Ahead of Debates, Pennsylvania Democrats Lean More Pragmatic Than Progressive

NEWTOWN, Pa. — Diane LeBas, a 71-year-old substitute teacher attending the Newtown Democrats’ summer picnic on Sunday, recounted how she was tear-gassed protesting the Vietnam War. No one could question her progressivism.

“But at the moment, I’m leaving progressivism in the back seat for pragmatism,” Ms. LeBas said about the 2020 presidential race. “We have to get rid of the guy who’s threatening our core values. For pragmatism, I would choose Joe Biden.”

Among a circle of activists at the picnic here in Bucks County — a swing town in a swing county in a swing state — there were many nods. Ahead of the second round of Democratic debates in Detroit starting Tuesday night, the party stalwarts were wrestling with the old tug of whether to follow their heart or their head in picking a candidate.

For the moment, the head seemed to be winning.

[Harris and Biden will meet again in the next Democratic debates. Here are the lineups.]

The same was true at a second gathering further south on Sunday, in Delaware County. Unwinding after a weekend of canvassing for candidates in municipal races, several Democratic volunteers acknowledged that they were more liberal than many Democratic voters, which helped explain the enduring appeal of Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“It’s almost like two different parties,” said Andrew Hayman, 28, a Democratic committee member in the town of Upper Darby. “I encounter it every day at the doors: people who are excited for Biden or they don’t have a candidate.”

Many of those Democrats — whether they already have a preferred candidate or remain torn — are hoping that this week’s debates include more economic issues and moderate points of view than the June debates, where liberal issues and arguments dominated the two nights. Several Democrats said that voters were far more concerned about feeding their families or ensuring their children’s futures than they were about issues like impeaching President Trump.

Susan Turner, who complained that the June debates did not include enough so-called kitchen-table issues, said: “Jobs are certainly a concern of people. Minimum wage.”

At the gatherings in Bucks and Delaware Counties, outside Philadelphia, there was plenty of support for several candidates. In a straw poll at the Newtown picnic — held with Democratic-approved paper straws, not plastic — the results were: Elizabeth Warren, 15, Kamala Harris, 14, Mr. Biden, 8 and Pete Buttigieg, 7. Bernie Sanders earned just one vote.

[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]

Julia Woldorf, a member of the Newtown Borough Council, argued that Mr. Biden was a poor choice if voters were trying to be practical about the candidates. She brought up Ms. Harris’s sharp-scalpeled attack on him in the first debate over his civil rights record, which caught Mr. Biden off guard.

“He showed me he couldn’t respond the way he should have,” Ms. Woldorf said. “If Trump throws something at him, how’s he going to respond?”

There were echoes of the hand-wringing among some national Democrats over whether candidates were lurching too far leftward to win with plans that would end private health insurance or decriminalize unauthorized border crossings.

“I think ‘the squad’ is leading us too far to the left, and we’re alienating a lot of folks in the middle,” said Susan Turner, a retired engineer who now owns the Green Frog Bakery in Newtown, referring to the four progressive congresswomen who have clashed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Steve Cickay, a retired I.R.S. executive, played down Democratic fretting over whether Mr. Biden was too old to motivate younger voters.

“The disgust with Trump is so overwhelming,’’ he said. “It’s not going to be the Hillary deal in 2016.”

Elen Snyder, a 62-year-old full-time activist at the picnic, was an example of how passionate many Democrats have become in the drive to defeat the president. Ms. Snyder said she divorced her husband of 35 years in 2016 over his support of Mr. Trump.

“He’s always been a Republican, and I’ve always been a Democrat and that was fine,” she said. But with the rise of Mr. Trump, she said: “He became an angry man. It was like I was watching this white guy who I thought I knew all of a sudden become racist, become all of the things Trump represented which I abhorred.”

Her favorite 2020 candidate, for now, is Ms. Warren — though the choice may indicate that head over heart isn’t universal. “My Merrill Lynch adviser told me that the only candidate he would be against is Liz Warren because she scares the financial community,’’ she said. “I delighted upon hearing that.”

The Newtown activists, like those in Delaware County, want to elect more Democrats to county and municipal offices in 2019 to continue building a foundation for 2020 turnout, when Pennsylvania will once again be in the eye of the presidential storm.

Bucks County Democrats failed to gain in the 2018 midterm blue wave, when Representative Brian Fitzpatrick held on to the only Repubican-held congressional seat in the Philadelphia region. But a year earlier in Delaware County, Democrats won their first countywide offices in more than a century.

The issue of “Medicare for all,” with its promise to eliminate private health insurance in the version supported by Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, proved a sharp dividing line among the Democratic activists.

“I don’t think that health care is a human right. Sorry, I don’t agree with Bernie on that; it’s a privilege,” said Ms. Turner, the bakery owner.

An hour south of Newtown, where the second group gathered in the home of Barbarann Keffer, a candidate for mayor of Upper Darby, Mr. Hayman, the Democratic committee member, explained that Mr. Biden is acceptable even to Republicans he meets. “He’s not hated,’’ he said. “He’s a known quantity.”

That pleased Margo Davidson, a Pennsylvania state representative from Upper Darby. “I’m Biden all the way. I’m with Uncle Joe,” she said in Ms. Keffer’s crowded living room, where volunteers came in with stacks of campaign literature for Democrats on the ballot in November.

Ms. Davidson, the first African-American to represent her statehouse district, noted that despite Ms. Harris’s attack on Mr. Biden in the first round of debates, black support for President Barack Obama’s former vice president seems to be steady.

“I love Kamala,” she said, “but we’ve got to get rid of Trump and that’s more important to me than any one personality.”

Michelle Billups, a candidate for town council in Upper Darby, blurted to a circle of activists: “I’m going to be honest. I like Andrew Yang.”

Another Biden supporter, atypical for her age, was Raeleen Keffer-Scharpf, 17, a daughter of Ms. Keffer, the mayoral candidate. She has watched debates and candidate forums on YouTube. Beto O’Rourke, once thought to galvanize young voters, was a “viral” candidate without staying power, she said, adding that she’s “a sucker for strong female characters in politics.” But she declared Mr. Biden her top choice for now.

“I think he can win the presidential,” Ms. Keffer-Scharpf said.

That concept of presumed electability, much maligned by candidates not named Biden or the other front-runners, nonetheless held sway among activists in both counties.

Mr. Hayman said Democrats’ strongest message in 2020 ought to be about expunging the Trump years and returning the country to stability. Democrats, he said, should take a page from President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, and promise a return to normalcy.

“If we just talk about running the government, I think we win on that,” he said.