MAGA label dogs candidate for key state House seat in Pennsylvania
MORRISVILLE, Pa. — Candace Cabanas, a mother and server at an Italian restaurant running for political office for the first time, has distanced herself from the fiery rhetoric and extreme positions of her Donald Trump-led Republican Party.
But her Democratic opponent, Jim Prokopiak, a school board member, isn’t letting her escape the connection, running ads and sending mailers that tar Cabanas as a “MAGA extremist” who knocked on doors for Trump and supported book bans at schools — characterizations that Cabanas denies.
“People don’t want extremists in government right now. Not here in Bucks County,” Prokopiak said in an interview.
It’s a strategy Democrats have won with in recent elections, especially in swing areas like Bucks County, a vote-rich suburb outside of Philadelphia where moderate and independent voters are heavily courted by presidential campaigns. Here in lower Bucks County, which has an older, White, working-class population largely without college degrees, a vacant state House seat is up for grabs and the winner of a special election on Tuesday will determine the partisan tilt of the lower chamber in Harrisburg, which is deadlocked at 101-101.
This state race is an early indication of how national Democrats intend to run aggressively on tying Republicans to Trump up and down the ballot. Democrats believe that Trump’s chokehold on the GOP — and his all-but-certain return as its presidential nominee — is a liability for Republicans, especially in places like Bucks County. Extremism — a catchall term Democrats use to include threats to abortion rights and democracy — has been a winning message for Democrats in recent elections, including the 2022 midterms when Trump was no longer in office, but still loomed large over the party.
“If I’m a Democrat I want to make sure that I’m associating whoever I’m running against with Trump,” said Chris Borick, a veteran political pollster at Muhlenberg College.
Cabanas rejected the label “MAGA” and wouldn’t say whether she personally supports Trump, but said, “He’s going to be the nominee and as the nominee, I believe it’s the job of us within the party to get behind and support him, to maybe encourage him to find a really good [vice president] that can help balance him out a little bit.”
Cabanas said she never knocked on doors for Trump, though she said her husband did. Her mailers and website do not mention that she’s a Republican and Cabanas is trying to keep her campaign laser-focused on issues that she says are most pressing for struggling working families like hers. She avoids other issues that might fire up the MAGA base, but are anathema to more moderate suburban voters.
Cabanas said she has never advocated for banning books, for instance, adding, “I think parents have the right to question age appropriateness. Should this be available to a child of a young age or an impressionable age, particularly things of sexual or explicit nature?” And she refuses to offer specifics on her personal views on abortion rights — which Democrats plan to make a major component of their 2024 campaign — saying it’s “a decision that the people need to make, and what they’re telling us is they think it should be legal.”
The dilemma for Republicans like Cabanas is how to distance themselves at least somewhat from Trump while still courting his loyal base. In the fight for control of the U.S. House and Senate this year, Republican candidates will have to toe the same line, embracing Trump as their nominee in conservative areas while calibrating their words more carefully in places like Bucks County.
Bucks County is historically a purple area, and turnout here figures heavily in who wins the crucial swing state in presidential contests. In 2016, Hillary Clinton eked out a victory in Bucks by less than one percentage point and lost the state to Trump. Four years later, Joe Biden performed better in the Philadelphia suburbs — he won Bucks by four percentage points — giving him the edge he needed to win the state back. To win Pennsylvania in a presidential election, Democrats need strong turnout in Philadelphia and its four collar counties to offset Republican victories in the sprawling rural parts of the state.
The baggage of running in Trump’s party was on display on a mild, sunny morning this week as Cabanas knocked on doors in Morrisville, a small borough across the river from New Jersey, clutching a stack of campaign leaflets.
After one man opened the door, she started to introduce herself, but he cut her off, “Are you a Democrat or Republican?” he asked. She replied, “Republican.”
“Not in a million years,” he said, shutting the door.
James Marcellus, 52, who works maintenance at Bucks County Community College, is vehemently opposed to Trump and the current Republican Party. Sitting on a couch in his home, his Doberman pinscher curled up next to him, Marcellus, a registered Democrat, said he’d consider voting for a Republican if “you bring in an actual candidate that I can trust.”
“The Republican Party, I can’t trust a single one of them as far as I know,” Marcellus said.
But Jane Burger, 78, a retired social work administrator who described herself as a moderate Republican, said she is voting for Cabanas and was surprised to hear Democrats were calling her MAGA.
“We need to get past fear tactics and stop making these other elected offices about Trump,” she said.
Jeff Hall-Gale, an executive with the Bucks County Republican Committee who has been knocking on doors for Cabanas, said Democrats have done well in recent cycles by labeling all Republican candidates as extremists. He pointed to Pennsylvania Republicans’ choice for governor in 2022 — Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who has espoused Christian nationalist beliefs. Democrat Josh Shapiro beat him overwhelmingly, including by 20 percentage points in Bucks County.
“I think what the Democrats play into a little bit is the Mastriano type of politics where you have, you know, they want to paint all Republicans under the same MAGA, controversial brush that we’re all book banners, that we all want full-out abortion bans, every Republican, they paint us all with the same brush,” Hall-Gale said.
Moderate Republicans who are better known, like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, whose brother, Michael G. Fitzpatrick, was in Congress before him, have shown they can still win Bucks County even with Trump or Mastriano at the top of the ticket. But for lesser-known candidates such as Cabanas, it’s harder to convince voters that, “look, I’m normal,” Hall-Gale said.
Paul McGinty, 49, a high school special education teacher, had long been a registered Republican until Trump came along. He officially switched parties in June 2022 after Pennsylvania Republicans chose Mastriano as their nominee and McGinty said he realized that Trump wasn’t “an anomaly.”
“I don’t see us swinging back to being a moderate party,” he said. He shrugged when asked how he felt about voting for Biden in November, saying he’d prefer to see some “fresh blood,” but he said he’ll vote for the Democratic president as an anti-Trump vote.
The state House district up for grabs on Tuesday leans more Democratic than the county as a whole and Prokopiak is favored to win. Whoever wins will fill the seat through the end of the year, after which the two candidates are expected to run against each other again in November.
But Democrats took nothing for granted in this race. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the national group responsible for helping Democrats win state races, gave $50,000 to Pennsylvania’s House Democratic Campaign Committee that could be used on the contest. Prokopiak raised enough money, $140,000 according to his campaign, to air television and digital ads and send seven different mailers. Cabanas has run her campaign on a shoestring budget, raising about $10,000 with little outside support.
Heather Williams, president of the DLCC, said the organization invested in the race because it wanted to ensure a Democratic majority to block Republicans’ “extreme agenda.” The Pennsylvania state Senate is controlled by Republicans.
“MAGA is a way to talk about where Republicans are today,” Williams said. “I think that the tie to that is successful because that is synonymous now with the Republican Party. You just can say one or the other, and people know exactly what you’re talking about.”
The Republican Legislative Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for comment about the race.
Prokopiak has mostly made his campaign about local issues, like raising the state’s minimum wage and building more affordable housing. But he also has made reproductive rights a cornerstone of his policy platform, referencing it on almost all of his campaign materials.
At a small event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, at a supporter’s home, Prokopiak warned that Republicans wanted to take away people’s rights.
“We need to stop this extremist agenda that we see at the school board level, and we see at the state House level, and we see at the state Senate level, all through the Republican Party, frankly,” Prokopiak said. “For far too many people on the Republican side now, they think that you can pick and choose who gets to have rights and who doesn’t get to have rights.”
The issue is top of mind for a lot of voters, including Meghan Horn, 34, who assured Prokopiak when he showed up on her doorstep in Levittown that she’d be voting for him.
“Our state legislature for at least a decade has leaned Republican. So, it’s concerning, you know, as a woman, it’s concerning, and it worries me,” Horn said. “My friend has a daughter who’s growing up, and to think that she won’t have those rights …”