If you take a lap around downtown Allentown, Easton or Bethlehem, the three Lehigh Valley metro centers, you may not meet too many people who know the names of Susan Wild and Lisa Scheller.
The Jewish Exponent tried and, to a large degree, failed.
“Who are they again?” went one common response.
“I’m not political,” went another.
“I have somewhere to be,” went a third.
Wild, a Jewish Democrat, is the district’s representative in the United States Congress. Scheller, a Jewish Republican, is her challenger in the Nov. 8 election. The Eastern Pennsylvania district consists of Carbon, Lehigh and Northampton counties, as well as a portion of Monroe County to the north, totaling more than 730,000 residents.
Having two Jewish candidates compete for a seat in Congress is a rarity, considering there are only 27 Jewish members, according to The Morning Call.
And both candidates say their religion plays into the campaign.
Scheller said that it’s her Jewish faith that is motivating her to run. She calls Judaism “the bedrock” of her life. She says she prays every morning to thank God for both “the good and the bad.”
“Through it all, I’ve lived a blessed life, and my faith has taught me to give back to my community — something I strive to do every day,” Scheller said.
Wild, whose first husband was Jewish, converted to Judaism during her son’s bar mitzvah process. And she has said before that religion motivates her. In 2019, she talked about her conversion experience on the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Philly podcast.
“I like the emphasis in the Jewish religion on tzedakah, for instance, doing well for others, compassion for others. That was the initial attraction,” she said.
Wild defeated Scheller by 14,144 votes when they ran against each other in PA-7 in 2020. And the two-term incumbent holds a 1-point lead in 2022 — a virtual dead heat — according to the latest poll conducted by Muhlenberg College and The Morning Call, both in Allentown.
But there may be one key difference this time around. The 2020 political season ended up belonging to the Democrats, with the party holding the House and winning the Senate and presidency. The 2022 season, though, looks like it may belong to Republicans in part due to high crime rates and inflation — and the usual trend of the party not in power making gains in non-presidential election years.
And that, according to voters in this mountainous region, may end up making a difference.
“I prefer Lisa Scheller, and the reason for that is: I’m tired of (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi,” said Sue Bentz, an Allentown resident.
Bentz was walking into a Weis Markets location in a shopping center on Cedar Crest Boulevard, outside of downtown Allentown. She explained that she was a lifelong Democrat; she voted for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and she was going to vote Republican for the first time this year.
Bentz admitted to not knowing much about Wild and Scheller. But she did say that she prefers Scheller because the Republican is a businesswoman. Scheller is the CEO of her family’s company, Silberline Manufacturing, which makes aluminum effect pigments used in paints and coatings.
“I think Susan Wild is a politician,” Bentz said. “I’m sick of politicians.”
Diana Rosamilia, a Bethlehem Township resident, is similar to Bentz in that she’s not a Republican but she prefers the R on the ballot in this election. Rosamilia described herself as “not Republican or a Democrat.”
“I’m basically in the middle,” she added. “I guess I could be independent. I don’t know.”
According to the Bethlehem resident, “we do need to fix the country” because Democrats have failed over the past couple of years. Rosamilia believes that “everything has gone so far to the left that the country is a mess right now.” She thinks that a lot of her “Democrat friends” feel the same way.
“Who’s going to fix the economy and crime?” Rosamilia asked. “And the energy costs have gone up and the food is out of control.”
The Bethlehem resident further explained that President Joe Biden is not looking to fix those problems. She said his administration is just spending more; therefore, it’s time to give the Republicans a chance.
Rosamilia said that when Republican President Donald J. Trump was in office, “the economy was excellent.” Inflation was “2.something; now it’s like 8.something,” she added. Gas prices, too, have come down in recent months but are still more expensive than they were under Trump. Rosamilia also used to go to Philadelphia and New York City once a month, but now she doesn’t because of crime.
“I think people want change,” she concluded. “And I think in the midterms, maybe a lot of people are going to vote for change to see if that will fix this country because it’s really in a bad way.”
Some Lehigh Valley residents, though, do not want to see change in PA-7.
Ajaz Quazi, an Allentown resident, is a Democrat who doesn’t love the job that Biden has done since taking office. He expects Biden not to run in the 2024 presidential election and thinks that a new group of Democratic leaders will emerge in the next couple of years. Quazi also said that he likes Vice President Kamala Harris.
But for Congress this year, he’s sticking with Wild because she’s a Democrat.
“I think Wild is a good candidate,” he said. “And plus, I’m a Democrat.”
That latest Muhlenberg/Morning Call poll that showed Wild with a one-point lead also showed another number that was less prominent but perhaps more interesting. Only 4% of voters called themselves undecided. But within that group, 31% said they leaned toward Scheller, while 0% claimed to prefer Wild. (69% doubled down on being undecided.)
While Jewish issues aren’t a major theme in the campaign, the two candidates did discuss antisemitic hate crimes and Middle East instability at an Oct. 13 forum hosted by the Lehigh Valley Jewish Federation. Both reaffirmed their support for Israel and condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, The Morning Call reported.
At the forum, Wild called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Scheller said aid to Israel should be unconditional and contended that Wild votes for Israeli aid conditioned upon the Jewish state continuing two-state negotiations.
To combat hate crimes, Scheller called for additional investments in law enforcement. Wild touted actions taken by Congress, including the appointment of an antisemitism ambassador and a resolution to provide additional funding to houses of worship.
During the Exponent’s travels around the Lehigh Valley two weeks before Election Day, most people preferred not to talk about the race at all, let alone about Jewish issues. But among those who did, five people said they would vote for Scheller against four who preferred Wild.
John Briggs of Hellertown in Northampton County called politics “a theater act” and said he no longer wanted to participate. The 36-year-old voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. But he described Obama as a great candidate who turned out to be “a terrible president.” He also said he appreciated “some things” Trump did but that he was also “playing the heel,” a reference to the loud and outrageous bad guys in pro wrestling matches.
“These people are maniacs. I just don’t want to be a part of it anymore,” Briggs added. “What would be the best thing is if nobody voted, and we all just took care of each other. That’s kind of where I’m at.”
Briggs plans on voting for Republican Doug Mastriano over Democrat Josh Shapiro in the Pennsylvania governor’s race. He said he likes “some of the things” Mastriano says and finds Shapiro to be “derelict in his duties” as the commonwealth’s attorney general. But he finds the race for Pennsylvania’s senate seat between TV doctor Republican Mehmet Oz and sweatshirt-wearing Democrat John Fetterman to be “ridiculous.”
As for Wild-Scheller, Briggs plans on writing in a candidate.
“I’m not Republican. I’m independent,” he said.
Among the five people who told the Exponent they were voting for Scheller, two were Bentz and Rosamilia, a Democrat and an independent, respectively, while the other three were conservatives. Out of the four who pledged support for Wild, one was a campaign volunteer. The others were Democrats.
“I’m nervous. I think I hear it’s kind of close,” said Chris Fowler, a Bethlehem resident and Wild supporter. “I feel like the economic situation we’re in is not a product of just the last two years.”
Wild, a lawyer and former solicitor of Allentown, first won this House seat in 2018 by 10% of the vote against Marty Nothstein. But in 2020 against Scheller, that margin fell to about 3%. Now in 2022, the Democrat must contend with high crime and inflation rates under a Democratic president, Republican momentum and more conservative voters in her district.
As The Morning Call has reported and discussed, red Carbon County was not part of PA-7 two years ago. But it is in 2022, along with its population of more than 64,000 people.
The Wild campaign did not respond to several requests for comment. But the congresswoman is running like an incumbent in a very close race.
Wild’s negative TV ads portray Scheller as a CEO more concerned with creating jobs in China than America; her positive ad credits her for the CHIPS and Science Act, which invests in making semiconductors in America. Over the past week, Wild made sure to be seen visiting small business owners in Bethlehem and Easton and touring a construction site at the Lehigh Valley International Airport.
Then on Oct. 30, a Sunday morning, she brought in House Majority WHIP Jim Clyburn to attend a service with her at the Greater Shiloh Church in Easton. Clyburn, a Black congressman from South Carolina whose endorsement of Biden helped swing the 2020 Democratic primary, appeared with Wild at a church that the congresswoman’s campaign labeled “the oldest and largest minority congregation in the Lehigh Valley.”
It remains to be seen if all of this will be enough.
Scheller does not think that it will be. The Republican called her opponent “a rubber stamp for the Biden agenda” who supported “the reckless spending and tax increases that have helped to give us the worst inflation in 40 years.”
Scheller, by contrast, promises to help “unleash American energy, especially right here in Pennsylvania.” She said “there are enough energy resources in PA to power America for 200 years,” and that “it’s time we use those to bring relief to working people.”
“I can do a better job representing the Lehigh Valley and fighting for the needs of our communities,” Scheller said. JE