Amid discussion of protecting reproductive rights and increasing access to health care, one idea overwhelmingly dominated the first candidates’ forum featuring all eight Democrats seeking to represent south central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District: Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Perry is a danger to democracy, abortion care and the working class and must be defeated in November’s election.
The Jan. 13 forum, which was organized by the Dauphin County Democratic Party and held at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, featured widespread consensus among the Democratic candidates that Perry’s political tenure has been disastrous for voting and workers’ rights, health care, and other issues important to voters. Perry is a former leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and played a central role in former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
“This is bigger than you and me; this is about democracy, and we need the Democrat to get in there and take Scott Perry out,” said Janelle Stelson, a longtime anchor at WGAL-TV in Harrisburg who resigned to launch her campaign last year. Stelson said she would support whichever Democratic candidate wins the April 23 primary.
Candidates at the two-hour forum went after Perry over his efforts to help steal the 2020 election for Trump, his anti-abortion record, and repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also referred to as Obamacare.
“Scott Perry aids and abets the worst president in the history of the United States, Donald John Trump; we must defeat both,” said Rick Coplen, an Army veteran and Carlisle School Board member who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the 10th Congressional District in 2022.
Matthew E. Beynon, a campaign spokesman for the Perry campaign, responded to the Democrats’ statements in an email to the Pennsylvania Independent: “This past weekend’s forum was simply a race to embrace the failed Biden policies that have left south central Pennsylvania families struggling, our southern border wide open, and our nation embarrassed and weakened on the global stage. The more they talk, the more out of touch they reveal their candidacies to be.”
In addition to Stelson and Coplen, the Democratic candidates at last week’s event were John Broadhurst, a businessman; Shamaine Daniels, a Harrisburg City Council member who ran as the Democratic nominee against Perry in 2022 but lost by seven points; Bob Forbes, a teacher in the Harrisburg School District and a retired Army sergeant; Blake Lynch, a former senior vice president and chief impact officer at Harrisburg public radio station WITF; Mike O’Brien, a recently retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel; and William Lillich, an Army veteran and former truck driver.
The 10th Congressional District covers all of Dauphin County, most of Cumberland County, and about half of York County in south central Pennsylvania. While the district has long been conservative, political experts note it’s becoming more centrist and said it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it could turn blue in the November 2024 election —– which may be why the primary has attracted so many candidates.
Perry’s attacks on democracy
The Democratic candidates denounced the Republican congressman’s well-documented efforts to help Trump remain in office following the 2020 presidential election, which Biden won nationally and in Pennsylvania.
Perry drew national attention for a speech he gave on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Perry called for Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to be thrown out and voted against certifying them.
Perry and at least 11 other Congressional Republicans had spoken with Trump administration officials about overturning the presidential election, according to the House committee that investigated the insurrection. Perry also played a role in attempting to replace acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen with the more Trump-friendly Jeffrey Clark.
At the forum on Jan. 13, O’Brien said it was the Jan. 6 insurrection that prompted him to run for Congress.
“My wife and I were stationed in Washington, D.C., in 2020. … And we saw that lead-up [to the riot], and we saw the MAGA hats, and we saw the Confederate flags. … At the end of that night, Scott Perry still tried to fight to take away my absentee ballot here in Pennsylvania, and all of your votes,” O’Brien said. “At that point, it became personal for me. There was no way I could stand idly by anymore and let Donald Trump and Scott Perry attempt to overthrow our democracy under the guise of patriotism.”
Broadhurst said the roots of the far-right extremism exemplified by Perry must be addressed.
“I think the highest priorities for everyone here has to be, first of all, to address the causes of MAGA, the causes of extremism, because getting rid of Scott Perry is just the first step,” Broadhurst said. “But unless we address the underlying causes, we’ll be dealing with MAGA again and again and again.”
Those underlying causes, Broadhurst said, are economic inequality, militarism, and political corruption.
“The American middle class is being squeezed again and again; it’s never-ending,” Broadhurst said. “This causes anxiety, frustration, anger and hate.”
Candidates go after Perry’s anti-abortion record
Perry’s Democratic challengers criticized his anti-abortion record.
Just days before the country marks the 51st anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that enshrined the right to abortion in the U.S. Constitution, which the right-wing majority on the court overturned in 2022, Perry and his House Republican colleagues on Thursday approved two anti-abortion bills, the Pregnant Students’ Rights Act and the Supporting Pregnant and Parenting Women and Families Act, which are not expected to be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Perry has supported legislation that would effectively institute a national abortion ban, such as the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2021.
Stelson said the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Perry’s anti-abortion stance largely inspired her to launch her campaign: “It took a big chunk out of my heart that day. Scott Perry celebrated that decision, and, in fact, he wants a nationwide abortion ban. He wants to tell you what to do with your body.”
“We’re losing our rights,” Daniels said. “In fact, shortly after my daughter was born, we found ourselves in an America that afforded us fewer rights than women had since 1973.”
All eight candidates said they back a pregnant person’s right to have an abortion.
The push for affordable health care
Health care needs to be more accessible and affordable for people nationwide, every candidate said, criticizing Perry over his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In 2017, Perry said that he backed repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a plan that does not provide maternity care.
“I don’t want maternity care,” Perry told Alissa Packer of the group PA 4th Indivisible Action, as quoted by PennLive. “I have two children, and we’re not having any more. I don’t want to pay for maternity care.”
Stelson slammed Perry on health care: “Over the next year we need to hammer Scott Perry on his record on health care. He has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, that gave millions of Pennsylvanians, millions of Americans health insurance, some of them for the first time in their lives. … What has he done over the past 12 years to help any of us struggling with any issue related to health care? Bupkis.”
Could the 10th Congressional District flip?
The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan producer of federal and state election ratings, recently shifted its ranking of the 10th Congressional District from being “likely Republican” to “lean Republican” and cited particularly strong support for Stelson but added O’Brien “shouldn’t be counted out.”
“Most Freedom Caucus members come from rock-ribbed Republican seats. But Rep. Scott Perry (PA-10), until recently the chair of the cadre of House agitators, hails from a quasi-marginal Harrisburg seat that’s steadily trended more white-collar suburban and less Republican,” the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman wrote in December.
Wasserman says Perry’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and block certification of Pennsylvania’s electors harms him in a district where Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, another far-right Republican who vehemently defends the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Trump did win the 10th District in 2020, but he did so by four points, down from 10 points in 2016.
“Democrats are excited about their newest entrant for 2024: Janelle Stelson, a 30-year veteran news anchor for Harrisburg/Lancaster-based NBC affiliate WGAL who left broadcasting in September to run, blasting Perry for ‘sowing chaos and spouting conspiracy theories,’” Wasserman wrote. “She enters the race with commanding name ID for a first-time candidate and no political record to attack (in contrast to Perry, who has a 12-year voting record to litigate).”