© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Rep. Scott Perry Has Consistently Sailed to November. This Year Is Different.

With a stacked Democratic primary, a new Republican challenger and a lawsuit around his role in Jan. 6, Perry’s road to reelection is more narrow than it’s ever been.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.
Rep. Scott Perry at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 23, 2021. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP

For the first time since being elected to Congress more than a decade ago, Rep. Scott Perry is not going to slide to reelection.

The Republican, closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, is facing not just a legal push to kick him off the ballot, but his first primary challenger.

Besides one failed special election bid for Gettysburg school board in 1995, John Henry Newman has no political experience. He’s spent decades in academia, alongside positions in the federal government at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Fire Administration. He didn’t imagine entering politics, but Perry changed his mind.

He pointed to the early morning of Jan. 7, 2021, when Perry introduced a resolution in the joint session of Congress objecting to the counting of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

“Scott Perry has been in politics and in government for years now. And as such, he’s an expert on elections, it’s his bread and butter,” Newman told NOTUS. “I do not believe that he could truly think that anything was wrong with this election.”

Newman, who identifies as an “Eisenhower Republican” and said he has been called a RINO, believes there’s enough like-minded Republicans in the district who are tired of Perry and Trump to make an impact in the race.

It’s still an open question whether or not Newman will qualify for the ballot; he has until Feb. 13 to collect 1,000 signatures. But his plan is to appeal to a wider umbrella of moderate registered Republicans, independents and even Democrats who are fed up with Perry.

Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district, which encompasses parts of York and Cumberland counties and all of Dauphin County, is changing, and Perry’s critics say he isn’t changing along with it. The district narrowly went for Trump in 2020, but swung for Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro by 12 points in 2022. Registered Republicans account for only 44% of all voters.

Perry’s approval rating in the district was at 34% in October, lower than President Joe Biden’s, according to polling conducted by Public Policy Polling. Still, Newman said he doesn’t see how a Democratic challenger can beat a Republican in the district, even one with lower favorability. To Newman, the only way to vote Perry out is on April 23.

Besides his name recognition and over a decade of experience in Congress, Perry has another major advantage: Pennsylvania is a closed primary. Newman is relying on the independent and third-party voters who make up 17% of registered voters in the district, but those voters would have to re-register as Republicans in a primary race.

Both Perry and the Perry campaign declined to comment on Newman.

But apart from a first-ever primary challenge and a field of well-funded moderate Democrats vying to run against him should he get through, Perry faces one other challenge. He must also defeat a man best known for his giant inflatable pig.

Perry is facing a lawsuit in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court to keep him off the ballot for his role in attempting to keep Trump in office, a case whose outcome may be closely tied to a looming Supreme Court case around Trump’s own fate on the ballot.

Gene Stilp, who filed the Commonwealth case against Perry last month, is a familiar figure in the state’s Democratic activist circles. The attorney came to local fame in the early 2000s for his use of giant political props, like a 30-foot ear of corn to protest genetically modified foods, a 12-foot high toaster when state lawmakers debated electric deregulation and 25-foot tall inflatable pig to protest pay raises for legislators in 2005.

Perry’s advocates have focused on Stilp’s background as proof Stilp doesn’t have a case against Perry. Perry attorney John Rowley — who resigned from Trump’s legal team after Trump was indicted in Florida in June — said the case was filed “by a partisan activist who clearly has no regard or understanding of how our system of government works.” Campaign spokesperson Matt Beynon called it “a frivolous lawsuit filed by a fringe activist whose claim to fame is an inflatable pink pig.”

But for Stilp, who is running for a state House seat and also spearheading efforts to get Trump off the ballot in Pennsylvania, the lawsuit isn’t just about removing Perry in the 10th district in November. He said he filed the suit to “fill the gaps” left open on Perry from a federal investigation surrounding his involvement in the efforts to keep Trump in office on and leading up to Jan. 6.

Before that could happen, Stilp expects Perry and the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office to file motions for dismissal. In addition to Perry, Stilp also names Secretary of State Albert Schmidt in the lawsuit, because he has a “duty” as overseer of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Elections to keep Perry off the ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

While the Supreme Court will debate whether or not Trump falls under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment as an “officer of the United States,” that legal debate doesn’t matter in Perry’s case, as the section explicitly applies to a “Senator or Representative in Congress.”

There’s “plenty” of other congressional candidates who have been kept off the ballot before the Perry case, according to Mike Seidman, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown Law School.

Section 3 originated to keep former Confederate leaders out of Congress in the post-Civil War era. But instead of using more narrow language like “secession” to describe actions making someone ineligible for office, the amendment’s authors instead opted for “insurrection,” a word left undefined in the Constitution.

“The framers had something specific in mind, but they didn’t limit the clause to that specific thing, they use a broader term. They didn’t say fighting in the Civil War or secession,” Seidman said.

To Stilp, insurrection doesn’t have to constitute violence and “taking over buildings.”

“Attempts at insurrection can be nonviolent and quietly orchestrated as in the attempt to overturn the certification process using false certification certificates from false sets of electors,” he said.

As of now, Perry is the only member of Congress facing a Section 3 case, though Stilp hoped more suits would emerge ahead of the election, and singled out Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson for his role in introducing false, pro-Trump state electors.

Seidman, who said he’s “more cynical about this than a lot of other law professors,” said Perry’s case ultimately comes down to “who the court is and who the judges are.”

Craig Snyder, the political director of Republicans Against Perry, said he was concerned that the Perry lawsuit might backfire politically by engaging the Republican base.

“I’m not going to play Supreme Court justice, but from a political point of view, I think the lawsuit is foolhardy,” Snyder said. “Assuming that it’s not legally successful, and I don’t think it will be, but assuming that he stays on the ballot, having had people try to force him off the ballot, I think, is not a smart strategy. The smart strategy is to beat him with a better candidate.”

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.