MAGA labels dogs Republican in race for key Pennsylvania state house seat

MORRISVILLE, Pa. — Candace Cabanas, a mother and Italian restaurant waitress who is running for political office for the first time, has distanced herself from the fiery rhetoric and extreme positions of her Republican Party led by Donald Trump.

But her Democratic opponent, school board member Jim Prokopiak, won't let her escape the connection, running ads and sending emails that dry up. Cabanas as a “MAGA extremist” who knocked on doors for Trump and supported banning books in schools — characterizations Cabanas denies.

“People don't want extremists in government right now. Not here in Bucks County,” Prokopiak said in an interview.

Americans know that Trump is extreme. They might elect him anyway.

It's a strategy Democrats have won with in recent elections, particularly in swing areas like Bucks County, a vote-rich suburb outside Philadelphia where moderate and independent voters are heavily courted by presidential campaigns. Here in lower Bucks County, which has a white and older working-class population largely without a college degree, a vacant House seat is up for grabs and the winner of a special election Tuesday will determine the partisan tilt of the lower house in Harrisburg, which is deadlocked at 101-101.

This race for statehood is an early indication of how National Democrats plan to run aggressively to tie Republicans to Trump up and down the ballot. Democrats say Trump's hold on the Republican Party — and his almost certain return as a presidential candidate — is a liability for Republicans, especially in places like Bucks County. Extremism — a catch-all term Democrats use to include threats to abortion rights and democracy — has been a winning message for Democrats in recent elections, including the midterms of 2022, when Trump was no longer in power, but he still weighed on the party.

“If I'm a Democrat, I want to make sure I associate everyone I'm running against with Trump,” said Chris Borick, a veteran political pollster at Muhlenberg College.

Cabanas rejected the “MAGA” label and would not say whether she personally supports Trump, but said: “He's going to be the nominee and as the nominee, I believe that's our job in the party to support and support him. to perhaps encourage him to find a very good [vice president] this can help balance it out a bit.

Cabanas said she never knocked on Trump's doors, although she said her husband did. Her mailers and website do not mention that she is a Republican, and Cabanas is trying to focus her campaign on the issues she says are most pressing for struggling working families. She avoids other issues that might inflame the MAGA base, but are anathema to more moderate suburban voters.

Cabanas said she never advocated for banning the books, adding for example: “I think parents have the right to question age appropriateness. Should this be accessible to a toddler or impressionable age, especially for things of a sexual or explicit nature? » And she refuses to elaborate on her personal views on abortion rights – which Democrats plan to make a major part of their 2024 campaign – saying it's “a decision people have to make , and what they tell us is that they think so.” should be legal.

The dilemma for Republicans like Cabanas is how to distance themselves at least somewhat of Trump while continuing to court his loyal base. In the fight for control of the House and Senate this year, Republican candidates will have to follow the same line, adopting Trump as their candidate in conservative areas while more carefully calibrating their rhetoric in conservative areas. places like Bucks County.

Bucks County is historically a purple zone and turnout plays a big role in who wins the crucial swing state. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Bucks by less than a percentage point and lost the state to Trump. Four years later, Joe Biden performed better in the Philadelphia suburbs — he won the Bucks by four percentage points — giving him the edge he needed to win back the state. To win Pennsylvania's presidential election, Democrats need strong turnout in Philadelphia and its four counties to offset Republican victories in the state's sprawling rural areas.

The baggage of Trump's party candidacy was on display on a balmy, sunny morning this week as Cabanas knocked on doors in Morrisville, a small borough across the river from New Jersey, holding a stack of campaign leaflets .

After a man opened the door, she began to introduce herself, but he interrupted her: “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” He asked. She responded, “Republican.”

“Not in a million years,” he said, closing the door.

James Marcellus, 52, who works in maintenance at Bucks County Community College, is fiercely opposed to Trump and the current Republican Party. Sitting on a couch at home, his Doberman curled up next to him, Marcellus, a registered Democrat, said he would consider voting for a Republican if “you run a real candidate that I can trust.”

“In the Republican Party, I can’t trust a single one of them, that I know of,” Marcellus said.

But Jane Burger, 78, a retired social work administrator who describes herself as a moderate Republican, said she was voting for Cabanas and was surprised to hear that Democrats called her MAGA.

“We need to move past fear tactics and stop handing these other elected offices to Trump,” she said.

Jeff Hall-Gale, a Bucks County Republican Committee executive who knocked on Cabanas' doors, said Democrats have done well in recent cycles by calling all Republican candidates extremists. He highlighted Pennsylvania Republicans' 2022 gubernatorial pick, Doug Mastriano, a far-right senator who has espoused Christian nationalist beliefs. Democrat Josh Shapiro beat him overwhelmingly, including by 20 percentage points in Bucks County.

“I think what the Democrats are playing a little bit of is Mastriano-type politics where you have, you know, they want to paint all Republicans under the same MAGA, controversial brush that we're all book banners , which we all want full. “When it comes to banning abortion, all Republicans put us all in one basket,” Hall-Gale said.

Better-known moderate Republicans like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, whose brother, Michael G. Fitzpatrick, was in Congress before him, have shown they can still win Bucks County, even with Trump or Mastriano at the top of the ticket . But for lesser-known candidates like Cabanas, it's harder to convince voters that “look, I'm normal,” Hall-Gale said.

Paul McGinty, 49, a high school special education teacher, had long been a registered Republican until Trump came along. He officially switched parties in June 2022 after Pennsylvania Republicans chose Mastriano as their candidate and McGinty said he realized Trump was not “an anomaly.”

“I don’t see us becoming a moderate party again,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders when asked what he thought about voting for Biden in November, saying he would rather see “fresh blood,” but said he would vote for the Democratic president as a vote anti-Trump.

The state House district up for grabs Tuesday is more Democratic than the county as a whole and Prokopiak is favored to win. The winner will hold the seat until the end of the year, after which both candidates are expected to run again in November.

But Democrats took nothing for granted in this race. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the national group responsible for helping Democrats win state elections, donated $50,000 to the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee that could be used for the competition. Prokopiak raised enough money, $140,000 according to his campaign, to run television and digital ads and send seven different mailers. Cabanas ran his campaign on a shoestring budget, raising about $10,000 with little outside support.

Heather Williams, president of the DLCC, said the organization invested in the race because it wanted to secure a Democratic majority to block the Republicans' “extreme agenda.” The Pennsylvania State Senate is controlled by Republicans.

“MAGA is a way of talking about where Republicans are right now,” Williams said. “I think this connection is successful because it is now synonymous with the Republican Party. You can just say one or the other, and people know exactly what you're talking about.

The Republican Legislative Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for comment on the race.

Prokopiak primarily campaigned on local issues, like raising the state's minimum wage and building more affordable housing. But he has also made reproductive rights a cornerstone of his political platform, referencing it in almost all of his campaign materials.

At a small Human Rights Campaign-sponsored event at a supporter's home, Prokopiak warned that Republicans want to take away people's rights.

“We need to end this extremist agenda that we see at the school board level, and that we see at the House of Representatives level, and that we see at the State Senate level, throughout the Republican Party, frankly ” said Prokopiak. “Far too many people on the Republican side now think that it is possible to choose who will have rights and who will not.”

The issue is at the forefront of many voters' minds, including Meghan Horn, 34, who assured Prokopiak when he showed up at her door in Levittown that she would vote for him.

“For at least a decade, our state legislature has been Republican-leaning. So, it’s concerning, you know, as a woman, it’s concerning and it worries me,” Horn said. “My friend has a daughter growing up and I don’t think she will have these rights.”

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