HONESDALE, Pa. — Speaking at a Wayne County Democratic Committee meeting last Sunday, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D) denounced Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election — and his plans to appoint people who might meddle in future results — in no uncertain terms. He called them “undemocratic” and the “definition of wiping away [the] American right to vote.”
But to a woman in the crowd sporting a “Biden” baseball cap, Cartwright hadn’t gone far enough.
“Fascism! Fascism!” she interjected.
Rather than indulge her, Cartwright disarmed her and her fellow party activists with a joking rejoinder. “There’s that ‘f-word’ again!” he said, prompting laughs.
The brief exchange was lighthearted — and in another context, it might be entirely insignificant.
But Cartwright, a five-term incumbent from the Scranton area, is no ordinary member of Congress.
The former trial lawyer is one of just four House Democrats currently representing districts where President Donald Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. Reps. Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Cheri Bustos of Illinois are not running for reelection. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine is seeking another term.
But unlike Cartwright, Golden was first elected in 2018, sparing him the ordeal of having to run down-ballot from Trump during the unexpectedly lopsided 2016 election cycle.
“You don’t win anybody over with name-calling.”
“Cartwright has obviously proven himself as a guy who can pass through fire,” acknowledged Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based Republican strategist who is not involved in Cartwright’s reelection battle.
Cartwright’s decision not to label Trump-inspired election denial as “fascism,” even in front of a loyal Democratic audience, speaks to his winning formula in a largely blue-collar and white corner of northeast Pennsylvania where his survival has defied a rightward shift.
“You don’t win anybody over with name-calling. Fascists were Nazis, OK?” Cartwright told HuffPost in an interview at a downtown Honesdale café following his remarks. “I don’t use inflammatory language.”
What makes Cartwright more unique, however, is that unlike many colleagues in swing states or districts, he does not make a point of bucking party leadership on big-ticket items. He was an easy “yes” vote for the Inflation Reduction Act and the Build Back Better legislation before that. (Golden, by contrast, voted against the latter, more ambitious bill.)
Cartwright is even a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in good standing. He is a co-sponsor of “Medicare for All” legislation, and an outspoken critic of Big Pharma and Wall Street’s influence in Washington.
To progressive activists like Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a group pushing to expand Social Security benefits, Cartwright’s success is an example that, contrary to what some special interests and pundits say, economic populism sells in tough districts.
“Cartwright is the type of member in a tight district who understands that people want very commonsense things like lower drug prices, increased Social Security benefits — things that people agree on,” Lawson told HuffPost. “It’s so basic that it’s hard to understand that it’s rare in D.C.”
‘I Work For You’
Once upon a time, “split-ticket voting” — in which voters cast ballots for one party for president and another for Congress — was commonplace.
But with the rise of polarization, party preference has increasingly become an all-or-nothing proposition — and with it, ticket splitting has become rarer.
For Democrats, that trend has been especially apparent in the Trump era. Seven of the 11 incumbent House Democrats who lost their seats in 2020 represented districts that Trump carried.
“The nationalization of politics has hurt us in many parts of the country,” said Irene Lin, who specializes in running the campaigns of Democrats in Midwestern swing states.
On paper, northeast Pennsylvania should be one of those parts of the country.
Trump carried Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, which stretches from the post-industrial towns of Nanticoke and Hazleton to the Pocono Mountains abutting the New York state border, by more than 10 percentage points in 2016. The former president’s margin of victory dropped to just over 4 points in 2020. And after redistricting modestly shifted the district’s boundaries, he would have won by just under 3 points.
Cartwright has not been immune to the national forces reshaping his district. He won by just 3.6 percentage points in 2020 — his smallest margin yet. He nonetheless outperformed Biden by 8 percentage points.
“You can still be a House member in a district that’s against your party if you have enough of a brand to cut through that,” Harris said.
Differentiating oneself from the national party is “easier” in smaller media markets where press exposure is easier to garner and advertising is cheaper, Harris added.
Cartwright and his team are once again optimistic about his chances. They shared an internal poll with HuffPost from mid-September showing Cartwright leading his Republican opponent, Jim Bognet, by 8 percentage points with 5% of the electorate undecided.
That’s considerably better than the party as a whole is faring in the district. More of the district’s voters are Republicans (48%) than Democrats (44%). And Democrats have just a 1-point advantage over the GOP in Pennsylvania’s 8th on what’s known as the generic ballot, according to Cartwright’s survey.
The secret to Cartwright’s success, despite his party’s ups and downs in the region where Biden was born, is as simple, he says, as the tagline in all of his TV ads, “I work for you.”
Cartwright told HuffPost he wins people over by “doing things that show that my top allegiance is to northeastern Pennsylvania before party before anything else. And it’s not just showing — it’s the truth.”
One achievement that Cartwright has seen fit to highlight in a TV spot is his successful sponsorship of legislation that would allow veterans of the Camp Lejeune military base to sue for damages incurred as a result of exposure to contaminated water.
“Matt Cartwright is not a politician — he’s a fighter,” Sam, a veteran of the Marines who benefited from the law, says in an ad. “And he’s fighting for me and all other veterans.”
“These projects come once in a lifetime and we need to have somebody who’s in our corner.”
It helps that Cartwright has a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. His campaign shared a list of federal grants he has secured for the district, including $16.6 million for a science and cybersecurity research facility at the University of Scranton, $4.1 million to increase home internet access for local public school students, and $3 million for a new public safety and fire building in Moosic, the Scranton suburb where Cartwright lives.
And while Cartwright is no Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), he has also been willing to buck progressive environmental orthodoxy if it conflicts with what he sees as his constituents’ best interests.
A clear case study is his support for the construction of a new $6 billion natural gas refinery in Luzerne County. The refinery would take shale gas extracted from northeast Pennsylvania through hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — and turn it into gasoline suited for cars and trucks.
Cartwright takes credit for helping Nacero, the company building the refinery, pursue alternative fuel tax credits of the kind that ethanol refineries receive. The company claims that refining natural gas to make gasoline, rather than using crude oil for the same purpose, will halve the carbon emissions involved in producing the gasoline from start to finish.
In his first TV ad this cycle, Cartwright cites the project as an example of the kind of work he’s doing to provide consumers relief at the gas pump.
“I’m helping turn local shale gas into regular car gas by supporting a new plant right here in northeastern Pennsylvania — lots of jobs and cheaper gas,” he says.
The plant is slated to require 3,500 construction jobs to build, which comes as welcome news to building trades unions. Those unions mostly endorse Democrats, but back some Republicans who support their priorities and have many conservative rank-and-file members.
“These projects come once in a lifetime and we need to have somebody who’s in our corner,” said Drew Simpson, regional manager for the Carpenters union Local 445, which covers northeast Pennsylvania.
The Local, which has a politically divided membership, has endorsed Cartwright once again and is informing its 1,200 members by phone and mail that he is a champion of the union’s priorities.
But some environmentalists believe that constructing new fossil fuel infrastructure like the refinery creates a vested economic and political interest in continued extraction of natural gas at a time of climate crisis.
Mary Collier, an organizer for Sunrise Movement Pennsylvania, a youth-led climate action group that has not endorsed Cartwright, said Cartwright is making a political mistake. She pointed to state Rep. Summer Lee’s victory in a Pittsburgh-area congressional primary over a more moderate rival as evidence that opposing fracking is not a liability in parts of Pennsylvania where natural gas is big business. (Lee, who is running in a solid Democratic seat, does not have a competitive general election fight.)
“Touting natural gas is just a really bad message if you’re running for office here in Pennsylvania, because it just deters young people and it doesn’t inspire them,” Collier said.
A Wealthy Trial Lawyer’s Personal Touch
Cartwright, who favors white or blue dress shirts with no tie while on the campaign trail, is not exactly a dazzling public speaker.
But the lawmaker, whose family has made millions of dollars in personal-injury law, sounds relatable when regaling audiences of constituents.
“It’s people versus politics, folks!” he told the Wayne County Democratic Committee activists in his mellow, high-pitched voice.
“And they’re all about the politics,” he added, referring to Republicans in Congress. “Don’t ever forget to draw that contrast.”
At times, he acted as if he were surprised by the quality of candidates the Republican Party has recruited, though he seemed more comfortable mocking Mastriano and Mehmet Oz, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, than Bognet, his opponent.
“W-wow! Where did they come up with these candidates?!” he told the Wayne County Democrats with a deadpan tone and some hesitation, as if he were struggling to contain his sincere shock.
As Bognet is fond of noting, Cartwright’s career in law has made him rich enough to afford a private plane and a mansion on Lake George in upstate New York.
“At least you can visit with him and talk to him.”
Ironically though, the need to convince juries that his clients deserved a payout for the pain they had suffered forced him to learn how to talk to ordinary people.
“At first, I was always trying to impress people with my LSAT vocabulary,” Cartwright recalled. “And there’s one rule in jury trials, if they don’t understand you, you’re going to come in second.”
“What saved me was focus groups. I did a lot of listening to people,” he continued. “I learned to speak the vernacular — not to use five-syllable words.”
Cartwright matches his dressed-down speaking style with a fixation on showing up at every possible event, providing good constituent services, and making personal connections with voters wherever possible.
After the Wayne County Democratic Committee meeting, Cartwright stopped by a barbecue and country music luncheon hosted by farm country radio host Dave Williams on his 60-acre farm. Cartwright sat quietly and conversed with voters as Williams announced the musical acts under a tent that shielded attendees from sporadic rain.
Williams, an anti-Trump Republican who is leaning toward voting for Oz in the Senate race, is a fan of Cartwright’s. He credits him with helping secure federal financing for a milk processing plant in the area.
“He does good for here,” Williams said. “At least you can visit with him and talk to him.”
The next stop was the Donut Connection in Pittston, some 40 minutes southwest of Williams’ farm. Cartwright had had a chance encounter with Robert Hughes, a retiree who wanted his advice on a personal matter, and was now fulfilling a promise to sit down at greater length.
When their conversation came to a close, Hughes, who characterized himself as more conservative than Cartwright on climate and immigration policy, would not say how he planned to vote.
But Cartwright’s willingness to meet with him had made an impression.
“With the midterms coming up, I’m sure he’s slammed busy,” Hughes said. “But yet he took the time out away from his family on a Sunday afternoon to come and sit with me. Says a lot about the man.”
Sticking To His Progressive Guns
Cartwright does not exactly advertise his progressive views on hot-button, national issues. He has been silent, for example, about Biden’s executive order canceling up to $10,000 in student debt.
Cartwright’s campaign literature and TV ads focus instead on his efforts to lower gas and prescription drug prices, advocate for veterans, protect Social Security, and secure “good-paying jobs for the hardworking families of northeastern Pennsylvania.”
But Cartwright does not shy away from left-leaning opinions when asked about them. He would not waver in his support for Medicare for All, even when pressed about the bill’s requirement that people with coverage drop their private plan and enroll in the expanded federal health insurance program.
“My hope is that we get as many people covered with health insurance as possible,” he said. “And, to my mind, Medicare for All is a great way to do it.”
He hastened to add that he would want any transition to ensure that current Medicare beneficiaries do not experience a decline in their benefits, that providers are adequately reimbursed, and that people who are already pleased with their private health insurance don’t get “creased” in the process.
Referring specifically to union members who won generous health insurance plans in collective bargaining, Cartwright said, “These are problems that have to be worked out.” But he did not specify how he envisions working out those problems.
Cartwright also declined to say whether he supports prohibiting abortion, with some exceptions, after the point of fetal viability. Pennsylvania is among the vast majority of states where abortions are prohibited after 24 weeks of pregnancy — a point at which some fetuses can live outside the womb ― though it provides exceptions after that point for the life or health of the mother.
“Ultimately you get to the question of, ‘When does life begin?’” Cartwright said. “There’s only one source for the answer to that question and it’s God. Only God knows.”
On immigration, Cartwright favors comprehensive immigration reform of the kind that passed the Senate in 2013, a framework that he said combines “control over our borders” and “rule of law” with a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country. He noted that he was one of 24 House Democrats to vote for, “Kate’s Law,” a bill toughening criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants who are convicted of a crime, are deported, and subsequently re-enter the country without authorization.
“If you focus on those blue-collar issues and you avoid some of the culture wars, then you can still win in these kinds of seats.”
He nonetheless blasted Bognet for tweeting that Bognet’s hometown of Hazleton was “devastated by illegal immigration.”
“He goes around saying ‘Latinos ruined my town,’” said Cartwright, providing an ungenerous reading of Bognet’s words. “Who talks like that? I sure don’t.”
What’s more, while Cartwright, for obvious reasons, does not feature Biden in his campaign advertisements or literature, he did not hesitate to endorse Biden’s reelection when asked about it. His remarks showed greater loyalty to Biden, a native of Scranton, than some Democrats in safer seats have displayed.
“I’ve been personal friends with Joe Biden for over 30 years,” he said. “If there’s one group of people I dislike, it’s people who will abandon their friends because they see their friends have dropped a couple of ticks in the polls.”
Cartwright’s willingness to blaze a relatively progressive path in Congress, while maintaining his popularity in a swing seat, is not without precedent. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has held on in an increasingly Republican state without diluting his progressive views, though he has not embraced Medicare for All.
The key for these Democrats with largely blue-collar constituencies is to emphasize bread-and-butter economic issues like lowering prescription drug prices. Cartwright was among the House Democrats in front-line seats to sign a letter in May encouraging the Senate to pass legislation empowering Medicare to negotiate bulk rates on prescription drugs.
“If you focus on those blue-collar issues and you avoid some of the culture wars, then you can still win in these kinds of seats,” Lin said.
Other vulnerable Democrats, such as Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), have leveraged their status as majority makers to press House leadership to water down prescription drug negotiation. Schrader lost to a progressive primary challenger in May.
Cartwright and Schrader are “the exact opposite and the outcome is pretty clear,” said Lawson, who supported Schrader’s challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner. “Matt Cartwright did not get primaried and Kurt Schrader did.”
Chipping Away At Cartwright’s Armor
Republicans who have been watching Cartwright acknowledge his skill.
“He’s kind of an anomaly,” said a national Republican official who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“He billed himself as authentic years ago when he first came in, and he’s been running the same playbook every couple years,” the official added. “He’s very efficient.”
But Cartwright, a monster fundraiser, has also had his share of luck with opponents. In 2016, for example, Cartwright’s opponent raised a measly $31,000.
Bognet, who first ran against Cartwright in 2020, spent a respectable $1.4 million that cycle, but Cartwright spent $4.1 million.
In a region where familiarity reigns supreme, Bognet also had the challenge of introducing himself to voters after a career in Republican politics in Washington.
It’s a task that may be easier this time, but he’s not taking any chances. Two of his television ads highlight a game-winning field goal he kicked as a member of Hazleton Area High School’s varsity football team in the early 1990s.
Like many other professional Republicans, Bognet has undergone something of an ideological transformation in the past decade. As policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, he pooh-poohed the idea of cracking down on currency manipulation as a strategy for balancing trade with China. At the time, he also championed Romney’s view that “reforms” to Social Security and Medicare were the “big enchilada” when it comes to addressing the country’s long-term fiscal problems.
By 2019, however, Bognet had accepted a job as vice president of the Export-Import Bank under the Trump administration, which launched a trade war with China and mostly refused to entertain cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Bognet’s service paid off. He nabbed Trump’s endorsement for his current run in early May. But as HuffPost reported, he has since sought to downplay his ties to the former president, reducing the mentions of Trump on his website from 11 to two.
Cartwright continues to be more focused on painting Bognet as a Washington insider than drawing attention to his Trump ties in a district that Trump carried. He and his Democratic backers have homed in specifically on Bognet’s stint as an executive at the Glover Park Group, a powerhouse D.C. lobbying shop, from 2016 to 2018.
House Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with House Democratic leadership, funded an ad blasting Bognet for working at Glover Park Group at a time when the government of Saudi Arabia had tapped the firm to lobby against legislation that would enable the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government for its alleged involvement in the tragedy.
“If he stood up for them, why would you ever think he’d stand up for you?” the ad asks.
The House Majority PAC spot “gets the basic facts right,” but fails to note that Bognet, who was never a registered lobbyist, did not lobby directly on the Saudis’ behalf, according to a fact check of the ad conducted by a local newspaper.
Bognet’s campaign did not respond to a detailed request for more information about Bognet’s policy views, and a chance to respond to criticism of his work at the Glover Park Group.
It’s clear, however, that Bognet and his Republican allies have a twofold strategy for discrediting Cartwright in the eyes of voters.
First, they are tying Cartwright to Biden as much as possible. One Bognet TV ad features a photo of Cartwright and Biden posing in tuxedos together and claims that Cartwright votes with Biden “100% of the time.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House Republican leadership, has already spent about $1.8 million attacking Cartwright as a stooge for Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). One of its new spots, “Vote Against Matt Cartwright: He’s Costing You,” blames Cartwright for voting to approve an economic recovery bill that resulted in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the convicted perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, receiving a $1,400 stimulus check while sitting on death row. (Prosecutors succeeded in redirecting the money to victims of the bombings.)
“It’s a slap in the face to Northeastern Pennsylvanians struggling to make ends meet that Matt Cartwright’s net worth has doubled since he took office.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition also spent $450,000 on an ad expanding on this theme. “They murdered innocent victims,” the narrator declares as footage of hooded gunmen flashes across the screen. “Matt Cartwright voted to give them COVID checks.”
In addition, national Republicans are trying to portray Cartwright as a corrupt self-dealer, who has used his position in Congress to enrich his family’s personal injury law firm.
“Matt Cartwright has been caught multiple times using his congressional office to help his family’s law firm,” Samantha Bullock, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “It’s a slap in the face to Northeastern Pennsylvanians struggling to make ends meet that Matt Cartwright’s net worth has doubled since he took office.”
One example the NRCC cites is Cartwright’s introduction of legislation in 2019 requiring trucking companies to increase their minimum liability insurance coverage from $750,000 to $4.5 million. The legislation stands to benefit plaintiffs injured in trucking accidents, as well as attorneys like Marion Munley, Cartwright’s wife, who specializes in lawsuits over trucking-related accidents.
Cartwright’s campaign rejects the notion that he sponsored the bill for reasons of self-interest.
“The congressman has spent his life fighting on behalf of working people,” campaign spokesperson David Early told HuffPost. “Whether it be as a trial attorney defending victims who have been wronged or as a congressman fighting to ensure the people of northeastern Pennsylvania have a voice in Washington.”
Even with the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe v. Wade juicing Democratic enthusiasm, Republicans know they are unlikely to get an opportunity this favorable to oust Cartwright in the near future.
“If we get to this point and he doesn’t lose, he’s got some time available to him in that seat,” the national Republican official said.
Cartwright’s biggest challenge might be the prospect of a worsening national environment for Democrats as the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes begin to take a toll on the job market, and of course, his party’s declining standing in northeast Pennsylvania.
“You can try and outrun [the national tide],” Lin said. “But Matt Cartwright and Jared Golden and [Ohio Senate candidate] Tim Ryan — they can do everything right and still lose.”
Cartwright, loath to even countenance his possible defeat, doesn’t see it that way.
Asked how he would react if he loses his seat, Cartwright replied, “I’ll blame myself for not working hard enough.”