At the end of March, it looked like popular Montgomery County commissioner Josh Shapiro had all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination to succeed embattled Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who announced in February that she would not seek another term. He netted impressive endorsements from top Democrats like President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf.
What a difference a few weeks can make. While Shapiro is still the favorite to win, an unusual alliance forged by another contender, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, with political bigwigs in Philadelphia has thrown a wrench into that race.
In an interview, Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna said the primary was now “very competitive,” thanks to a rare alliance between southwestern and southeastern political families.
The Zappala family was instrumental in securing support in Pittsburgh for the recent Supreme Court bid by Kevin Dougherty, brother of Philly union leader John Dougherty. Recently – and not coincidentally, according to some sources – Philadelphia’s trade unions and the city’s Democratic Committee launched a strong campaign to support the candidate from the other side of the state.
“Everyone thought it was going to be Southeast vs. Southwest Pennsylvania,” Madonna said. “But how can you say that now, when Philly is organizing for Zappala? He looks like he has Philly wrapped up.”
A recent Harper poll still showed Shapiro with a comfortable lead. However, Madonna said, it was unlikely that the average Democratic voter was familiar with any of the candidates, meaning that machine support could be critical for deciding the victor.
“It’s relationships and contacts over the years that matter,” he said. “Shapiro’s lead is in question.”
In yet another twist, John Fetterman, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, told Philadelphia Inquirer political columnist Chris Brennan that longshot Democratic attorney general candidate John Morganelli, the Northampton district attorney, had also teamed up with Zappala. Shapiro later described Morganelli’s bid as “a kamikaze campaign” designed to knock him out of the race.
Morganelli, a Democrat who has attended Tea Party rallies and espouses Trump-like views on immigration policy, staunchly denies any coordination.
“I'm not going to blow $600,000 just to help somebody else,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Unfortunately, there appears to be less to say about Fetterman’s own political aspirations. The hulking mayor of Braddock, a depressed factory town outside of Pittsburgh, has made a name for himself in progressive circles as a kind of homegrown Bernie Sanders railing against inequality in the state. But a recent poll showed he had single-digit support statewide.
“It’s a two-person race,” said Madonna, referring to Wolf’s former Chief of Staff Katie McGinty and former Congressman Joe Sestak. “McGinty is the establishment candidate. She’s got Wolf, Obama, Sen. Casey and the Democratic Senate Committee – and this is the second time they all passed on Sestak. She has money and you can see it in the commercials.”
In a primary where the three candidates tend to agree on policy, Fetterman and Sestak have both trashed the ties McGinty, a former state environmental secretary, has to the state’s fracking lobby. The attacks may not be enough to offset the $1.1 million the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently revealed it will pour into the final week of the race to push McGinty to victory.
Madonna said not to count out Sestak – he’s led in nearly every poll of the race thus far.
“The thing most people miss is that a guy named Joe Sestak denied McGinty the Democratic endorsement of the state committee. You need two-thirds support and she only got 53 percent,” he said. “She’s the party favorite, but Sestak manages to do quite well in the hinterland with Democratic leaders – he’s run a nonstop campaign across the state for five solid years.”
Madonna also said to expect an unprecedented flood of campaign money, as national Democrats try to find a path to reclaim five seats for control of the Senate. Twenty-four Senators are up for re-election, but only 10 races are truly competitive.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race is already the fourth-most expensive in the country this cycle, with more than $8 million spent to date. Toomey, who polls ahead of every Democratic challenger by 5 to 10 points, is nonetheless seen as one of a handful of somewhat vulnerable Senate Republicans.
This is going to be one of the most advertised-in, outside-interest-in, Super PACs-pouring money-in races of the 10 seats in the country that are up for grabs,” Madonna said.
Everybody understands the stakes; everybody understands how important this is.”
Congressional District 9
The Republican Congressional primary in Western Pennsylvania has gotten ugly, thanks to Tea Party-esque mudslinging and accusations of very literal cozying up to special interests.
Realtor Art Halvorson has taken aim at incumbent Bill Shuster through a series of negative ads that border on hysterics. He describes the congressman as “a card-carrying member of the Washington cartel,” blaming Shuster in TV ads for everything from personally shipping jobs to China to single-handedly raising the national debt ceiling five times.
But the attack that is the most personally cutting – and yet unassailable – centers on Shuster’s romantic involvement with prominent airline lobbyist Shelley Rubino. It’s the kind of mudslinging that might even be out-of-bounds – that is, if Shuster didn’t also chair a house transportation committee that approved a bill strongly pushed by Rubino’s lobbying firm. The legislation would have, among other things, put air traffic control in the hands of an airline-friendly entity, according to Politico.
The national media attention is decidedly of the negative variety, but will it make enough of a difference to unseat the monied son of former Congressman Bud Shuster?
“Halvorson got trounced when he ran against Shuster before,” said Madonna. “Shuster is a good constituent service guy, and I don’t know if Art can somehow generate enough movement to throw out an entrenched incumbent. Is there enough angst in the Republican base to say ‘It’s time to throw out all these Republicans?’”
In other words: While Halvorson’s rhetoric may echo the Tea Party movement of years past, it doesn’t mean he’ll buck the more recent trend of insurgent conservatives’ declining fortunes in Congressional races.
Congressional District 8
One of the most competitive Congressional races in the nation is the contest to succeed popular Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick in a wealthy, suburban district outside of Philadelphia – he is voluntarily resigning to underscore his support for term limits.
But it’s also a race with some dramatic twists and turns.
Democratic state Rep. Steve Santarsiero has gone from next-to-drop to frontrunner. Poor fundraising led to speculation that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and heavy hitters like former Gov. Ed Rendell were ready to force Santarsiero out of the race late last year in favor of chemist Shaughnessy Naughton.
Santarsiero strenuously denied the rumors, which have faded as his war chest has grown. He has subsequently picked up nods from Wolf and the Bucks County Democratic Committee.
The Republican side seems even more fractured. Fitzpatrick’s brother, FBI agent Brian Fitzpatrick, suddenly jumped into the race in January, forcing the early party favorite, state Rep. Scott Petri, to drop out.
The dithering in a district that is historically Republican, but has leaned left in recent years, leaves the general election up in the air.
“Peter Kostmayer was the old congressman in that district,” said former Inquirer political columnist Tom Ferrick. “When there was a good year for the Democrats, he won. When there was a bad year, he lost. And this could be a good year for the Democrats.”
The elder Fitzpatrick has had similar fortunes – losing and later regaining his spot in Congress to Democrat Patrick Murphy. It’s not clear if his younger brother, a virtual unknown in the world of politics, can replicate those successes.
“I don’t know what kind of campaign he’s running, but it’s a plus to have the same last name – and the Republicans have a good machine up there,” Ferrick said.
State House District 182
Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee tends to value unity above all else, even if it means endorsing pols who are facing indictment – or worse. So it said a lot when the DCC passed on endorsing State Rep. Brian Sims, who represents parts of downtown Philadelphia. He faces unexpected opposition from a bevy of opponents: realtor Lou Lanni, attorney Marni Snyder and Ben Waxman, a former aide to state Sen. Vince Hughes who picked up the DCC nod.
A handsome, young lawmaker with a strong social media following and the distinction of being the first openly gay member of the statehouse, Sims’ current brawl is partially of his own making. The legislator took an abortive shot at U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah’s seat last year, summoning a score of Center City progressives to fill his shoes. But he called an audible in February, dropping out of the Congressional race to defend his state Senate seat.
His most potent challenger is likely Waxman, chiefly because of his endorsements. Two ward leaders in his district turned against Sims; at least one of those wards has old ties to Babette Josephs, the long-serving representative Sims vanquished during a vicious campaign in 2012.
But Ferrick, who resides in the district, said even ward endorsements might not be enough to unseat a publicly popular incumbent now that the political calculus has changed.
“I always thought Waxman got into the race because Sims was going to run for Fattah’s seat, which made sense. But the rationale becomes less so because Sims dropped out of that race,” he explained. “If there’s three candidates, generally, the rule is that the incumbent wins.”
However, Sims has clearly felt some heat from his challengers, firing off a campaign email that falsely implied his district, which includes Center City’s Gayborhood, was under attack by “right-wing extremists” that oppose LGBT equality.
While Sims was likely trying to gin up support by invoking a conservative boogeyman, the lack of one doesn’t necessarily hurt a progressive incumbent in a progressive district facing a slew of fairly similar progressive challengers.
“You have to have a plausible reason to say, ‘I want to replace Brian Sims because…,’” Ferrick said. “But what do you say? ‘He’s too handsome?’ ‘Because I can do better?’ Sims is already an exponentially better legislator than Babette – and she served for 14 terms.”
State House District 202
The DCC also broke with tradition in failing to endorse state Rep. Mark B. Cohen for re-election.
The longest-serving state lawmaker, with a 38-year career in the statehouse, Cohen has committed no crime. Instead, his fall from endorsement grace seems to be the result of incidents like the time he charged taxpayers for $28,000 worth of books, the tens of thousands of dollars worth of per diems he has collected annually, and even his criminally long – 20,000 words and 311 citations – and dubiously objective Wikipedia page.
Cohen narrowly survived a primary challenge from community organizer and political neophyte Jared Solomon during the last go-round in 2014. This time, he may not be so lucky.
“Solomon has run before, he’s a go-getter and a very aggressive candidate. It was a message last time to Cohen to really take his campaign and district seriously – and I don’t know if he listened,” said Ferrick.
Ferrick added that high turnout from the presidential contest is always a wild card and ward endorsements don’t automatically translate to victory. But things weren’t looking good for the incumbent, whose notable lack of energy sets him further apart from his sole challenger than the crowded field in the 182nd.
“He has to be considered endangered, at least,” said Ferrick.