In Conor Lamb’s Western Pennsylvania district, it’s anyone’s race

Democrat Chris Deluzio faces Republican Jeremy Shaffer in the critical swing district

In 2018, the political world was riveted to Western Pennsylvania as voters elected a moderate Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb, in a special election upset in what was once a reliably Republican area. Now, national attention has returned as the contest to decide who will replace the retiring Lamb in this critical swing district — which pits a Democrat with strong union ties  against a centrist Republican who decries the political pull toward the “extremes” — comes down to the wire.

In Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, which runs from the outskirts of Pittsburgh to the state’s western border, Democratic Navy veteran and cyber- and election-security expert Chris Deluzio faces Jeremy Shaffer, a Republican local official and software engineer. The district is rated as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report and has become a magnet for attention and spending from both sides of the aisle, as well as a barometer for working-class voters.

In an industrial area of the state, Deluzio — a Bernie Sanders delegate at the 2020 Democratic National Convention — is playing up his support for unionized labor, which has boosted his campaign, and domestic manufacturing. Union labor comprised 13.5% of the Pennsylvania workforce in 2020.

“I want to see us, as a region, as a country, bring our supply chains back home and start making more stuff here with strong union jobs. We’ve all seen the cost of all this outsourcing and bad trade deals; we’re feeling it when we buy anything, whether it’s housing, groceries, you name it,” Deluzio said in an interview with Jewish Insider. “So I think we’ve got to do more to get our supply chains back here, but also take on the price-gouging corporations that are doing it and heavily consolidated industries.”

Shaffer, meanwhile, repeatedly emphasized his centrist positioning in written responses to JI, saying he would “always put our country first over my party” and said he’d work across the aisle to implement term limits, end gerrymandering and implement campaign finance reform.

“As an engineer, small business owner, and former Ross [Township] Commissioner I have a strong record as a bipartisan problem-solver that works with both sides to deliver common-sense solutions and real reforms,” Shaffer wrote. “We need to stop gravitating toward extremes and work together as a country to provide opportunities, defend our freedoms, drive down inflation and protect our country in a very dangerous world…  You won’t see me on heated cable talk shows arguing either extreme.”

Deluzio links his candidacy to his professional and military background. “I believe deeply in public service,” Deluzio said. “My background and my life has been spent in uniform as an officer serving abroad, fighting as a lawyer for our democracy, working to form a union and those experiences and those values are central to me and who I am.”

Deluzio’s other priorities include protecting voting and abortion rights. He offered praise for the Biden administration and the Democratic-led Congress, saying one would “be hard-pressed to find a more productive session.” He did express concerns, however, about discussions over rolling back tariffs on China.

Shaffer said he plans to join the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus if elected, with an eye toward “stabiliz[ing]” the federal budget, reducing the national debt and reining in inflation.

“As a small business owner and engineer I will apply my expertise to help deliver a national energy approach that drives down costs and helps the environment and also infrastructure policy that gives us roads, bridges, ports, sewers, water systems, locks and dams that are second to none in the world,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer personally opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother, but indicated to JI he would not support abortion bans or restrictions at the federal level. That’s a shift from a previous statement of support for Congress to impose further limits on abortions.

“When Roe was overturned it returned the power to the states, where it belongs. Regardless of my own personal opinion, I believe abortion is an issue that should be legislated on the state level, not the national level,” he told JI.

If he had been in office, Shaffer would have voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results, and believes that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected, a spokesperson told JI.

As of the end of July, Deluzio had raised $911,000 to Shaffer’s $429,330. In addition to that, Shaffer has loaned $1 million to his campaign. Shaffer closed out the last quarter with $937,000 on hand. Deluzio, by contrast, had $348,000 on hand. The race has also become a magnet for outside spending: Outside groups linked to House Democrats have spent $2.4 million in the district and the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund has spent $2.2 million. 

Despite his past support for Sanders, Deluzio, who served in Iraq, takes a more conventional approach to Middle East policy issues than the progressive firebrand senator. His time in the Navy, he said, demonstrated “the limits of American power, but also how often we are the indispensable power abroad to maintain and ensure security and peace and stability.”

“The Middle East is a good example of this,” Deluzio, who has been endorsed by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, J Street and Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, continued. “I saw both at sea and on the ground in Iraq the destabilizing influence of Iran and what a threat they are to regional and… global security… I’m very aware of problems [the Iranian] regime can cause and the importance of having a strong policy that recognizes that.”

He argued that his experience in foreign policy and national security makes him a more qualified candidate than Shaffer.

The Democrat was reluctant to “prejudge” the current nuclear negotiations with Iran, but said the U.S. should learn from “what went right or didn’t” in the original deal. “If it’s stronger — and good oversight out of the Congress is a piece of this — I think that’s smart,” he explained. He said he was supportive of the original 2015 nuclear agreement.

Shaffer, who has the backing of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told JI he favors continuing a campaign of sanctions, political pressure and “strategic actions when necessary” to counter Iran, in collaboration with U.S. allies.

“I believe that both parties in Congress can work together to develop a strong unified approach to counter Iran,” he added.

Shaffer called Israel the U.S.’s “closest ally in the fight against terrorism and oppression in the Middle East,” as well as a “great partner” in scientific and educational fields, describing his support for the Jewish state as “deep and uncompromising.”

“Our friendship with Israel has its roots in our shared tenacious self-determination and commitment to free societies that honor peace and individual rights,” Shaffer said. “Our two countries enjoy a relationship unlike any other in the world, and that relationship must be encouraged and protected.”

He said he is supportive of U.S. efforts to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, describing the Palestinians and countries hostile to Israel globally as roadblocks to that peace. 

“Before a two-state solution can even be considered, Palestinians and their government need to admit that Israel has a right to exist,” he said. Shaffer did not specify if he personally supports a two-state solution as an ultimate goal. “The United States can use our influence with our allies and others in the world to ensure that a fair solution is achieved and stable peace [is] ensured.”

Deluzio likewise said he believes the U.S.-Israel alliance is “imperative” for “regional security and our values abroad.”

“I’m someone who strives for and firmly believes that we ultimately have to have a two-state solution to lead to lasting peace,” Deluzio said. “The necessary condition there is security, and I think the United States is an indispensable party through our security assistance and our ability to support and push the negotiations in good faith.” 

He described the Abraham Accords as a “framework for peace regionally,” adding, “We do a great justice to these negotiations longer term to support [the normalization agreements].”

The 17th District borders Pittsburgh, the site of the mass shooting in 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Shaffer said he and his wife joined a vigil following the attack, and pledged to “join with people in both parties to also help fight and be a voice against antisemitism and hate crimes of all types” in office. 

He added that it is “critical we call out radical leaders here in the U.S. like Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for their dangerous, antisemitic rhetoric,” which he said is “encouraging harm and violence.”

Shaffer said he sees antisemitism as a problem across the political spectrum, but particularly on the left within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and on college campuses. “I will call out and fight against antisemitism wherever I see it, whether on the right or on the left,” Shaffer continued. “If anyone in my party supports antisemitic views I would not tolerate it.”

Deluzio also reflected on the legacy of the Tree of Life attack.

“I think it says a lot that our community rallied around the victims of the Jewish community in Western Pennsylvania, that we very much believe in this idea of being stronger than hate,” he said.

He specifically called out far-right elements, including Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, for propagating antisemitic conspiracy theories. As a lawmaker, “you have to do the leadership, the soft power of confronting hate where it exists and calling out this kind of ideology,” Deluzio said, adding that he would support gun control measures as another step against extremist attacks.

He said he did not see antisemitism as an issue on the left “here on the ground and in Western Pennsylvania,” but said he opposes the BDS movement. “I don’t care what side it’s coming from. If it’s there, we should be calling it out and standing together,” Deluzio said.
With less than a month until Election Day, the race could tip in either direction, according to political consultant Ari Mittleman, a former staffer for Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and host of the “Pennsylvania Kitchen Table Politics” podcast. An internal poll from Deluzio’s campaign released last week showed him six points ahead of Shaffer, 49% to 43%. That’s an improvement for Deluzio from a previous internal poll in July that had him in a statistical tie with one point ahead of Shaffer, in a statistical tie. Internal polls tend to favor the candidate who commissioned the survey.  Whatever the result, the race is likely to be critical to the ultimate control of the House next year, as well being a potential signal for the future of some of the most critical voting blocs nationwide.

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