Inside the progressive movement to unseat the three-term Republican.
WEXFORD, PENNSYLVANIA — In the days following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, western Pennsylvania resident Linda Bishop was scouring Facebook to find progressives, like herself, who felt lost and were eager to take action.
“I didn’t know what to do after the election. So I just started going to all kinds of [progressive] meetings … I just was trying to find a home,” said Bishop.
Bishop recalled attending a meeting organized by a group of progressives from Franklin Park, a borough in northern Allegheny County. She was impressed with the speakers, which included former Democratic congressional candidate Ray Linsenmayer.
“As soon as that meeting hit, that was when I knew. That was my tribe,” she told ThinkProgress during an interview at a Wexford coffee shop. She was joined by four other members of Progress PA, an organization they all founded in February 2017, with more than 800 followers on Facebook. Bishop, Stacey Vernallis, Alison Duncan, Barry Rush, and Mary Anne Van Develde have focused much of their efforts since then on driving progressive change in Pennsylvania’s new 17th congressional district.
That means unseating Republican incumbent Keith Rothfus, a pro-Trump conservative who opposes abortion and gay marriage, supported the president’s Muslim ban, and voted in favor of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which would have repealed and replaced Obamacare and left millions of people uninsured.
While Trump was the key reason Bishop and the rest of the group decided to form the organization, “what really got us going … was Rothfus himself,” said Bishop. “Rothfus kept blowing us off … so we started standing outside the office and asking for a town hall meeting.”
Progress PA had meetings with his staff and participated in one 15-minute constituent-level meeting with Rothfus himself, but Vernallis noted that the congressman never held a town hall open to all constituents. (Neither Rothfus’ office nor his campaign returned ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.)
Rothfus is running unopposed in Tuesday’s primaries. And so is Rep. Conor Lamb (D), who in March won the special election to replace Rep. Tim Murphy (R) in the old 18th district, an area that voted for Trump by 20 points in 2016. Thanks to recent court-ordered redistricting, Lamb will face off against Rothfus in Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 17th district come November. And, political strategists say, Rothfus’ chances aren’t good.
The three-term congressman has served comfortably in the former safely Republican 12th district, which stretched across six counties to the north, northwest, east, and southeast of Pittsburgh. There, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 21 points in 2016. The newly redrawn 17th district, which is made up of parts of Beaver and Allegheny counties, including the suburbs west and north of Pittsburgh, however, voted for Trump by only 2.5 points.
Rothfus must be feeling the heat, said Erin McClelland, who ran unsuccessfully against Rothfus in 2014 and 2016, and recently dropped her current bid for Congress to make way for Lamb. She said, following Lamb’s win in March, Rothfus has been reaching out to labor groups.
“There is no doubt that he is going after that strong labor base,” she said. “What he’s trying to do is avoid what happened in the Conor Lamb/Rick Saccone race, where the labor unions so detested Saccone.”
Lamb, a young former Marine and federal prosecutor, ran an impressive campaign in the former 18th district. He has also defied the national party — he doesn’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker and he doesn’t want a ban on assault weapons. Lamb is also personally anti-abortion, but he has promised voters that he would not cast a vote for a 20-week abortion ban.
The members of Progress PA are optimistic that Lamb will beat Rothfus. But the road in getting to this point was long. Vernallis said she’s been frustrated with what she perceives as unpreparedness and a lack of guidance from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.
“I got every friend I could to knock doors,” she said, referring to her canvassing efforts prior to the 2016 presidential elections. “We were coming back with really negative stories … Then, the ‘pussy tape’ comes out and, I mean, there are shrieks of joy in the Democratic committee, but if you were on the ground, you knew that wasn’t making a difference.”
“I was watching legacy Dems not developing a ground game … they’re not going to be mobilizing voters,” Vernallis said, adding that she wasn’t surprised when Trump won Pennsylvania. But in the committee, “there were tears.”
After the election, as small progressive factions began cropping up throughout western Pennsylvania, she decided to ask the committee for a meeting.
“My view is all politics is local, we’ve got to get rid of Rothfus,” she said. “And at the time, he was rated so safe that the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] wouldn’t even talk to me about making a move on that campaign.”
Nancy Patton Mills, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said she was aware that there were “so many grassroots groups that were springing up,” and while she did hold a summit with many of them last year, she said the committee “didn’t want to infringe upon their independence.”
“We didn’t want to start imposing the rules of the party on a group of people that were dedicated and had formed their own group,” she told ThinkProgress. “I understand the complaints. They certainly don’t bother me, but they make me aware that we have more work to do.”
The void in leadership is what fueled Vernallis into action. She began meeting with various progressive groups and, eventually, co-founded Progress PA, which has served as the “motherboard,” offering all the local groups with curated content, weekly newsletters, and calls to action.
In the months that followed, she and Bishop personally knocked on hundreds of doors and “we found so many more Democrats … we found families who said ‘when Trump was elected, I changed my registration from Republican to Democrat.’ In other words, me and Linda were experiencing canvassing nirvana.”
McClelland, who currently serves as a labor consultant for the Allegheny County Labor Council, echoed the sentiment that the Democratic party needs strong messaging and leadership in order to win.
“In Pennsylvania, obviously we have been struggling in the Democratic party and that’s because of a failure of a real message. ‘We’re not quite as bad as Donald Trump’ isn’t a real message,” she said, adding that the reason Lamb was able to win in the old 18th district is because the party ran a “purely economic message” centered around labor and health care.
Progress PA members have also touted similar issue-based rallying strategies.
“Where’s Rothfus Wednesday has turned into not just standing in front of Rothfus’ office wailing about this, that, and the other thing,” said Bishop, referring to the weekly protests she and her group organize in front of Rothfus’ office. “It became an opportunity to pick an issue, focus on an issue, educate our membership about that issue.”
The reception in the community has been positive, Vernallis said, with health care being one of the key driving forces “that wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican issue — it was an American issue.”
“When Rothfus voted in favor of the AHCA, we called a flash protest and 90 people showed up. And that was our signature moment in the resistance community,” she said. “Our ‘Where’s Rothfus [Wednesdays]’ is actually a performance and it’s a performance for the community.”
“It lets people know they’re not alone,” Duncan offered, suggesting that there are more progressives in western Pennsylvania than Republicans want people to believe.
“That’s the perception,” Bishop added. “And that’s what the Republicans around here and the Tea Partiers — they foster that perception.”
The perception is changing, however, said Barry Rush. Indeed, redistricting provided a unique opportunity to finally elect a progressive representative.
“When we were redistricted, I looked at the map and I said ‘oh, this is a Trump +2 district … This is the year, if there’s ever a year, we could get some progressives into the party. This is the year and this is the district,” he said.
“Personally, when [Lamb] said he’s running here, you know, I cried,” he added, explaining that he had favored Linsenmayer, who dropped out of the Democratic race last month. “I was really disappointed.”
But the disappointment isn’t distracting him from the broader goal: turning western Pennsylvania blue.
“I told him [Lamb] when I first met him, ‘we’re gonna keep pushing you to be bluer, dude,’” Rush said.
Vernallis agreed. “I didn’t care if he was a martian … if he was a Democrat, I’m getting him in office,” she said. “I believe in radical pragmatism at this point.”