In the wake of the 2016 election, a group of despairing Democrats in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, formed a new political group to ensure that they would never be out-organized locally again. Faith leaders, small-business owners, social workers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, and students joined together as part of the historic dusting-off that was taking place all across the country. The group, which came to call itself Lancaster Stands Up, put its energy toward defending the Affordable Care Act from its multiple assaults in Washington and fending off the tea party-dominated state legislature in Harrisburg.
The group’s town halls and protests began to draw eye-popping numbers of people and even attracted national attention. With their newfound confidence, Lancaster progressives looked toward local and federal elections. The national press was captivated by the upsets across the state of Virginia in November, but that same night in Pennsylvania, Democrats across the state in local elections knocked Republicans out of seats they’d owned forever. The surge suggested that capturing the congressional seat covering Lancaster and Reading, which Democrats lost by 11 points in 2016, was well within reach.
In June, one of their own, Jess King, who heads a nonprofit that helps struggling women start and run small businesses in the area, announced that she would be running to take out Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker in Pennsylvania’s 16th District. Nick Martin, her field director and another co-founder of Lancaster Stands Up, was a leading activist in the popular and robust local anti-pipeline movement, an organized network King was able to tap into.
She planned to focus a populist-progressive campaign on canvassing and harnessing grassroots enthusiasm. If suburban Republicans came along, attracted by the promise of Medicare For All or tuition-free public college, then great, but they would not be King’s target.
Lancaster Stands Up voted to endorse King, as did a local immigrant rights group with a broad grassroots network, Make the Road PA. Justice Democrats, a small-dollar operation that was backing leftist Democrats, got behind her as well. (The primary is set for May 15, with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on Monday that the GOP had illegally gerrymandered the state’s congressional districts, insisting they be redrawn before the primary. The decision could cut either way for King, depending on the shape of the new map.)
King then sought to secure the endorsement of the major players in Democratic Party circles. Her campaign reached out to EMILY’s List, which was founded to elect pro-choice women to Congress. EMILY’s List sent King a questionnaire, which she filled out and returned, affirming her strong support for reproductive freedom.
That was October, by which point her campaign had broken the $100,000 mark, a sign of viability she had hoped would show EMILY’s List that she was serious. “We followed up a few times after and did not hear back,” said King’s spokesperson, Guido Girgenti.
It turned out the Democratic Party had other ideas — or, at least, it had an old idea. As is happening in races across the country, party leaders in Washington and in the Pennsylvania district rallied, instead, around a candidate who, in 2016, had raised more money than a Democrat ever had in the district and suffered a humiliating loss anyway.