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Perry challenger in striking distance in poll, but winning won’t be easy

Six-term GOP incumbent survived attacks over abortion rights and 2020 election before

Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry speaks during a campaign rally for Dave McCormick, Republican U.S. Senate candidate, at Beerded Goat Brewery in Harrisburg, Pa., on  April 25, 2024.
Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry speaks during a campaign rally for Dave McCormick, Republican U.S. Senate candidate, at Beerded Goat Brewery in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 25, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The race for the 10th District in central Pennsylvania is one that Democrats are hoping to make competitive this year as they try to win back control of the House.

That challenge will fall to Democrat Janelle Stelson, a former broadcast journalist who beat five rivals, including the 2022 nominee, for the nomination to challenge Rep. Scott Perry. In an interview, Stelson said her six-term Republican opponent, who previously chaired the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has a record that’s too extreme for the Harrisburg-centered district and often was the only member of the state delegation to vote a certain way on legislation. 

A new Stelson campaign poll, shared first with CQ Roll Call, found that 45 percent of likely voters said they would support Perry if the election were held today, while 43 percent said they would vote for Stelson. Another 12 percent said they weren’t sure.

The poll also found district voters backed Donald Trump over Joe Biden, 48 percent to 41 percent. Trump would have won the 10th District by 4 percentage points in 2020, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Public Policy Polling surveyed 532 likely voters in the district through landlines and text-to-web surveys April 24-25, the two days following the state’s primary. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

While the results were encouraging for Stelson, closing the gap with Perry could be difficult in a state where Democrats are defending three other House seats along with a Senate seat. Inside Elections rates the 10th District race as Lean Republican.

“Even though a lot of Perry’s performance numbers are pretty anemic, he is a six-term incumbent. There is nothing about this that is going to be easy,” Stelson said. 

Since Perry’s district became more Republican after off-cycle redistricting in 2018, he’s won each of his races by greater margins each time. Stelson acknowledged that the district leans Republican but noted that voters there supported Democrat Josh Shapiro over Republican Doug Mastriano during the 2022 gubernatorial race. 

“I think that people are going to really pay attention to the caliber of candidate that we put up against him,” Stelson said. 

Stelson, who was previously a registered Republican, lives outside the district but told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she would move back into the district if elected. 

During the primary campaign, in which the Democratic candidates were largely focused on the incumbent, Stelson ran an ad criticizing Perry for his position on abortion and in vitro fertilization. Perry told a local news station last month that he agreed with Trump’s position that states should have control over abortion laws, but Stelson has criticized his support for a measure known as the Life at Conception Act, which says that life would begin at the moment of fertilization. 

Democrats could also focus on what role Perry might have played around the 2020 election in Pennsylvania. Late last year, a federal judge ordered Perry to give the Justice Department more than 1,600 phone messages related to the state’s results in the presidential election and then-Vice President Mike Pence’s role in presiding over the Jan. 6, 2021, counting of Electoral College votes.

Matt Beynon, a spokesman for Perry’s campaign, said Democrats attacked Perry over abortion and the 2020 election last cycle, when he defeated Shamaine Daniels, a member of the Harrisburg City Council, by 7.6 percentage points. 

Perry had $513,000 on hand as of April 3, while Stelson had $192,000, Federal Election Commission filings show. House Majority PAC, a super PAC with ties to House Democratic leadership, has made $2.4 million in ad reservations in the Harrisburg media market. 

Outside groups have already begun spending in the district. The House Freedom Fund has spent more than $30,000 this year to support Perry with direct mail and donation processing. Welcome PAC, which works to elect moderate Democrats in districts that lean conservative, endorsed Stelson last week but was already spending to oppose Perry before that. The group reported spending more than $25,000 so far this year on digital advertising, billboards and print materials.

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