LANCASTER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA — Only 10 days before the midterm congressional elections, prominent author and climate activist Bill McKibben chose to spend Friday in a part of Pennsylvania that political observers traditionally have written off as a Republican stronghold.
Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 11th congressional district is rated as a solid Republican district in almost every national and local poll. The district includes all of Lancaster County and southeastern York County, an area of the state that President Donald Trump won by 26 percentage points in 2016.
The election should have been cakewalk for incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R), who is seeking reelection to a second term in the House of Representatives.
But then something happened: a small business advocate, with a progressive mindset, won the Democratic nomination for the district.
The nominee, Jess King, caught the eye of environmental groups and progressives in Pennsylvania and across the country for her focus on climate change and opposition to the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. She is running what is widely considered one of the most successful grassroots field campaigns not only in Pennsylvania, but the entire country.
“Jess King is special,” McKibben said Friday at an event sponsored by Sunrise Movement Lancaster at Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania.
There are only a 30 or 40 districts in the United States that are in play and “this is one of them,” he said.
The Sunrise Movement, formed earlier this year, is a campaign of young people fighting to make climate change an urgent policy priority for politicians and other policymakers.
Last spring, 350 Action, the political action affiliate of 350.org, the international climate group founded by McKibben, formally endorsed King based on her plans to challenge the fossil fuel industry and support renewable energy solutions to climate change.
Over the next 10 days, voters who live in Lancaster County and southern York County “have superpowers when it comes to changing the course” of the nation by knocking on doors and making calls to voters in the district on behalf of King’s campaign, he said.
Recent polls show King trailing Smucker by only nine percentage points and closing the gap.
“I think that Jess King is going to win here in Pennsylvania, or at least come real close because people are ready for a change,” McKibben said.
“They are beginning to understand that simply keeping on keeping on, simply doing the same thing we’ve been doing, and that simply sticking with the status quo isn’t getting us where we need to go.”
— Mark Hand (@MarkFHand) October 26, 2018
McKibben told the audience that he doesn’t have the same superpowers as a resident of the Pennsylvania district because he lives in Vermont, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) and Rep. Peter Welch (D) are facing weak opposition.
McKibben also acknowledged it’s easy and understandable to grow discouraged. The horror of this week’s events — the mailing of pipe bombs by a Trump supporter to Democratic leaders and people opposed to the president’s policies — “makes me want to throw up my hands and walk away. It’s gotten crazy,” he said. “But it’s also makes me want to try my very best to make the democratic system do what it’s supposed to do.”
At a Friday night campaign event in the city of Lancaster, King echoed McKibben’s call to make the United States live up to its democratic ideals. Many people in Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district are in dire financial straits or are living in fear of the racism of the Trump administration.
According to King, unlike previous Democratic candidates in the region, she chose to run a robust campaign because she does not believe in giving up on helping the people who have suffered under Republican domination of Lancaster and York counties.
“These are not places that we cede to nationalistic racist ideologues,” King said at the event. “We have got to fight for all those folks. … You can argue that Trump won the presidency out of place like the 11th congressional district.”
Unlike others in Lancaster County who do not share her values, King stressed that she will bring an inclusive approach to Congress if elected to represent the 11th district. Pennsylvania also is the largest state — 18 congressional seats — without any members who are women.
“That is about to change,” King predicted.