Election 2018

Grilled on Trump and scorned by donors: What it’s like to run for Congress as a Republican in Philly

Bryan Leib is challenging Dwight Evans for a seat no one thinks he’ll win.

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Bryan Leib
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Bryan Leib knows why no one is paying attention to his campaign against freshman Congressman Dwight Evans.

In the newly redrawn map, Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District (formerly known as the 2nd) grew larger and encapsulated a bigger cross-section of Philadelphia. Its expanded borders even included Leib’s home in Center City.

Which means that Leib, 33, is a virtually unknown Republican running for a seat that’s an all-but-guaranteed Democratic win.

The redrawn district is ranked by the Cook Political Report as favorable to Democrats by a daunting 41 points — a tilt that’s slightly more lopsided than the old district. As of this writing, the area is home to over 450,000 registered Democrats versus just under 40,000 Republicans. But voter registration is just one factor in the odds stacked against longshot Republican candidacies in this city.

Fundraising is perhaps the biggest barrier. National GOP donors view congressional races in Philadelphia as a lost cause, especially when compared to dozens of hotly contested races nationwide. And as he’s made appeals to potential crossover Democrats, Leib has been pressed to describe his feelings about the sitting U.S. President — forcing him to walk a balancing act Republicans in this region have had to tiptoe since Trump’s nomination in 2016.

So who would run such a race — and how?

Leib was a registered Democrat as recently as 2015. His entrée into Philly politics actually began with state Sen. Anthony Williams’ ill-fated mayoral bid, after which Leib switched parties.

Now a candidate, Leib noted he’s the only millennial Republican running for Congress in Pennsylvania — and he believes he has cross-aisle appeal. He’s been courting support from independents, he said, including members of the Jewish community and “blue collar Democrats” disenchanted by decades of one-party rule — a trademark battlecry for Republicans running in Philly’s blue sea.

“No one expects me to come even close to winning this race,” Leib said, with a chuckle. “I’m a realist. I realize this would be the upset of the nation, right? But I’m still out here working hard to connect with people.”

The Trump question

Campaigning in South Philadelphia, Leib said a Trump question will come up “nine times out of 10.”

“I tell them I’m not a fan of the way he talks. I tell them I’m not a fan of the tweeting. But I’m a fan of results,” Leib told Billy Penn. Which results? He sticks to Trump’s tax bills, which led to some mega-corporations raising wages, and carved out modest paycheck bumps for a large swath of American workers.

A Voorhees native, Leib grew up partially with his grandparents in Philly. He did not attend college. Rather, at age 18, he began working for his father’s accounts receivable management company in South Jersey. Since moving back to the city nine years ago, he has worked for the Philadelphia Soul, the International House and Campus Apartments. He’s currently the treasurer of the Philadelphia Young Republicans.

You may have seen Leib at a Blue Lives Matter march or alongside Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner. You might not catch him campaigning much in Strawberry Mansion or Cobbs Creek.

He’s directing his very limited resources on courting “blue collar Democrats” in neighborhoods like South Philadelphia, Roxborough and East Falls, he said, where voters may be less averse to voting Republican in a local contest. The more than 66,700 independents in the new district are key among the people Leib counts as his target base.

Instead of focusing on party, Leib likes to say that he’s a “Philadelphian first.” He emphasized his admiration for certain Democratic leaders — among them City Councilman Allan Domb, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Pa. Sen. Anthony Williams, whose 2016 mayoral campaign helped him get his foot in the door to local politics.

No love from national Republicans

Leib’s most recent campaign finance report from September showed just over $6,800 in contributions. His October report is not yet available online, but Leib said he’d raised about $25,000 since launching his campaign in early summer.

Contrast that with his opponent’s campaign, which has raised — and spent — more than a million dollars over the last 19 months. Even with around $66,000 on hand in his recent report, Rep. Evans’ campaign should not have to worry about out-financing the competition.

Leib is subsidizing his living expenses through his savings account in order to run in this race, he said.

“Unless you’re a self-made millionaire,” Leib said, “the barriers created for young people running for office on a federal level are just incredible.”

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A lot of that comes down to voter registration optics surrounding national campaigns.

With Democrats gunning to reclaim the U.S. House of Representatives, national Republican donors have focused their financial resources on retaining GOP incumbents. “The challenge races — which these are — are the last priority,” Philly GOP Chairman Michael Meehan told Billy Penn. 

Meehan added that candidates have until Labor Day to convince large donors that “they have a shot.”

Leib has encountered similar resistance from national political leaders in the Jewish community, he said — his platform his heavily pro-Israel — in contrast with local Jewish leaders, who’ve been more supportive.

Looking to draw attention to his cash-strapped campaign, Leib has not shied away from calling out national political correspondents on social media. He has a particular eye for CNN’s Jake Tapper, a Philly native. So far, no luck.

As for a chance to spar with Evans himself, Leib said the congressman did not respond to an offer for a debate. The two candidates are scheduled to appear at a candidates forum in Center City next week, according to Evans’ campaign.

Slamming the ‘one party’ town

Like many Republican hopefuls, Leib likes to criticize one-party rule. Democrats have held the reins of Evans’ congressional district since 1949.

Most high-profile offices in the Philly region similarly have not had Republican leadership since the middle of the last century. Today, many of the city’s abject woes, from gun violence to income inequality, are often pinned on incumbent Democrats.

In a recent blog post outlining his solution to poverty and unemployment in the 3rd District, Leib wrote: “Let me be clear, this is unacceptable and is a direct result of the failed leadership of Dwight Evans.”

Evans campaign manager Michael Dineen bristled at that characterization, citing food-access initiatives spearheaded by Evans during his time in Harrisburg, and the representative’s more recent efforts to help small businesses in Congress. “To say that Congressman Evans is at fault for this issue is absurd and nakedly political,” Dineen said.

Leib’s proposed solution? Expanding access to $70 billion in federal Pell Grants that are distributed to low-income Americans to go to college. Leib says Congress should set 10 percent aside for those seeking job training and certification programs.

What’s next?

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah’s career took a nosedive in 2016 after landing in the crosshairs of a sweeping federal corruption probe. Maintaining his innocence, Fattah ran for reelection despite his upcoming trial that would eventually send him to federal prison. Evans overpowered the now-jailed congressman by eight points. And when the general election approached, he took more than 90 percent of the vote over Republican James Jones.

Jones — a Vietnam vet and retired businessman who is African American — ran on a pitch that in many ways was similar to Leib’s.

“Philadelphia has been controlled by Democrats for 65 years,” Jones told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2016, “and it certainly seems as if it’s not changing any time in the near future unless someone is willing to step out and make a difference.”

Meanwhile, insurgent Democrats within the party — including City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, whom Leib admires — have had better luck unseating old guard Democrats using the same rhetoric as their Republican rivals. So is the problem the message, or the delivery person?

“I’m not sure,” Meehan says of his Philly GOP and the campaigns they help field. “But the bottom line is, what are they bringing home? Unfortunately for the City of Philadelphia, the reality is we’re losing out in Washington and Harrisburg.”

Political observers often suggest that underdog races aren’t a complete waste.

Win or lose, running boosts name recognition and sometimes provides a launchpad to well-paying political gigs or private sector work. Leib indicated he’s open to running another campaign down the line, should this one turn out the way observers predict.

Said Leib: “I am all in for my city.”

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