When we think of political campaigns, we tend to paint a specific picture in our minds: an inspiring candidate firing up supporters about the issues facing the nation.
That’s what Jewish Democrat Josh Shapiro’s race for Pennsylvania governor looks like. It is also what his Republican opponent Doug Mastriano’s campaign looks like. Both men are capable of mobilizing hundreds of supporters around their messages in a matter of days.
Running for state representative is nothing like that.
It’s not about the candidates or the issues. It’s not even about the country as a whole. Instead, it pretty much comes down to this: Are you willing to walk neighborhoods in your district, hour after hour, day after day, through spring, summer and fall? And can you get enough busy residents to give you two minutes on their front porches?
Two Jewish Democrats, Ilya Breyman and Gwen Stoltz, are walking their Bucks County neighborhoods and trying to convince people that they care, yes, but also that they exist.
Breyman is running to represent Pennsylvania’s 178th House district, covering lower Bucks County towns like Northampton. Stoltz is campaigning for the House seat in the 143rd district, which includes central and upper Bucks towns like Perkasie. Bucks County is known as a purple territory on the political map, meaning it combines both red Republican voters and blue Democratic voters.
Breyman has to beat Republican Kristin Marcell for a seat held by an outgoing Republican in Wendi Thomas. Stoltz must topple the incumbent Republican Shelby Labs.
Both Democrats have done enough fundraising to top $100,000, with Stoltz accumulating more than $300,000. Both have advertised on social media and even, in Stoltz’s case, on television. But John Fetterman versus Mehmet Oz this is not.
Unlike that campaign for Pennsylvania’s open seat in the U.S. Senate, Breyman and Stoltz cannot win by creating over-the-air caricatures of their opponents. Instead, they must execute stronger ground games than their rivals.
“You just keep going,” Breyman said. “Trying to talk to as many people as possible.”
On Nov. 3 and 4, just days before Election Day, that’s what both Jewish candidates did. Breyman walked around neighborhoods in Northampton Township. Stoltz did a loop around the hill in the borough of Perkasie leading down to Kulp Park.
At door after door, nobody answered. That is common during weekday afternoons, both candidates said. Yet both Jews, who are proud of their identities but who do not have Jewish-specific issues to campaign on, kept the faith and continued knocking.
Sometimes a man or woman in athleisure clothes would answer the door and say they couldn’t talk for long; they had to get back inside for a Zoom meeting. One Northampton resident had his headset on when he came to the door. He said he wasn’t sure if he was voting yet and went back inside.
The walking, the knocking, that split second you get to convince someone that you matter more than a solicitor; it all felt tiring. But Breyman and Stoltz had been at this for months, starting when they announced their campaigns in April. During his summer laps, Breyman was offered water by some constituents.
“Today, I feel energized,” Stoltz said. “Yesterday, I was tired.”
It is always energizing, though, when a resident steps out of their home and onto the front porch. Breyman and Stoltz start racing through their names, hometowns and most important issues. (For Breyman, it’s ending the red-blue divide; for Stoltz, it’s maintaining the right to an abortion and supporting small businesses.)
Then they start asking questions. Are you voting? What matters to you? Can I count on your support? Some voters already know who they are supporting. But others are not so sure. And to them, a good conversation can be convincing.
“All right man,” said one Republican-leaning voter to Breyman. “I appreciate you showing up here.”
Breyman, Stoltz and their campaigns have knocked on tens of thousands of doors. And to do that day after day, they have made sacrifices. Breyman no longer devotes as much time to his educational tech company Coursalytics. Stoltz needs her mom to handle dinner for her three children once a week.
Neither campaign has done much polling, so they are unsure if they will win. That makes it essential to leave everything on the field, they explained. Stoltz said she was looking forward to election night because she would be able to relax at home with her family. They plan to order pizza.
“They are excited and look up to the fact that I’m running for office,” Stoltz said. “But they are looking forward to being beyond Election Day.” JE