Lehigh Valley Republican rivals team up to neutralize Democrats' mail-in ballot edge
- Democrats have dominated mail-in ballot voting in the Lehigh Valley and across Pennsylvania
- The advantage has pushed Democrats over the top in races for Congress and in Harrisburg
- Republicans Dean Browning and Lisa Scheller have pooled resources in hopes of strengthening odds for GOP candidates
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Two Republican rivals whose clashes helped define Lehigh County politics for more than a decade have joined forces in an effort to wipe out the advantage Democrats have enjoyed in mail-in ballots over the past three years.
Former Lehigh County commissioners Dean Browning and Lisa Scheller have teamed up to create the Win Again PAC, a conservative political action committee to encourage irregular GOP voters to adopt mail-in ballots. Both lost tight elections in contested races last year, and they each believe closing the gap on mail-in ballots is essential to Republicans competing in the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania.
"If this program would have been in place in 2021, Dave Ritter would be a judge," Browning said matter-of-factly last week. Ritter, a Republican, initially held a 71-vote lead over Democrat Zachary Cohen in a race for Lehigh County judge. But after the state Supreme Court allowed undated mail-in ballots to be counted, Cohen pulled out a five-vote win thanks in part to Democrats' dominance of mail-in ballots.
Democrats have dominated mail-in ballots nationally, statewide and locally since the 2020 election cycle. At the time, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders demonized mail-in ballots, making baseless claims the method was rife for fraud. Rank-and-file voters followed their lead and largely cast their ballots at local polling places.
The strategy hasn't paid off in Pennsylvania. Political observers agree mail-in ballots make it far more convenient for people to vote.
Democrats have embraced the method, which has aided with their voter turnout. Since 2020, Pennsylvania Republicans have lost races for president, governor, U.S. Senate, and three swing U.S. House districts, including the Lehigh Valley's 7th Congressional District. GOP officials have acknowledged things need to change, and the Republican National Committee has kicked off a mail-in ballot campaign this summer called Bank Your Vote.
The Lehigh Valley makes a good example of what Republican organizers are trying to overcome. In November 2022, Democrats made up about two-thirds of the 82,677 voters in Lehigh and Northampton counties who requested a mail-in ballot. Those voters effectively had a month to cast their vote from the convenience of their kitchen table. By comparison, most Republican voters had a few hours on Election Day to get to their local polling place and vote in person.
"It's much easer to get a traditionally low-turnout Republican to show up than to try and drag over a high-turnout Democrat to vote for a Republican."Arnoud Armstrong, executive director of Win Again PAC
Arnoud Armstrong, executive director of Win Again PAC, said that may not be a big deal for dedicated voters who come out to every election, but it can create a barrier for people who aren't as invested in politics. Bad weather, a busy schedule or long lines could be enough to dissuade conservative voters from delivering needed votes in tight races if their only option is to vote at their polling station.
"What we have to do right now is get Republican stakeholders, volunteers, candidates and voters to start thinking about this differently," Armstrong said. "If we don't, it's going to continue to be very hard for us to win competitive elections."
It's a reality Browning and Scheller know firsthand. In his 2022 campaign for Pennsylvania's 14th Senate District, Browning won polling place ballots over Democrat Nick Miller by 6,416 votes. But Miller is one of the state's youngest lawmakers today thanks to a 12,770-vote advantage he had in mail-in ballots.
A similar story played out in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District race last year. Democratic incumbent Susan Wild collected 44,354 more votes in mail-in ballots than Scheller, fueling her 5,837-vote victory.
By Browning's estimate, about 14,000 mail-in voters who backed Wild were low-propensity voters — people who voted once or not at all in the previous four years. By comparison, low-propensity Republicans accounted for just 4,000 mail-in ballots in the district. Democrats, he said, won one of the most coveted congressional seats in the nation by getting these voters on the margins to back their candidate. If Republicans can do the same, he reasoned, it would change the game.
Burying the hatchet
That end goal has been enough to unite two opponents who have spent more than a decade fighting each other. As a Lehigh County commissioner in 2010, Browning refused to support a Republican gambit that would have blocked a 16% tax hike but forced then Executive Don Cunningham to cut approximately $18 million from the budget. Cunningham, a Democrat, dubbed Browning's stand a profile in courage, but it infuriated conservatives.
Scheller made her first run for office the following year, bankrolling her campaign and a slate of conservative candidates. They defeated Browning in the primary, which became a trend for the next decade. In 2013, he lost the Lehigh County Republican primary to Scott Ott, who had Scheller's financial backing. In 2018, he lost the Lehigh Valley's Republican congressional primary to Marty Nothstein, another candidate receiving Scheller's financial clout. In 2020, Browning and Scheller squared off directly in the congressional Republican primary — Scheller earned an endorsement from Trump and won by about 2,400 votes.
"We had less than a cordial relationship for a number of years," Browning acknowledged.
But when Browning crunched the mail-in ballot numbers, he turned to present his findings and the difficulties they presented for local Republicans, he said. Scheller, the owner of an international pigment manufacturing company, agreed with his conclusions and agreed to help fund a boots-on-the-ground effort to drive up Republican mail-in voting.
Scheller did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, but she's featured prominently on the Win Again PAC website.
"Both Dean and Lisa, they're workhorses," Armstrong said. "They've put in the work, they're invested and they're working together because they're hard workers, and they understand this is a major issue."
Win Again PAC was founded earlier this year, and it has not had to file a financial report with the state yet. Browning in an interview declined to get into the specific amount raised the effort is focused on driving up mail-in ballot voting in Bucks, Lehigh and Northampton counties this election cycle.
Volunteers for local school board, municipal and county races are helping with door-to-door canvassing, and irregular Republican voters they've contacted appear open to voting by mail this year, Armstrong said. If all goes well, the PAC's efforts can serve as proof-of-concept for a statewide effort.
In this age of divided politics, Armstrong said the Win Again PAC is betting this is the best strategy moving forward. Thirty years ago, parties might focus on persuading regular voters to back their candidate, but campaign strategists have found its not an effective use of resources, he said.
"It's much easer to get a traditionally low-turnout Republican to show up than to try and drag over a high-turnout Democrat to vote for a Republican," he said.
Christopher Borick, a political scientist and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said the Win Again PAC is taking a smart approach. Republicans have been throttled in mail-in ballots over the past three years, contributing to tough losses over that time span. They would have a lot to gain by drawing support from irregular voters that may find mail-in voting appealing.
"If your most loyal super voters show up all the time in person, OK, that base is covered. But what about those irregular voters that might be in play? You want to find any way to increase the probability that they vote," Borick said.
And while Republicans leaders like RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas have acknowledged the need to improve mail-in voting, Borick said he hasn't seen much in the way of low-level organizing to make that goal a reality.
A strong get-out-the-vote effort for irregular voters with a mail-in ballot campaign might be enough to shift a race by three to five points, Borick said. While that may not seem like much, it could mean a world of difference in places like the Lehigh Valley, where competitive districts are the norm.
"I think it's a smart, strategic decision on a number of levels. The underuse of this method of voting by Republicans has not been productive for the party in a really competitive region in a really competitive state," Borick said.