After the elections last November of U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-R. I.), Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that has never had a female governor or U.S. senator (the others are Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia*) .
Before accusing Pennsylvania’s voters of sexism, we should look at the careers of some of the women who seemed poised to break the state’s electoral glass ceiling. In particular, five women were elected to Congress or statewide row office in the past twenty years and frequently mentioned as potentially Pennsylvania’s first female senator or governor, but came up short. Two got caught up in abortion politics, two were caught by male opponents with better organization and preparation, and one is currently embroiled in scandal.
Barbara Hafer was elected Allegheny County Commissioner in the 1980s, then Auditor General in 1988, the only Republican since 1960 to hold that position. In 1990, when Gov. Bob Casey Sr. was up for re-election, she became Republican party leaders’ choice to oppose him. However, Hafer is pro-choice on abortion, which led Peg Luksik, a pro-life activist from Johnstown, to enter race six weeks before the primary; Luksik received 46% of the vote. In the general election, Gov. Casey assembled a coalition of usually Democratic voters and staunch abortion opponents to win by a 2-1 margin, including 73% of the vote in Lancaster County, usually a Republican stronghold.
Hafer bounced back during the 1990s, winning another term as Auditor General in 1992 and two terms as state Treasurer in 1996 and 2000. In 2002, when Gov. Mark Schweiker declined to seek a full term, she launched another campaign for governor. This time the Republican establishment favored then-Attorney General Mike Fisher, leading Hafer to switch to the Democrats. She didn’t have any more luck in her new party, being passed over for the Senate nomination in 2006 and the 12th Congressional district in 2010.
Catherine Baker Knoll: Like Hafer, Knoll was a Pittsburgh-area politician elected to statewide row office (Treasurer, in her case) in 1988. Unlike Hafer, Knoll was a pro-life Democrat in an increasingly pro-choice party. The closest she got to being elected governor** was in 1994, when she contemplated running, initially deferred to then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, then got back in the race after the state committee declined to make an endorsement (there was some tension between Gov. Casey and Singel, who is pro-choice), ending up with a third-place finish in the primary. Knoll’s feud with Barbara Hafer began in 1996, when her daughter, Mina Baker Knoll, ran against Hafer for Treasure, and culminated in 2000, when Hafer narrowly defeated Knoll for the job. Knoll had a bit of comeback in 2002, when she emerged from a crowded field to win the Lieutenant Governor nomination. While she balanced out her running mate, socially liberal former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, her frequent gaffes (such as referring to Rendell as “Edward G. Robinson” and handing out her business cards at a Marine’s funeral) prevented her from rising higher. Sadly, she was unable to serve out her second term, dying of cancer in 2008.
Melissa Hart, a state senator from Allegheny County who was elected to Congress in 2000, replacing Democrat Ron Klink. During her time in Congress, she was often mentioned as a future candidate for statewide office. Alternatively, she might have risen into House leadership; she got picked for the Ways and Means committee and played a key role in the rise of John Boehner. However, she was caught in the 2006 Democratic wave and lost her seat to Jason Altmire, a health care executive who was not polling close to Hart until the last month of the election. She ran against Altmire in a rematch in 2008, but lost by an even larger margin despite Barack Obama’s unpopularity in western Pennsylvania, and was passed over for her old senate seat in 2012 when Jane Orie had to resign over a corruption scandal.
Fun fact: Hart's page at the Fount of All Knowledge contains the sentence: "She also claimed that she was the person behind renaming Pittsburgh's highway system of I-279S/US-22/30W/PA-60N into a new name of I-376W which cost Pennsylvania taxpayers 14.8 million in taxpayer dollars just to change the signs on that route." Somebody wasn't happy about that bit of spending...
Allyson Schwartz was elected to the state senate in 1990, came in second in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 2000, and was elected in the 13th Congressional District just as it was completing its transition from a safe Republican district to a safe Democratic one. As the 2014 election approached and then-Gov. Tom Corbett’s approval rating remained in the cellar, Schwartz announced her candidacy for governor and led in the early polls. She was poised to become Pennsylvania’s first female governor until Tom Wolf’s bank account and ability to introduce himself to voters became decisive. Wolf led in every poll beginning in February and won the primary in a rout, getting 57% of the vote in a four-candidate field and carrying every county in the state.
Kathleen Kane burst onto the political scene when she won the 2012 election for Attorney General, her first attempt at running for office. She outpolled President Obama, Senator Casey, and the rest of the Democratic ticket, and became the first woman and first Democrat in state history to be elected Attorney General (which has been an elected position since 1980). She denied an interest in running against Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014, which only triggered speculation she would run against Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016.
With the possible exception of Gov. Corbett, no Pennsylvania politician had a worse 2014 than Kane. First, she angered much of Philadelphia’s legal community, including the Committee of Seventy and D.A. Seth Williams, by abruptly ending a corruption probe into several local politicians in the city. Then, some leaks from her office triggered a grand jury investigation, which recommended perjury and obstruction of justice charges against her in January 2015. On the personal side, she suffered a concussion in a car accident in October 2014 and filed for divorce in December. Late in the year, she announced she was running for re-election as Attorney General, not for the Senate or any other office. Of course, it’s possible that Kane could be exonerated and win a second term, but unless she wants to primary Gov. Wolf or Sen. Casey, she’ll likely have to wait until 2022 if she is still interested in higher office.
Pennsylvania has had several women rise high in politics, but so far none have reached the highest levels. The careers of these five women show how fickle fate can be, and it’s not hard to imagine how some of Pennsylvania’s prominent male politicians might have ended up on a list like this (for example, if Allyson Schwartz or then-Treasurer Rob McCord had been better prepared for Tom Wolf’s advertising onslaught, or if Pat Toomey had run in a less Republican year than 2010). Sooner or later, some woman will find the right circumstances and take office as Pennsylvania’s first female governor or senator.
*In Ohio, Utah, and Georgia, women succeeded to the governorship or were appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat, but did not win full terms on their own.
**The closest Catherine Baker Knoll got to actually being governor was when Ed Rendell would drive down the Turnpike at 100 miles per hour.