ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Where will millennials go for a political event? A local brewery, of course! That’s at least the calculation from NextGen America, a group hoping to mobilize young Democratic voters in 2018.
Roughly 150 people gathered on the fifth floor of Fegley’s Allentown Brew Works to hear from Democratic candidates’ in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, which became more competitive for Democrats after the state Supreme Court imposed a new congressional map.
NextGen, which is backed by billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer, hosted the first of its “Keeping Up With the Candidates” events here Thursday night. The group plans to hold more than a dozen similar forums in breweries and coffeehouses in competitive districts, in an attempt to attract young people to the event.
The crowd in Allentown generally skewed older than the group’s target demographic, but organizers aimed to give the event a youthful spin. When attendees emerged from the elevator to the fifth floor event space, they were greeted with a check-in table, NextGen Pennsylvania pins, and a bar.
“We don’t want this to be another stuffy candidate forum,” said Jarrett Smith, NextGen’s Pennsylvania state director, the emcee for the night.
And in some ways, it wasn’t.
Candidates who went over their allotted time were cut off by a “womp womp” sound, and they faced off over which Pennsylvania convenience store chain the preferred — Wawa or Sheetz (all six said Wawa). One Democrat even led the crowd in song when they were encouraged to show off a talent instead of ending with traditional closing remarks.
Abhay, a 24 year-old Democrat from Macungie, described the event as “hip” forming quotation marks with his fingers.
“It’s kind of a gimmick but it’s also appealing in a certain way,” said Abhay, who declined to give his last name.
While the group is planning similar events in other competitive districts, it’s no coincidence its first stop the Keystone State.
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“We really feel like it’s one of the most important states, if not the most important state,” said NextGen spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier when asked about the first forum in Pennsylvania.
The 7th District is one of several Republican-held district that became more favorable to Democrats with the new congressional map. And it’s an open seat, since GOP Rep. Charlie Dent is retiring. The Lehigh Valley district shifted from a seat that President Donald Trump won by 8 points in 2016 to a district that Hillary Clinton would have carried by 1 point had the new lines been in place. Cavalier said NextGen also wanted to start off in Pennsylvania because it hosts one of the group’s strongest organizing programs.
So far NextGen has 12 full-time staffers in Pennsylvania and 57 part-time fellows, who are mostly students who help with field organizing. The group has been on the ground in the state since 2014 but ramped up its efforts in 2016, registering more than 80,000 voters.
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Cavalier said the group expects to spend $3.5 million in the Keystone State, mainly on organizing and digital and mail campaigns. The goal is to boost Democratic efforts in the Senate race, gubernatorial race, and six GOP-held House districts. In addition to the 7th District, the group is targeting the 1st, 5th, 6th, 10th and 17th Districts.
NextGen plans to have at least 104 organizers in the state by November, according to press release detailing the group’s plans for Pennsylvania. The group will focus on students on 75 campuses, and aim to contact more than $970,000 young voters in the state.
The youth vote
NextGen and the Democratic candidates in the 7th District say young people could be influential in the May 15 primary and the general election.
Both attorney and former city solicitor Susan Wild and pastor Greg Edwards named young voters as key parts of their coalitions. Wild, Edwards, and District Attorney John Morganelli are considered the front-runners in the primary that includes a total of six candidates.
The other contenders include college professor Roger Ruggles, former social services worker David Clark, and Rick Daugherty, an executive director of a community center who twice unsuccessfully challenged Dent.
Wild and Edwards got some of the loudest cheers of the night, with Edwards supporters spotted throughout the room sporting blue buttons with his campaign mantra, “All of Us or None of Us.”
Morganelli was not as well-received by the liberal crowd. His opposition to sanctuary cities, or jurisdictions that do not always cooperate with enforcing immigration laws, drew pushback from the audience. Facing groans and grumbling, Morganelli quickly gave up trying to explain his stance.
Aside from immigration, other topics of the night touched on issues that NextGen organizers say matter to younger voters. Those included student loan debt, overhauling the criminal justice system, protecting employees from harassment, raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and supporting gun control proposals.
One notably absent question for the candidates: impeaching Trump.
Steyer has launched a separate campaign calling on Democrats to impeach the president, even as Democratic leaders in Congress caution against running on the issue. Top congressional Democrats have stopped short of calling for impeachment, saying they should wait for special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Pushing the impeachment issue could be complicated for Democrats in competitive districts — especially in seats with sizable swaths of GOP voters who might be wary of Trump, but turned off by pressure from the left to impeach him.
Cavalier dismissed a question about whether there was concern that pressing the issue in forums could put Democrats in a difficult position.
“These forums aren’t about political calculation,” Cavalier said. “...This is about giving young people the opportunity to understand where candidates stand on the issue.”
Cavalier said she expected the impeachment question to come up from people who attended these forums, or from the moderators. The candidates did weigh in on Trump’s presidency during a lighning round of questions, with all of them raising their hands in agreement that Trump is unfit for office. All but Morganelli also said Trump is racist.