Democrats rejoiced last month when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional districts, ruling that the GOP had gerrymandered the map unconstitutionally. The court’s move made Democrats competitive in several more districts than they would have been under the Republican plan.
But it also transformed Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District from one where Democrats had a shot at winning to one that looks like it will stay solidly red. Democrat Christina Hartman, an establishment favorite running there, announced Wednesday that she would be withdrawing from that race and running in the adjacent 10th District instead.
Her move potentially sets up a fight between Hartman, a well-funded candidate with big endorsements, and several candidates who put in months of grunt work before the 10th District race became competitive enough to attract national attention.
One of the contenders is Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, a 26-year-old African-American woman and former congressional aide who served in President Barack Obama’s administration as a budget adviser. Corbin-Johnson, a staunch progressive who has campaigned in relative obscurity for six months, has little campaign cash and few national endorsements to show for her efforts. But she has attracted a devoted cadre of grassroots volunteers.
“Her being a minority female has really inspired a lot of strong women,” said Torry Tyler-Bragg, a community activist of Native American descent who is based in York, Pennsylvania.
Before Hartman announced her decision this week, she called Corbin-Johnson.
The call rubbed Corbin-Johnson and her campaign the wrong way, illustrating a growing rift in Democratic primaries. On several occasions in this election cycle, local activists and the candidates they support have bristled at the machinations of well-funded candidates and their establishment backers.
In the call, Hartman noted that it would take enormous resources to unseat the incumbent, Rep. Scott Perry (R). She then assured Corbin-Johnson, who has struggled to raise funds, that she would be welcome “on her team” if Hartman wins the nomination.
Corbin-Johnson and her team interpreted Hartman’s call as, essentially, a proposal to Corbin-Johnson that if she dropped out, she could get a job on Hartman’s campaign.
Corbin-Johnson, who was born in York and raised there by foster parents, took umbrage at the notion that an outsider could swoop into the race and presume to have it locked up by virtue of her financial resources.
Hartman “wants a clean shot at the primary, and was hoping that she could patronize her way to victory,” said Ezra Kane-Salafia, a spokesman for Corbin-Johnson’s campaign.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not endorsed Hartman, but her previous bid in the Lancaster-area district had the backing of virtually every prominent Pennsylvania Democrat, including former Gov. Ed Rendell. Hartman won those high-profile endorsements despite underperforming Hillary Clinton in the district in 2016 with similarly robust backing and financial resources.
For Collective PAC, a group that supports black political candidates, Hartman’s alleged conduct illustrates a tendency of Democratic leaders to resist diverse candidates based on outdated notions of general-election viability. The PAC has already taken the DCCC to task for thus far failing to endorse any black House candidates as part of its “Red to Blue” program targeting GOP-held districts.
“There are systemic and institutional challenges women of color face when running for Congress, and right now the Democratic establishment is not committed to addressing this inequity,” said Quentin James, a spokesman for Collective PAC.
The primary in Pennsylvania’s 10th is not the only contest where friction between establishment and insurgent Democrats has overlapped with a perception of insensitivity toward black candidates.
The Washington Post reported Friday that the DCCC met with local Democratic Party officials in Pennsylvania about encouraging progressive candidates to drop out of a race in an Allentown district that new borders have made more attainable for Democrats. One of those candidates, Greg Edwards, a progressive black pastor, told the Post he felt unfairly singled out for removal as the contest’s only candidate of color. The DCCC told the Post it had similar conversations about several candidates in Pennsylvania besides Edwards.
Hartman, for her part, says her call wasn’t meant to convey to Corbin-Johnson that she should leave the race.
“Christina meant to relay that should she become the nominee, she would work to earn Shavonnia’s support,” said Hartman campaign spokesman Mike Wilson. “Should Shavonnia become the nominee, Christina would work her heart out to ensure Shavonnia goes to Congress. That’s all.”
Hartman also says she made the call because she wanted to express gratitude to Corbin-Johnson for sharing voter data after the state Supreme Court ruling moved some of her voters into what was then Hartman’s district.
To Corbin-Johnson and her staff, though, Hartman’s appreciation doesn’t mitigate what Corbin-Johnson sees as the insulting nature of the call. For example, Hartman did not wish Corbin-Johnson luck or otherwise imply that the contest remains competitive, according to Kane-Salafia.
“When a new candidate from outside the district contacts Shavonnia on the day that she announces… insinuating that Christina is the presumptive winner or that Shavonnia should end her months-long campaign to join team Hartman, it is difficult to see how that is anything but directly disrespectful,” Kane-Salafia said.
While Hartman is not legally required to move to the 10th District in order to run there, her campaign said she plans to settle on a new home there in the coming days. Hartman has touted her support for women’s reproductive rights, immigrant rights and environmental “stewardship,” as well as improvements to the Affordable Care Act.
Corbin-Johnson is likely the most left-leaning candidate in the race, campaigning on adopting a compassionate, public health-based approach to the region’s opiate epidemic, enacting Medicare-for-all and combating income inequality.
George Scott, a former U.S. Army officer, is running on a more moderate platform. And Alan Howe, a retired career Air Force officer, promises to fight to end the war on drugs, which he regards as a “hopeless failure.”
On Wednesday, public health scientist Eric Ding also announced his entry in the race.
With the addition of previously excluded parts of Harrisburg, as well as Hershey and Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s 10th District is more favorable terrain for a Democrat than its predecessor, Pennsylvania’s 4th.
But it remains an uphill battle for the party, particularly against Perry, the three-term GOP incumbent. Donald Trump won in the old 4th District by 21 percentage points, but he would have won in the new 10th by 9 points, according to a New York Times analysis. And the district’s partisan voter index went from R+11 to R+6, according to the Cook Political Report, which compiles the figure to show how a district voted in the presidential election compared to the country as a whole.
This article has been updated with information about Edwards and the DCCC.