcome.

Rachel Bovard: Thanks for having me.

RG: And we’re also joined by John Petrizzo, a Cartwright supporter from East Stroudsburg who himself was actually a subject of the debate. Petrizzo appeared in a Cartwright ad wearing a MAGA hat while professing his support for the Democratic candidate.

Here’s a little bit of that exchange about John:

JB: Matt Cartwright has no shame when it comes to politics. He plays dirty and he plays rough — and he had a Democrat put on a Make America Great Again hat to try to fool you.

Rep. Matt Cartwright: That’s all utterly false. John Petrizzo is the name of the man. You can go visit him on Route 209 in Pike County. He’s a terrific guy.

RG: So we took Cartwright at his word; we reached out to John and indeed he said he’d be happy to talk to us.

John, welcome to Deconstructed.

John Petrizzo: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here from beautiful downtown Bushkill, Pennsylvania — more commonly known and penned by me as the center of the universe. I’m happy to be here.

RG: Well, John, well, I’ve got a Pennsylvanian on the line. I wanted to ask you quickly about the Fetterman-Oz debate, and then we’ll then we’ll get into Cartwright-Bognet, but everybody around the country is talking about this one.

Who are you backing in that race? Did you watch the debate? What did you think? What are people saying about it?

JP: Well, I personally met Dr. Oz months ago. And I decided then that I was gonna support him. Fetterman, his look is not appealing to me: The goatee, the bald head, the tattoos. It’s not my cup of tea. Although Fetterman did well under the circumstances with his stroke, what really scares me is that Fetterman cannot complete his term, you might have somebody like Rachel “Richard” Levine or Governor Wolf as his takeover person. And that scares me to death.

RG: Well, let me ask you, going back to the Cartwright — thanks for that — going back to the Cartwright-Bognet debate, what kind of ads are you seeing back in the district? I just played three different ones that have been playing throughout the cycle, but how much are they saturating cable and other TV? And what are the messages that you’re kind of getting from the two candidates if you live there?

JP: Well, first of all, I march to a different drum. First of all, I try to meet the candidates personally, look them in the eyeball and ask them questions that concern me the most. And basically, I’ve done that, especially in the Cartwright-Bognet race. First of all, I know Matt Cartwright from before he was a congressman. And he served his community with a gratis news program every Friday at the end of the local news with free legal advice from people who couldn’t afford to reach out to a lawyer. So I know him from that.

And then friends of mine are very good friends of his —

RG: Hmm.

JP: — and I like Matt Cartwright — what he’s done, and what he does for the community.

RG: And Rachel, let me get your take on the ads that I played. So for a lot of progressives that are listening to this podcast, I bet a bunch of them are kind of tugging at their collar a bit with Cartwrights, kind of squeamish about what you could read as xenophobia, or scapegoating China, or otherwise kind of Islamophobia playing dirty, but Democrats, at least in Northeast Pennsylvania, clearly think that those ads are going to resonate in the district. How much of this type of messaging have you seen from Democrats? And do you think it’s effective on the kind of populist voters who are up for grabs?

RB: Well, I was kind of surprised. To watch Cartwright, he definitely is running his own campaign. And what I mean by that is, he’s shying away from some of the real sort of national meta-narratives that Democrats are pushing this cycle: you didn’t really see abortion dominate this debate — like it had a section. And you didn’t really see him go all in-on ads or at this debate on Trump as a fascist and Republicans as authoritarians, which you’ve seen in a lot of other debates as well. So the fact that he’s really pushing ads and messages on economic issues, on entitlements —he knows his district, and he’s working it.

And to be honest, I think Democrats would be a lot more successful this cycle if they pushed those issues, because Republicans, even though they’re coming around on a lot of these things, and you saw that within Bognet’s responses in the debate, they have a lot of baggage from the Paul Ryan era and the George Bush era. And Democrats could be leaning in a little harder on that, and I think they’d be more successful if they did. But they’re running, I think, a lot more on national issues.

RG: John, is that one thing that’s helping Cartwright? Has he been able to distinguish himself from national Democrats?

JP: Well, I can only speak for myself.

RG: Mhmm.

JP: And I take each race in its own little section. And if we’re going to talk about Bognet and Cartwright, Bognet I ran into at a Republican women’s get-together at John’s Restaurant up in Pike County, and I was one of the speakers. And Bognet came up to me, took a hold of my nametag, looked at it, and said: I’m Jim Bognet, and turned around.

And I believe he knew exactly who I was. His campaign reached out to me, so did Cartwright’s. And basically, I have an issue that needs to be addressed in my community, but Matt didn’t get back to me. Cartwright did.

RG: Is that anything you can talk about? What was the issue?

JP: No. I don’t think legally I’m allowed to talk about it.

RG: [Laughs.] All right. Let’s go into the opening statements. Zach, can you play the beginning of Cartwright’s opening?

MC: I ran for Congress 10 years ago to become a powerful, effective voice for northeastern Pennsylvania and boy do we need that now more than ever. I made it to the top of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. And that gives NE PA the kind of clout that we haven’t had in a long time.

RG: Yeah, so super old-school stuff here: I’m moving up the Appropriations Committee, I’m bringing the bacon home. But listen to where he takes it next. This is what I found interesting.

MC: Using that clout, I have brought back nearly $72 million to fund our police and for other worthy projects locally in the community. I brought back billions from the IIJA, the Infrastructure [Investment] and Jobs Act.

RG: John, why do you think he goes right to: Don’t worry, I’m not defunding the police; in fact, I’m funding the police. How big of an issue is that in Northeast PA?

JP: Well, first of all, it may be Northeast Pennsylvania, but basically, it’s the Bronx West.

RG: Mhmm.

JP: Basically, most New York and New Jersey moved here. And we’re inundated by their problems. That’s one reason why Congressman Cartwright said that.

And second of all, the billions that he brought back from the infrastructure bill — well, that’s because the area’s been neglected for so long. And before Matt Cartwright got there, we had the fastest-growing county in the United States of America, but yet, we had the oldest section of Route 80 in the whole United States of America.

RG: Right. And Rachel, what did you make of him starting with the old school, I brought the bacon home, and then saying: And I gave it to the police?

RB: Well, I think talking about bringing the bacon home is just smart politics. Right? That’s retail politics. That’s, that’s talking local. And It’s a good way to start. When he pivoted immediately to: Hey, I brought it to the police, it’s a hat-tip to the fact that crime, I think, is on a lot of voters’ minds. And it’s an acknowledgement that you haven’t seen a lot — some Democrats make, but not a lot of them. Or if they do, they’ll acknowledge it through the lens of some other driver pushing it. But I was curious how that message would be received back in Washington, in the Democratic conference. Like, is there a place for Matt Cartwright, if this is what he’s saying in his debate? That was my initial response.

RG: Yeah. And my guess is that they’re at the point where they’re letting people — even progressives — are just letting people say whatever they need to say at this point back at home.

And from here, he gets a little bit more populist. So Zach, play the rest of that clip:

MC: I have worked across the aisle as the most bipartisan Democrat in the Congress over the last 10 years. And I have a 77.1 voting average of voting along with Republicans in the votes that I’ve cast in the House of Representatives.

Right now, we’re in the middle of a post-pandemic inflation, and it’s painful, and it hurts, and people are hurting from it. But you know who’s not hurting? Corporate America. Huge corporations in this country and international corporations are not hurting, they’re making record profits, paying little or no tax, price-gouging people who are living paycheck to paycheck. We see them here in northeastern Pennsylvania. Those big corporations are not hurting.

My opponent has been a corporate lobbying executive for huge corporations. And we’re going to hear about that. We’re going to hear about him really shedding the values of northeastern Pennsylvania, if he ever had them.

Host: Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.

RG: And indeed, we did hear a lot about that from Cartwright for the rest of the debate. He hits that theme a lot — corporate price-gouging and then links it back to Bognet’s work in Washington. But let’s give Bognet his rebuttal.

Here’s Bognet’s opening statement:

JB: My name is Jim Bognet, and I was born and raised in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. I went to public school there, graduated from Hazleton Area High School, and graduated from Penn State University.

Someone who had a big effect on my life was my grandfather. He was born over 100 years ago in Italy. His name was Vincenzo Bucchichio. And at Ellis Island in 1911, they turned him into Jim Bognet. My grandfather came here with a dream for a better life. He went to eighth grade, had nine children, and worked in the coal mines for 50 years. He loved his country so much, he wouldn’t let his nine children speak Italian at the dinner table because he wanted them to be American. That’s the kind of love of country I want.

Ladies and gentlemen, America is off track. We’ve gotten into a ditch. We need change, and we need it now. We need to instill a love of country and a love of our traditional values of hard work and patriotism back into our country.

I’m running for Congress to stop the Biden-Cartwright inflation that’s running out of control. I’m running for Congress to stop illegal immigrants from flowing into our country, bringing with them fentanyl and crime. And I’m running for Congress to protect the American people from the crime wave that’s been unleashed under Joe Biden.

I make a promise to you here tonight: When I’m your congressman in three months, I will always fight for you; I will never put the interests of a party or a president above the interests of Northeast Pennsylvania.

I’m asking for your vote. And I look forward to representing you.

RG: John, did any part of that land for you? Even though you’re not supporting him. Any jump out as like: OK, that might work.

JP: Well, let me say this, again: I march to a different city. In 2011, John Petrizzo said this statement: It’s gonna get to the point where we’re going to be paying $24.95 for a hamburger and fries. That’s how bad it’s gonna get. Since 2011!

Now, Trump got elected in 2016; Biden’s elected in 2020. Why was I making those statements back in 2011-2012? And I kept making them all through time, and I’m still making them. I’ll tell you what hit this rapid inflation: Hurricane Sandy, Katrina, Andrew, the wildfires out in California, you just can’t keep printing money without inflation. And that’s what was needed to take care of all these situations. And bam — inflation took off. And basically, Trump stemmed the tide of that. That’s why I’m a Trump supporter.

RG: And —

JP: But that doesn’t mean I have the support of Bognet just because Trump is supporting him.

RG: And Rachel, anything jumps out at you there? Or was that pretty standard, that’s basically what you’re hearing from MAGA candidates around the country this cycle?

RB: You know, yes, I think it’s sort of standard fare for MAGA candidates. But increasingly I’m surprised by what I don’t hear. What I didn’t hear from him was any mention of tax cuts. [Laughs.]

RG: Mhmm.

RB: What I didn’t hear was an emphasis on deregulating the economy. And I didn’t even hear that much about: We need to reduce spending in Washington —

RG: Right.

RB: — sort of vague appeals, even though I think the point about spending and inflation is valid, you have to address that. The tenor of the Republican candidates has changed. And I don’t think it’s just about being a MAGA candidate. I think these candidates are actually trying to address local issues; they’re trying to address middle-class and working-class voters who they know don’t really give a crap about a corporate tax cut. And that’s new.

RG: Mhmm. Oh, yes — interesting. And that holds throughout most of that debate. And I think a lot about this campaign, actually.

So I wanted to start out with this question that begins with asking the candidates if they would support codifying marriage equality into law. It goes to Bognet first, but very quickly, it goes into drag queen story hour and all sorts of other stuff, because both of them basically agree on marriage equality. Bognet won’t say that he wants to codify it into law, but he says he’s not gonna do anything to undo it. Cartwright says he’s fine codifying it into law. But then they move on. And I thought this was a super-instructive exchange between the two of them.

JB: The Supreme Court, which makes our decision on what our constitution says, has weighed in, and they have allowed same-sex marriage, I will do nothing to try to change that. It’s been a long time coming in this country. That was the decision the Supreme Court made.

Here’s why I’m gonna focus on those issues: I think teaching transgender stuff to our school children is horrible. I think allowing the teaching of any kind of sexuality to our elementary school students is horrible. I would hope Matt would agree with me on that. We have seen an amazing thing in our country: Drag queen story hour?! We see men getting in pools with women and wanting to steal their trophies off of them. Where have we gone as a society?

When I was an altar boy, at Most Precious Blood Parish, we talked about a culture where everyone was created equally, and we tried to protect children. We’re not protecting our children. If you think that our children should be exposed to transgender ideology, and should be exposed to sexuality teaching and when they’re six years old, you should be in jail. You shouldn’t be in charge.

RG: Yeah. And so Rachel, what I liked about his answer there is how clear he is. He’s like: This is what I want to focus on. He just kind of moves really, really quickly past marriage equality. He’s like: This is what I want to talk about.

And then he goes into transgender ideology and even a veiled reference to the UPenn trans swimmer controversy. For any progressives who are listening to this podcast, that’s a reference, you could Google “Lia Thomas.” Because of our kind of epistemic bubbles probably a lot of people listening to this haven’t followed that story. But that’s what he means by this — what would seem like a crazy reference to men getting in pools and trying to steal their trophies — you’re like: What on Earth is he talking about here?

So what was your read on that answer? And how common is that around the country? And is this something that’s landing?

RB: You know, the trans issues are incredibly galvanizing for the Republican base. And I think it was very smart for him to pivot to that. And Democrats, I think, like to frame it, to help them, they frame it as an issue of bigotry. But the way Republicans view it is as an issue of parents’ rights, particularly in schools. And it is definitely turning out our base; it is a base motivator issue. And Republican candidates want to be seen as protecting the rights of parents around what their kids are being taught in schools, who they’re being exposed to, what kind of material they’re reading.

And the girls’ sports issue is a big deal as well. So in terms of the culture war issues, the trans stuff definitely outranks marriage equality at this point. And it was a smart and quick pivot and a clear one. He looked at the polls. [Laughs.]

RG: Right. [Laughs.]

RB: It was very clear.

RG: And, John, what was your take on that statement from Bognet?

JP: Well, first of all, you have to realize that things are a lot different here in northeastern Pennsylvania than they are in San Francisco, or Key West, Florida. And basically, when a party puts their platform together, their planks have to draw as many people as they can. And that’s a good point for Bognet, no two ways about it — or the Republicans. It is definitely hitting home to the younger generation with children. And they’re going to vote that way, too.

RG: And so here’s how Bognet closed this one out. And then Cartwright’s response:

JB: We better wake up as a country, because it’s happening. Every day you see it. It’s happening. They’re letting drag queens in. Nancy Pelosi hasn’t done anything against it. Matt Cartwright hasn’t done anything to stop it. How are we letting this be done to our children?

LV: Thank you Mr. Bognet. Mr. Cartwright?

MC: Here come the culture wars again. And this is all a big distraction, folks, from the main play that’s going on. The big corporations that got huge tax cuts, many of them pay little, and some of them pay no taxes, even though they’re making record profits. And they have people like this shilling for them down in Washington and distracting everybody by delighting you with tales of the culture war.

His biggest donor, his $160,000 donor, is a guy who’s a board member of a Chinese pharmaceutical company. That’s why he’s distracting you. That’s what he’s distracting you from with all this culture war stuff.

JB: It’s not a culture war. It’s a war on our culture and our traditional values. And Nancy Pelosi and his friends like Adam Schiff have been waging the war. He attacks me about corporations? He’s taking more money from big corporations in Washington than anybody. You know who his number one funder is? Her name is Nancy Pelosi. Tomorrow night, she’s having a fundraiser for him: 5 p.m. Maybe he’ll let you be on the call. Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, and 20 rich people represent the biggest companies in the country. That’s who Matt Cartwright really is.

LV: Thank you, Mr. Bognet.

RG: So John, for the people who you think that that original Bognet answer kind of landed for or resonated with, do you think that Cartwright’s response there that this is a distraction is an effective response or no?

JP: Yes, it is! Everything he said is true.

But what do you do? You have to weigh your scales on what’s important to you. And that’s what I do. I weigh my scales. I weighed my scales when I didn’t get a response from Bognet on this important issue that’s facing my community. And then I’ll tell you what really ticks me off, as Bognet said that he never reached out to me. Well, I have a text message from one of his campaign workers. And the text message said that he’ll talk to Jim about it and get back to me. They never did!

RG: I’m curious: If Bognet had gotten back to you on that and given you a satisfactory answer, are you basically a Bognet guy in this race?

JP: No, because I knew then when he looked at my name tag that he knew exactly who I was, what my issue was —

RG: Right. [Laughs.]

JP: — and there was no way that he was going to address this important issue.

RG: Rachel, Democrats — or populist Democrats, I should say, for years have been saying like: This is the way that you respond to this issue. What was your read on Cartwright’s response, and then also on Bognet’s response to Cartwright’s response? That actually: You’re the corporate stooge.

RB: Right. So I think the emphasis on pushing back on the economic issues in response to culture war stuff I think is smart. But I don’t think the Democratic Party is letting him do that right now.

And what I mean is: in a normal political environment, you can always assume that people’s economic issues are ahead of the culture war issues. And I think in some ways that’s true in this current climate, right? You’re seeing inflation outrank abortion, for instance, in a number of different races. But the reason I think a lot of Republicans are honing in on the trans issues is that they’re making a gamble that they’re cross-partisan issues. They’re making a gamble that parents, however they’re voting, if they consider themselves Republican or Democrat, are going to vote for the person who keeps the boy out of their girls’ soccer team, right? That is going to compel them. And I think you can’t argue that it’s a niche issue anymore, when the president has pushed the trans agenda. He has trans members of his political appointments. He’s hosted a group of trans activists at the White House. He’s putting out specific executive orders and pushing regulations on this. It’s not a culture war when the president’s doing it, right? It’s not a fringe issue.

And so I think, unfortunately, Cartwright is going to be forced to reckon with that. Whether he wants to do it in the debate or not is a tactical decision. And I think he pivoted probably as best as he could. If I were advising him, that’s what I would have probably done. But it’s going to be hard for Democrats, I think, to ignore it. And at the peril of being able to focus on more populist issues, like going after corporations.

Now, how Bognet responded, whatever Cartwright believes, he also is dealing with the baggage of now having a party that many members are endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce.

RG: Mhmm.

RB: Right? Where you don’t hear a lot of the old-school, populist rhetoric from Democrats on trade, on reducing legal immigration; you’ve heard illegal immigration come up in this debate, but not that. So he’s got a lot of the baggage to be able to distinguish himself from mainstream Democrats. And I think that’s why you hear Bognet hit him over and over again on being a Pelosi-Biden Democrat, because increasingly, even though you see some flashes of populist rhetoric out of President Biden, the mainstream Democrats are becoming institutionally, I think, sort of Chamber of Commerce Democrats. So it’s a tough sell for Cartwright.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: As you said, the abortion section was not huge — was not as big in this debate as it has been in a lot of others. But there’s still an interesting back-and-forth. Let’s play a little bit of Cartwright’s first answer.

MC: The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case was an attack on womens’ right to reproductive freedom. I believe women ought to make their own choices.

My opponent, however, does not. He wants to have a national ban on abortion with no exceptions: no exception for rape; no exception for incest; no exception even if the life of the mother will be lost. He signed a written pledge for that just a few months ago. And I think that’s extreme.

JB: The matter has been sent back to the States. And I believe that’s where it belongs.

So I do not think we should take federal action on abortion. You know, Mr. Cartwright should be embarrassed. When he ran for this office 10 years ago, he ran with the exact same position I have. He was pro-life with three exceptions: for rap; incest; and the life of the mother. And when women are put in those situations where their life’s at stake, where rape and incest occur, of course, we have to make exceptions for them. He ran with that position, that pro-life position. In my heart, I believe he still has that position. But Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden require him to be pro-choice to get elected. So that puts him in quite a bind.

Let me tell you what he’s had to vote for in the last 10 years: He voted against the Born-Alive [Infants] Protection Act. That says if an abortion is botched, and the baby survives the abortion, you have to give it health care. He voted against that — that’s extreme. He voted for federal funding of abortion. He wants you to pay for other people’s abortions. That’s extreme. He’s never stood up to sex-selection abortion. That says if a person’s having a baby that they don’t like the sex of, they can have an abortion for that. That’s wrong. That’s barbaric.

I am pro-life. I believe in a culture of life. I will fight for a culture of life.

RG: And so, I don’t know if we want to call it a fact check, Bognet filled out a candidate questionnaire that took some position that said no exceptions, but in general, he’s been somebody who, for a small number of exceptions, is a pro-life, generally anti-abortion candidate.

Let’s play Cartwright’s response here:

MC: I actually voted for the Born-Alive [Infants] Protection Act. You can go back and check the record. In addition, the truth is, my wife Marion is here in the audience and we’re both Catholic and we would not choose abortion. That’s true. But I never ran to take women’s rights away. In fact, the Dobbs decision is such a jarring sea change in American law. We didn’t see that coming. And I certainly never campaigned the way my opponent suggests.

Larry Vojtko: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.

JB: For 10 years, Matt Cartwright has voted differently than what he told us. He stood on a debate stage in 2012 and 2014 and said that he would be pro-life with these three exceptions. That’s a reasonable position. That’s a pro-life position that realizes that there are really some amazing challenges that we have to address. And for him to be for abortion on demand to the moment of birth, to never be able to tell us when would he prohibit an abortion? That’s disappointing.

RG: And so on that one, I checked, he actually did vote for the Born Alive [Infant] Protection Act back when Republicans brought it to the floor in 2015.

Republicans also brought it to the floor as a motion to recommit in the last Congress, which is kind of a procedural vote, we don’t need to get into it in that case, he voted with all the Democrats against that amendment. So I think that’s what Bognet’s referring to. But when it came up as legislation, he voted against it.

Setting that aside, John, this is a tricky one for him, since he ran as a quote-unquote pro-life Democrat in the past. And what he seems to be saying in that answer is: I had no idea that the Supreme Court was going to overturn Roe v. Wade when I was running back in 2012. And now that they have, he doesn’t want his own kind of personal beliefs around abortion to dictate policy. Is this a tough one for him? And how is the issue of abortion rights playing back in Northeast Pennsylvania?

JP: All right, first of all, my birthday is January 22. And that was the days of Roe when it was signed into law by the Supreme Court. And I’ve watched this from its inception to its un-inception. And basically, it is important to different people for different reasons. And if you’ve been watching politics like I have since I’ve been at least 10 years old, I’ve been watching this stuff, they always bring these issues that divide us, and these issues that divide us, you’re supposed to pick aside.

And basically, that’s what elections are about: Do it this way, or do it that way. And basically, it’s a tough one for Northeast Pennsylvania. Up in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and down here, there’s a big Catholic, Irish, Italian population. Alot of people are against abortion, and then there’s a lot of people that are for abortion. So this is what elections are all about. And what’s important to people, that is who they are going to pull the lever for.

RG: Rachel, this is an issue you’ve been working on for probably most of your career, I would assume. We don’t have as many of those kinds of Catholic, pro-life, quote-unquote Democrats anymore. It seems like Cartwright’s kind of a holdover from that era. What did you make of this exchange?

RB: So yeah, as a pro-life Catholic myself [laughs], and someone who’s been really frustrated, actually, with Republicans’ inability to message on this issue, I thought Bognet was actually pitch-perfect in his response. And by that, I mean, pointing out the extremism of Democrats on this issue. And I didn’t think Cartwright pushed back very effectively.

Democrats, for the last 20 years, it was abortion shouldn’t be the first choice; it should be safe, legal, and rare. That was the position of the Clintons in the 90s, and I think that was a very palatable position for a lot of people. It seems like the doors have fallen off a little bit; the wheels are coming off this debate for Democrats in many ways. And to point out the extremism, I think was accurate, right? You didn’t hear Cartwright say: Well, I only support abortion up until a certain point. You didn’t hear him say it should never be done for sex selection. You didn’t hear him say a number of things that Democrats have pushed where I think he could have pushed back effectively.

Because at the end of the day, the polling on this shows that a lot of the voters are in the middle somewhere. And I think there’s a place to moderate on it for Democrats, but Cartwright didn’t play that card. And so I think Bognet very effectively linked him to a lot of abortion radicalism, that is a turnoff for a lot of people. So I would say that was a success for him.

RG: Yeah, I was kind of surprised in the sense that in this national environment, even in Northeast Pennsylvania, Democrats should be cleaning up on a question about abortion rights. But Cartwright did really allow Bognet to frame that conversation, and the back and forth over this born-alive stuff and right-up-to-the-moment-of-birth stuff, because he didn’t just come out simply and say: No, no, no, of course I’m not for that — other than saying: Well, I did vote for that.

I should know more than this than you, but do you have a sense of if you’re seeing any movement among Democrats who are recognizing: Let’s take this opportunity to clobber Republicans over this, rather than cling to the Women’s Health Protection Act, which he mentioned, which isn’t going to pass the Senate anyway?

RB: You know, it seems like neither party has really found its footing generally. I mean, you’re starting to see Republicans come around to the extremism messages. Like I said, I think Bognet did it really well. But it seems to me that Democrats are also hesitant to sort of set any kind of limit. And I don’t know why.

You saw this in the Georgia Senate debate as well. Well, Raphael Warnock was asked very directly: What limitations do you support? When should a woman not be able to have an abortion? And he didn’t answer that question, either. [Laughs.]

So it comes up a lot, because, again, the economic situation is dire and there’s a lot of Democrats that don’t want to talk about it, so they pivot on abortion, but a lot of them, I think, just highlight their own radicalism or extremism of the party generally, where I think it would have helped Cartwright particularly here to, as you point out, set a limit. But I don’t see Democrats doing that nationwide. And that’s going to turn off, I think, some of the more moderate voters who may support a woman’s ability to have an abortion, but only up to a certain point.

RG: Does the reverse extremism backfire? Like, OK, I could see how some moderates might say: Oh, well, I do support some restrictions somewhere. But then, can you imagine them going all the way the other way and saying: Well, let’s vote for this party that has a lot of people saying they want to ban it outright, without exceptions?

RB: Yeah. That has been the hit on Republicans is that — and there are some Republicans who do not support any exceptions.

But I think where I think a lot of them are trying to pivot, and even Bognet pivoted this way, as well, is: Look, it’s an issue of federalism at this point, right? Like, this is self-government and in the states; each community should be able to decide the limit that it wants to live with — or no limits at all right? In some states, and in some localities, abortion will become even more unrestricted than it already is. And in some communities, it will become less. That’s the decision that was made from the Supreme Court. So I think you’re seeing a lot of Republicans answer that with: Look, the voters will have to make this decision. Whether that’s effective or not, I don’t know. We are sort of in uncharted territory, obviously. We haven’t had to actually debate this issue like this in 50 years.

RG: Play two more clips. This exchange on Social Security, I thought, was extremely revealing about our politics today.

JB: Let me tell you what’s been done to Social Security in the last few years: inflation has ran it over 8 percent, because of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and my opponent Matt voting with them 100 percent of the time. They are killing our senior citizens.

Let me tell you how: I had a senior citizen in Honesdale call me last week — home heating was $5.79 a gallon. It cost them $1,200 to fill their tank up. That is because of the Biden-Cartwright inflation.

So let me tell you how I think we should protect Social Security. Number one: No benefit cuts. Number two: No raising of the retirement age. Number three, and it’s the only way: Economic growth. We are about to enter a recession. This recession is caused by the Biden-Pelosi-Cartwright inflation. If we can get our economy moving again, we will be able to bring back the economic growth we had the last four years before his best friend Joe Biden came along and destroyed our economy.

MC: I actually am concerned about what you brought up about the solvency of Social Security. And that’s why I’m a co-sponsor of Social Security 2100, to adjust it, to raise the cap, so that more people pay into it longer, and so the solvency lasts longer.

My opponent, on the other hand, seems to have found an epiphany about Social Security, because when he was writing Mitt Romney’s policies, he wrote the plan for cutting Social Security. And he called it the big enchilada of entitlements.

I object to that word: entitlements. “Entitlements” is like people are acting entitled. It’s not that! It’s your money. Social Security is money you paid into it. It’s an insurance program you paid into your entire work life.

RG: I liked Cartwright’s answer here, but I’d have two criticisms. One is that he doesn’t explain what the Social Security 2100 Bill is. And we did an episode on this several months ago. I interviewed John Larson, who’s the sponsor of it. It’s a bill that fixes the solvency problem with Social Security and also expands it — makes the payments more generous for seniors. So he could have explained that.

But his second problem there — and this goes back to your point about the Chamber of Commerce and this being difficult for Democrats to sell — Nancy Pelosi has blocked this bill from coming to the floor. And so Bognet was then able to respond by saying: Well, you’ve been in there 10 years, you haven’t done this. It’s nice that you sponsored this bill, but you haven’t done it. So if Democrats could say, like, we actually fixed the solvency problem, and we expanded it and made it more generous, that would have landed better than just being able to say: Well, I’ve sponsored this bill.

And Rachel, we were talking about this maybe before we started taping, you were saying that Republicans were recently saying that they’re going to use the debt ceiling to kind of force raising the retirement age, while somebody like Bognet, who’s in a tough election campaign, he just comes out and says: Don’t worry, we’re not going to raise the retirement age. So what did you make from that exchange?

RB: Yeah, you are already seeing Republicans in the House licking their chops if they take over the majority, what are going to be their leverage points? And you’re seeing rumors that they do want to use the debt ceiling negotiation to raise the age and social security. So I did raise my eyebrow, since Bognet said: We’re never going to do that because it’s being reported that his party is actually thinking of doing that. [Laughs.] Which I think, frankly, would be a mistake. I do think at some point we’re going to have to address the solvency issue. That’s a fact. But I think doing it right out of the gate, when you are at this pivot-point on the right, where we are moving away from all these sort of fiscal entitlement reform issues that matter, but not in this moment, when I think there’s far more pressing issues facing everyday Americans — a lot of them came up in this debate. We’re talking about gas prices, fuel prices, energy prices, all these things.

Do we want to tackle security right out of the gate? No, I don’t think we do. And I think there’s got to be a much more nuanced way to do it than sort of these blunt tactics. But I do think, if you had told me when I started my career in Washington, which was in 2006, in the throes of the Bush era, that we would be having this conversation where Republicans are like: We’re not going to touch your Medicare, we’re not going to touch your Social Security, you spent your whole life working for it — which is what Bognet said in this debate — it’s amazing how the pivot has taken place. And I think it’s reflective, more than anything else, of really what the voters care about right now. And frankly, they don’t care about the old issues that Republicans used to focus on. They care far more about the kitchen-table economic issues, they care about being exploited by powers beyond their control: global trade, corporations that are out of control, that kind of stuff. And that’s why you saw that as the meat of the debate.

RG: And Bognet even finished in a counter-counter that I didn’t play, he finishes by saying: And I support a higher COLA. I think COLA should be even higher.

So he wraps up being the Republican and coming out of that exchange as the one for even more generous social security benefits.

But John, I wanted to play your star turn in this debate, and it was embedded in this exchange about Trump, where Bognet’s hitting Cartwright for impeaching him twice.

Let’s play the latest clip:

JB: Let me tell you some interesting things about President Trump. The man across from me voted to impeach him twice. Voted to impeach him twice. He hates President Trump. He stands against President Trump.

But you know what’s really amazing? He did an ad last week where he had a man wearing a Make America Great Again hat saying that he likes Matt Cartwright. Let me tell you something: For him to stand with Joe Biden, while Joe Biden calls me and everyone else who supported President Trump, including the majority of this district, a semi-fascist, is shameful. I don’t know what a semi-fascist is. Maybe it’s like a semicolon — nobody knows what it means, what it does — but I’m not one of them. And for him to put a man wearing a red hat in his head, he must think we are stupid. He really must think we are stupid.

Let me tell you about that man. That man is a lifelong Democrat. He was the chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Party. He ran eight times in Democratic primaries as a Democrat and voted in those Democratic primaries. And he’s given a lot of money to Democrats.

Matt Cartwright has no shame when it comes to politics. He plays dirty and he plays rough, and he had a Democrat put on a Make America Great Again hat to try to fool you. Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Cartwright’s time fooling us is up. His term is up soon. And his time in Congress is up. And we are going to Make America Great Again when we get rid of Matt Cartwright.

LV: Thank you, Mr. Bognet. Mr. Cartwright.

MC: That’s all utterly false. John Petrizzo is the name of the man. You can go visit him on Route 209 in Pike County. He’s a terrific guy. He loves Donald Trump through and through. He doesn’t believe it, but he thinks it’s all phony. It’s not phony. John Petrizzo is a great guy and he’d love to talk to anybody.

RG: So John, is it true you love Trump through and through?

JP: Yep. But I’m also a customer of his. We all used to go down to Trump Plaza, from here, we’d pile in my friend’s airport and then go down, and we’d all eat at the New Yorker Deli.

RG: And so —

JP: And not only that, in politics, you have to have a thick skin. But one thing, you should notice that he got very upset when my name came up. And I would say: Why did his campaign reach out to me for help [laughs] if he didn’t believe I was a Republican?

RG: And so you were telling me this earlier — he was close. You weren’t chairman of Monroe County; you were vice chairman. But when was that — of the Monroe County Democrats?

JP: This was back in the ’80s. And I changed to a Republican. And there’s a lot of reasons why I changed to Republican. But the primary reason was, I started to see the Democratic Party get away from the real issues of America. Except Matt Cartwright! Matt Cartwright is right on with what this area needs, and that’s why I’m supporting him. But that doesn’t mean I’m supporting Fetterman.

RG: And were you watching the debate? How’d you find out that you were a subject of the debate?

JP: Well, I wasn’t watching it. And I started getting these phone calls. And I go to cardiac rehab on Mondays and Fridays. And this girl from Scranton was going: I saw you were mentioned on TV!

I said: Yeah, somebody said something! And they said, they said that. I said: I heard vaguely. I said: Well, first of all, let me show you my cell phone — and I showed him the message from Bognet’s campaign from them reaching out to me.

And she saw what I wrote back, which, you know, I don’t really want to go public with that. And I don’t think I’m legally allowed to. [Laughs.] But then I pulled out my registration in my pocket. And I said: What’s that say? It says “R.” And you know what? The Republicans never ever complained when I was writing the check to them, or holding the party for him, or buying tickets to their events.

RG: So Rachel, you’ve got a national view here. How many John Petrizzos are there that are switching parties and still up for grabs?

RB: I think a lot, to be honest. Our whole American political system is more fluid than I think it’s ever been. Donald Trump’s election proves that for sure. And I think you are seeing the parties themselves trade places on a lot of issues or mix up their platform in ways that would have been totally unexpected and hard to imagine even five or 10 years ago.

So I do think that [is] the reason polls are so unreliable; it’s a reason that so many of these races are surprising us. But I do think, John, you’re probably more typical than I think a lot of people in D.C. realize.

RG: And John, what about back in Northeast Pennsylvania? What’s your sense of, if you’re gonna play pundit, how’s this race looking?

JP: All right, well, first of all, how many polls have you conducted in this race?

RG: Zero.

JP: All right, young lady, how many have you?

RB: Zero. I don’t do polls. [Laughs.]

JP: Yeah. Guess what? I do my own polls. I do my own polls. I ask my friends. I say: I want to ask you a question. Or I ask people that I see on the street: I want to ask you a question, do you have a minute?

And basically, more people today than ever I’ve seen — and I’ve been involved in community affairs since I was in high school — they’re voting red or blue. They’re not even looking at what the candidate’s saying.

RG: Hmm.

JP: They’re looking at red or blue. And it’s a shame because there’s more to politics and voting than just red or blue.

RG: Well, John, Rachel, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

RB: Thanks for having me.

JP: I had a great time. Anytime you need a perspective from somebody who looks everybody in the eyeball day to day and works every day, feel free to call me.

RG: I will, or I’ll come out and visit you on 209.

JP: OK, I’ll sing you a song.

RG: Excellent.

JP: All right.

[End credits music.]

RG: That was Rachel Bovard and John Petrizzo, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review — it helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

See you soon.

Join The Conversation