Campaigns & Elections

Primary Preview: 7th Congressional Primary

Three Republicans are battling for the chance to go up against incumbent U.S. Rep. Susan Wild

Kevin Dellicker & Ryan Mackenzie

Kevin Dellicker & Ryan Mackenzie Dellicker for Congress; Vanderburgh via Wikipedia

The Lehigh Valley is seen not just as a statewide but a national indicator of where voters in a mix of suburban and rural communities are shifting. And with a bellwether district comes a consistent stream of challengers from the opposition. 

For Democrat Susan Wild of South Whitehall Township, who is seeking her third term and is unopposed this month, the reelection push isn’t new. She’s successfully fended off challengers before, but this time around, there are three Republicans vying to go up against her in November. 

The Republican primary race in the 7th congressional district features names new and old. State Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, a Lower Macungie Township resident who has represented part of Lehigh County in the 187th legislative district, is looking to make the leap from the state House to the U.S. House. Meanwhile, Maria Montero, a personal injury lawyer from Easton, and Kevin Dellicker, a business owner and veteran of Heidelberg Township, are each seeking to show how their personal experience trumps Mackenzie’s legislative résumé.

View of the Valley

Wild’s seat in the 7th Congressional District is seen as an achievable flip for Republicans hoping to hold onto the U.S. House majority. Cook Political Report has the seat as a “Democrat Toss Up,” similar to Wild’s previous reelection campaigns. But this time around, with Democrats holding the White House and U.S. Senate, the Republican candidates are highlighting ongoing issues as a reason for change. 

“When I go out and talk to people all around the Lehigh Valley, they’re really worried that we’re losing our American way of life,” Dellicker told City & State. “The obvious obstacle to that is the progressive left (and) the Washington Democrats that are advancing policies that are harming our country.”

Dellicker, Mackenzie and Montero have all spoken out against Wild, President Joe Biden and Democrats’ legislative priorities in Washington, D.C. In one-on-one interviews with LehighValleyNews, each candidate touched on issues ranging from the economy and reproductive rights to foreign affairs and national security. An overarching message coming from the interviews is that Washington needs to put “America first,” a phrase popularized by former President Donald Trump.

Each candidate agreed that the government should create a more business-friendly environment, mainly through deregulation and spending cuts. 

“We are giving agencies runaway authority to create such hot mess webs that businesses need to go through just to make a dollar," Montero told LehighValleyNews. Montero, who served as executive director of both the Pennsylvania Commission for Women and the Pennsylvania Latino Commission, was appointed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett to those positions. 

Dellicker, pushing his experience as a small-business owner and veteran with stints in Albany and Harrisburg, has attempted to brand himself as the political outsider compared to Mackenzie and Montero. 

Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said given the recent populist shift within the Republican Party, the outsider messaging could be a better selling point to primary voters. 

“Republican primary voters aren’t the same Republican primary voters we saw in the Lehigh Valley even 10 years ago,” Borick told City & State. “In today’s Republican politics, not being an elected official or serving in Harrisburg is an advantage … Dellicker’s pitch is the easier one, at least from a bio perspective.”

Standout stances

Standing out to voters is among the chief concerns of any campaign, especially local ones where even the smallest of voting blocs could make the difference. 

Given the candidates’ similarities in policy priorities, Borick said, any differentiation one candidate can offer on a strong issue could be all that’s needed to move the needle – particularly in what’s expected to be a close three-way primary. 

“They don’t look dramatically different,” Borick said of the candidates’ policy stances. But with hot-button issues like reproductive rights – now intertwined with in vitro fertilization – and Social Security driving campaign conversations, candidates are attempting to make their unique perspectives heard. 

Dellicker has stood by his support for Social Security, even as Republicans in Washington consider reforms, including raising the retirement age for the program, which Dellicker calls a “sacred pact” between taxpayers and the government. 

“We need to honor that (pact),” Dellicker told City & State, adding that other social programs need to be reexamined in the process. “We need to look at entitlement programs, not just Social Security, but all of them because they’re a contributing factor in the budget mess that we have right now.”

The three candidates have varying opinions on reproductive rights as well, with Mackenzie and Montero both saying Congress should leave the abortion issue to the states, while Dellicker said he would support a stricter ban than the 24-week limit protected by the courts. 

Mackenzie was the only candidate to express support for protecting fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization, an issue Wild and Democrats have backed in the wake of an Alabama Supreme Court decision that puts the procedure at risk. 

“IVF, if you look at polling among Republicans, is fairly divided,” Borick said. “(A candidate thinking) ‘Maybe I could differentiate there a bit to get an advantage’ – I think that’s probably a smart move.” 

Primary preview

As voters prepare to cast their ballots in the April 23 primary, the changing demographics of suburban areas such as the 7th Congressional District also come into play. The district, according to U.S. Census data, had more than 66,000 non-white Hispanic residents and more than 45,000 Black residents in 2021, with nearly 20% of the district’s households reporting a primary language other than English being spoken at home. 

For Montero, a first-generation American who served on the board of directors of the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley, a personal connection to the more than 50,000 Spanish-speaking residents could also make a difference on primary day. 

Borick noted a “quickly-growing Hispanic and Latino segment in the electorate in Allentown and Bethlehem” would historically have benefited Democrats, but that may not be the case this election cycle. 

“We’re seeing in broader level national polls, and in some degree state polls, signs of a significant shift to the GOP among Latino voters,” Borick said. “In a close race, if it turns out that way, it could be a boost” for Montero. 

The primary election winner will have to do what previous candidates haven’t been able to accomplish – unseat Wild as an incumbent. In the November 2022 election, Wild defeated Republican Lisa Scheller by just 5,837 votes.