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Democrat, a Mennonite, turns heads in heavily GOP House seat

Written by Marc Levy/Associated Press | Nov 2, 2018 5:42 PM
Jess King.jpg

Nonprofit executive Jess King poses with her family in Lancaster. King, a Democrat, is working to unseat Republican incumbent Lloyd Smucker in the newly redrawn 11th congressional district. (Photo: Submitted)



(Lancaster) -- Voters in Pennsylvania's rolling dairy farms and Amish countryside have perhaps never seen a Democrat mount a competitive campaign for Congress -- until now.

From all appearances, first-time candidate Jess King is giving freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker a fight to the finish in Tuesday's mid-term election in this heavily conservative district on Pennsylvania's southern border.

Drawn by her Mennonite faith into a career of nonprofit anti-poverty work, King said she isn't necessarily running against President Donald Trump.

For sure, she doesn't like Trump, calling him inflammatory and divisive.

But, she said, she is trying to tap into issues where she and Trump voters can agree, whether on the need for health care, a level economic playing field or a government that is responsive to people, not corporate campaign contributions.

"That's why we don't talk about Trump so much because it's not helpful, in that it becomes another element of the division, and shame is not a tactic that works," King said in an interview in her bustling downtown Lancaster campaign office. "You know, to shame people into, 'hey, you were wrong in your vote,' or 'hey, you should have done something else,' or 'hey, I think less of you.' That doesn't work, so we don't do it."

King, 44, is endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and has gone toe-to-toe with Smucker in fundraising without accepting corporate campaign contributions or getting help from Democratic Party organizations.

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Republican Congressman Lloyd Smucker.

Smucker, 54, acknowledges the race is competitive. Two polls in recent weeks have shown a single-digit race and Republicans are not disputing that finding. Still, Smucker says Republicans are getting engaged and happy with the last two years, and will vote to ensure the seat remains in Republican hands.

"I think we're going to win this thing, but sure, it is definitely a competitive race and we're going to need all the Republicans to come out and we're confident that's going to happen," Smucker said in an interview.

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence came to campaign and raise cash for Smucker, who began airing attack ads that King says are full of lies about her.

Smucker suggests she wants to legalize heroin and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She doesn't. He said she's for open borders. She's not.

The ads show Smucker in a plaid shirt, call him a central Pennsylvania native and suggest that "socialists" from San Francisco and New York are funding King's campaign. King does not call herself a socialist and much of Smucker's campaign contributions are from outside the district.

For her part, King calls herself a 12th-generation native of the area, which is accustomed to hard-fought Republican primaries, not hard-fought general elections.

Republicans have a 100,000-voter registration advantage in the district, and Trump won it by 26 points in 2016.

But the county is growing fast and, with it, the area's Republican registration edge is shrinking. Meanwhile, Democrats say Smucker's echo of Trump's hard-edged anti-immigrant message is landing with a thud in an area where the big Mennonite population has long been active in resettling refugees from across the globe.

As a child, for instance, King remembers her church resettling families from Vietnam, Ukraine and elsewhere.

King emphasizes door-knocking and town halls, and has found volunteers in the Mennonite community. Her campaign manager and field director grew up in the Mennonite church where her husband was pastor, and she's known them since they were politically active teenagers demonstrating against the Iraq war.

Her reach into the Mennonite community -- she went to Lancaster Mennonite High School and Eastern Mennonite University -- even amazed her when she traveled around to parades last month.

"I would see people that I grew up with, went to high school with, knew from college, like family friends, relatives, you name it," King said. "It is crazy. It's kind of hard to paint the picture of how interwoven the fabric of this community is, especially when you grow up Mennonite."

She plays down Trump in her campaign, but it is the president, in part, that drove her decision to run. The tax-cutting bill advanced by Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress would, she feared, benefit the wealthy and do nothing to advance anti-poverty efforts.

"I knew I needed to do something," King said. "I was open to what that was going to be, but I certainly didn't see it as a run for congress. But it's working out all right."

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