Democrat Christina Hartman’s 11-point loss to Republican Lloyd Smucker in the Lancaster-based congressional race is decisive in a traditionally red district but also a milestone for the Democratic Party.
This is the closest any Democrat has come to winning the 16th Congressional District in at least two decades.
In Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Pitt’s 10-term career, his victories over Democratic challengers reached as high as 41 percent and dipped to as small as 15 points two years ago. The district lines were redrawn twice in that time.
While Democrats across the country suffered resounding and unexpected defeats, the continued trend of better Democratic performance here was a welcome sign for a new Democratic challenger.
Changing demographics, redrawn district lines and an unusual election year gave Hartman — a 39-year-old Lancaster city resident — a fighting chance.
“In the worst election ever for Democrats we still did really well,” she said of her better margins even as the Democratic nominees for president and U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania fared worse than expected.
What made the difference for Smucker, Hartman says, was $1.2 million of outside spending on behalf of Smucker.
She also cited “Trump effect” that consisted of energized voters for the Republican presidential nominee who showed up more than usual. In the run up to the election, Hartman’s campaign had repeatedly sought to use Smucker’s support of Trump to discredit her opponent.
“What they don’t understand is that the national party isn’t going to keep saving them,” said Hartman, whose experience as a fundraiser and consultant to nonprofit organizations led her to raise close to $900,000 through mid-October.
She also received support from national Democrats in the form of campaign visits and fundraising.
Smucker, a 52-year-old from West Lampeter Township who is finishing his second term in the state Senate, brought in a $1.5 million total that included nearly $600,000 of his own money. The most any challenger to Pitts raised was in 2010 when Lois Herr raised about $400,000 and ended with a 31-point loss.
“We knew she was going to be good but she surpassed even our highest expectations,” Lancaster County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Sally Lyall said of Hartman. “She was just a fabulous candidate.”
Lyall said it was Hartman’s youth, experience in international relations and level of education that made her stand out. She said the committee would welcome Hartman running again for the seat in 2018.
Hartman said she would consider running again but it depends on many variables. First, it will take some digging into the “granular” data to see exactly how the votes came in around the district — which covers most of Lancaster County and parts of Chester and Berks counties.
She’s going back to consulting for now but is also exploring options like starting a nonprofit, helping Democrats get elected or getting involved with the national Democratic party to help leaders understand what happened this year.
On the campaign trail, she often depicted the district as a “mini-America” made up of rural farmland, three third-tier cities (Lancaster, Reading and Coatesville) and an overall moderate electorate. She said it’s that makeup that could be useful in understanding a state or nation of voters who defied the odds across the board this year.
She’s disappointed, but proud of her campaign’s work and that campaigning has been the best job she’s ever had.
“What makes this part harder is to figure out when you’ve just had the best job you’ve ever had and you don’t get hired, it’s weird. It’s like you’re training for this job and then somebody’s like, ‘I don’t know, you can’t have it.’ And then you’re like OK, well, what’s next?”
As she sat reflecting on that thought a week after Election Day, in a coffee shop near Franklin & Marshall College, a man with a solemn look on his face approached her.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he said, shaking her hand and expressing what she said so many have strangers have told her in recent days.
He told her he objected to a quote in the newspaper that said she had gained ground as a Democrat in a historically red district because she had run an “energetic campaign.”
“It’s because you made sense,” he challenged.