Partisan fractures in Pennsylvania’s primary

Partisan fractures in Pennsylvania’s primary
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With newly redrawn congressional districts, nine competitive seats, and a poll closing time in the Eastern Time zone, Pennsylvania’s voters may well determine which party wins the majority this November. Watching the returns, analysts will have the opportunity to gauge the actual strength of the forecasted Democratic wave long before it hits California’s shore (the only other state with more congressional seats — 10 — currently rated as competitive).

But Tuesday’s primary elections are likely to provide a preview of what’s to come because there are a few seats where intra-party competition is fierce, revealing varying levels of enthusiasm among partisan factions.


Will Republicans continue their turn toward a coarse populism, or will a more traditional conservatism make a comeback? Will Democrats follow the endorsement lead of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersProtecting democracy requires action from all of us Kavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report Amazon probes allegations of employees leaking data for bribes: report MORE, moving to the far progressive left, or will liberal pragmatism prevail?   


It is also the case that a few women candidates have a real shot at shaking up the state’s all-male 18-member House delegation, if they survive the primaries. Although total numbers are not likely to be as large as some would hope, one woman — Chrissy Houlahan — in the now Democratic-leaning 6th Congressional District is running unopposed and, with no incumbent to beat (Republican Rep. Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority House GOP starts summer break on a note of friction Overnight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax MORE is retiring), appears to be headed to Washington.

The reconfigured 1st Congressional District is essentially a toss-up. Even though the Republican incumbent, Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickCongress prepares to punt biggest political battles until after midterms Preventing violence isn’t partisan: Time to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act Five biggest surprises in midterm fight MORE, earned more than 54 percent of the vote in 2016 and Trump earned just over 50 percent, an analysis of the results using the new lines shows that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE would have carried the district. While most expect Fitzpatrick to handily win re-nomination, he faces a challenge from former Bucks County prosecutor Dean Malik, who has styled himself as a “real Republican” with knock-offs of Trump's iconic red hats, but these read: "Make PA-01 Great Again."

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats Steve Bacher, Rachel Reddick and Scott Wallace are vying to take on Fitzpatrick in November. The competition is really between Reddick and Wallace. Many Democrats believe Reddick, endorsed by EMILY’s List, provides the best matchup against Fitzpatrick as a mother, Navy veteran and former Republican. Wallace is a self-funding millionaire attorney who recently moved into the district and the party knows it can’t afford to promote a candidate who can be labeled a “carpet-bagging elite” in Trump territory.   

The other fascinating, albeit complicated, contest is for former Republican Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentGOP House candidate placed on leave from longtime position after sexual misconduct allegation Election handicapper moves GOP leader's race to 'toss-up' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s seat, now Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District. Even before the redrawn lines put this open seat more into play for Democrats, six candidates had declared for the party’s nomination. Three of them — Greg Edwards, John Morganelli and Susan Wild — are making serious runs and each has raised more $200,000. Edwards, a progressive African-American pastor, is endorsed by Service Employees International Union and following the Obama coalition model, attempting to turn out liberal voters, young people and minorities. A district attorney in Northampton, Morganelli is pro-life and against the establishment of sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants. Wild, like Edwards, is a progressive who is being supported by EMILY’s List.

The Republicans have two Lehigh County commissioners (one former, Dean Browning, and one current, Marty Nothstein) competing for the nomination. Both are likely to be solid candidates.

Dent’s early retirement prompted Gov. Tom Wolf to call for a special election, but the governor chose to save money and hold that election on the same day as the November general election, so there will be two congressional contests on same ballot. What’s likely to be more confusing to the voters is that the candidates who will stand for the special election will be running to fill the “old” seat (15th District) for the two months remaining in Dent’s term. The candidates for the “new” seat will begin their term in January. 

Competitive primaries also are occurring in two other open seats — the 5th District, likely to go this fall for the Democrats, and the 14th District, likely to go for the Republicans. In the 5th District, Democrats have 10 candidates, six of them women, and two of them considered top contenders: Ashley Lunkenheimer and Mary Gay Scanlon. Sanders has endorsed one of the candidates, former Deputy Philadelphia Mayor Rich Lazer. Another candidate, state Sen. Greg Vitali, announced late but has the strongest name identification.

Across the state, in the 14th Congressional District, Republican state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler and Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone are facing off. It will be intriguing to see whether there remains any ill will toward Saccone for his lackluster campaign and poor showing in the March special election against Democrat Conor Lamb. In other words, will Republicans be comfortable nominating a recently branded “loser,” or will they feel they owe it to him?

Aside from the jockeying among congressional candidates, Republicans have two contested primaries for statewide offices (for governor and U.S. senator), whereas the Democrats are poised to re-nominate incumbents Gov. Wolf and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyObama to hit campaign trail in Pa. for gubernatorial, Senate candidates Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social Security Five biggest surprises in midterm fight MORE. As such, the one thing we can expect is that overall turnout among Republicans is likely to be higher than for Democrats. Hence, statewide turnout should not be interpreted as a function of partisan enthusiasm, but as one of competition.

Pennsylvania’s status as one of the two tipping-point states in 2016 means that today's elections may provide some clues as to where the parties are headed and which message will work in November. It's worth tuning in to watch what happens and, if you live in the state, turning out to vote.

Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and formerly was an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. She frequently appears on TV and radio programs as an expert on American political history, party development and national elections. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.