On a sunny and warm fall morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Berwyn office was bustling, with more volunteers waiting in line outside.

Don and Judy Larkin were among those eager to get a folder and a list of doors to knock on for Sixth Congressional District Democratic candidate Chrissy Houlahan. They'd seen a lot of signs for her opponent, Republican Greg McCauley, and wanted to get going.

"It's very divided still," Don Larkin, 77, said. "The area used to be all Republican."

While a plurality of Chester County voters are Republican, the new Sixth District includes Reading and other parts of Berks County that have pulled in more Democratic-leaning voters. Hillary Clinton would have carried it by 9 points in 2016; she won the old Sixth by 1 percentage point.

As in many parts of the state, there's also a growing number of independents. More than 81,000 registered voters in the district — nearly a fifth — don't affiliate with either major party.

Houlahan has described Chester County voters as "purple people," meaning they have a blend of fiscal conservatism with socially liberal ideals. While Clinton would have done well, the current Sixth District also would have voted for Republican Pat Toomey for the U.S. Senate in 2016.

Houlahan and McCauley, both of whom are first-time candidates, are vying for an open seat. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican, decided not to seek reelection in the newly redrawn district.

The district has a mix of suburban wealth, urban poverty, and areas with a big agricultural sector. But most of the discussion between the two candidates has centered on the mainstream national topics — health care, immigration, gun control, climate change, and taxes.

"These are two new people who really need to get out there and communicate across party lines. The majority of people in Chester County are moderates," State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat who has been in elected office for nearly 30 years, said. "Instead, they have focused on their own base and have generic websites that could exist in any county."

Houlahan is a third-generation military veteran. She was born at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Md., and moved frequently during her childhood, later attending Stanford University on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating, she received a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as a captain in the Air Force. Houlahan settled in Chester County 25 years ago and worked as an executive at the Paoli-based AND1. She was a chemistry teacher at Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia and later ran a nonprofit that focused on literacy.

Houlahan said she decided to run after Trump was elected and both her daughter, who is openly gay, and father, a Holocaust survivor, were in tears.

Chrissy Houlahan canvasses in Malvern.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Chrissy Houlahan canvasses in Malvern.

"I think it was a wake-up call for me, and I think a lot of other people, who felt this isn't the country that I signed up to serve, and these are not the values we all hold," Houlahan said. She had knocked on doors for Hillary Clinton on the day of the election.

She officially launched her campaign in April 2017. Since then she has raised $3.7 million and as of the most recent filings earlier this month, she had $2.6 million on hand, including $50,000 she lent her campaign.

McCauley, a Delaware County native, is a tax attorney and former owner of nine Wendy's franchises. He and his wife, Maureen, who is the de facto campaign manager, moved to Chester County more than three decades ago. McCauley's father, Daniel J. Jr., served on the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. McCauley said he decided to run because he is worried about his four sons and their entire generation.

"We need to go back to the future," McCauley said. "We need to restore the American Dream for our children."

So far, he has raised $164,000 and lent his campaign $75,000.

At a recent debate in the Henrietta Hankin Library in Chester Springs, Houlahan and McCauley barely tangled. Immigration and health care were the two most discussed topics.

McCauley said he would push for an immigration plan that would allow undocumented immigrants already living in the United States to apply for work visas that would last between five to seven years and allow them to apply for citizenship.

Greg McCauley speaks with Roberto Delasantos at Kennedy Towers in Reading.
TOM KELLY III
Greg McCauley speaks with Roberto Delasantos at Kennedy Towers in Reading.

This differs from President Trump's position; he has called such proposals amnesty. McCauley said it would lead to an influx of tax money for the federal government of between $50 billion and $100 billion.

"This is how we will help Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid," he said.

McCauley also said he favors building a wall at the border with Mexico and defunding "sanctuary cities" like Philadelphia that limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Houlahan said she would like to see Democrats and Republicans work together to pass a comprehensive immigration plan.

"This is a nation of immigrants, and we need to make sure we are providing clear and legal pathways for people to grow our economy," she said, later adding that she opposes Trump's border wall.

During the debate, Houlahan noted that Chester County's famed mushroom farms say they can't fill 1,000 jobs in part due to stricter immigration enforcement.

On health care, she said that the government should be allowed to negotiate prices with the pharmaceutical companies as the Department of Veterans Affairs does. She does not favor single-payer government health coverage but would like a public option that people could buy into if they chose, alongside private health insurance.

Aside from the quick mention of the mushroom farms, neither candidate spoke in detail about federal policies affecting the region's agriculture industry.

Neither was urban policy discussed per se, though the candidates have campaigned in Reading, a majority-Latino city. McCauley recently spoke to potential voters at the Kennedy House apartment building downtown, close to the Puerto Rican Civic Association and a barbershop and deli where Spanish was the main language spoken.

Dinniman said other issues such as the Mariner East pipeline, which cuts through the county, or the county's big pharmaceutical hub are also not being discussed or debated. He blames the national political climate that has both parties playing to the base.

“It’s not just Chester County. We’re reflecting what’s happening nationally,” Dinniman said. “The great middle will continue to feel unrepresented.”