Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pennsylvania Downballot, I: Why Kane Isn't Able, and the Senate

            Any analysis of the 2016 election in Pennsylvania must begin the way Charles Dickens began A Christmas Carol: “Kathleen Kane was (politically) dead to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.”
            Kane was elected state Attorney General in 2012 as part of a Democratic sweep of all five statewide offices up that year (President, U.S. Senate, and the three “row offices”: auditor general, attorney general, and treasurer).  Riding a wave of discontent with then-Governor Tom Corbett (a former attorney general), she got more votes than anyone else on the ballot in her first bid for elected office, including President Obama and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.  After disavowing any interest in running against Corbett in 2014, Kane seemed headed to a Clash of the Titans* with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016, probably riding Hillary Clinton’s coattails.  
            She had to serve in office first, though, and quickly ran into trouble.   First, in March 2014, she shut down a corruption investigation into several Philadelphia Democratic politicians, which made her appear partisan (especially after the investigation ended in several successful prosecutions).  Then, in January 2015, it came out that a grand jury had recommended perjury charges against Kane in a scandal involving leaking memos to embarrass a subordinate.  By August, she was charged and Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, called for her resignation, and by September, her law license was suspended.   Seeing the writing on the wall, Kane declined to run for a second term as attorney general, let alone for higher office.

*Considering the Irish heritage of the politicians involved, I should probably use a Celtic mythology reference here instead of a Greek one.

U.S. Senate (D)

Pat Toomey disclaimer: I am trying to be as objective as I can in evaluating these races.  In the interests of full disclosure, though, I must admit that I worked on Pat Toomey’s official staff from 2011 to 2013, so I have a natural tendency to wish him success.  In fact, that was my first full-time job out of college- with a liberal arts degree- at the depth of the recession- so my finding any job not involving asking if you want fries with that was a freakin’ miracle and I’d be tempted to give Pat Toomey the benefit of the doubt if I woke up tomorrow morning and found a dead hooker in my living room and Pat Toomey standing over the body with a bloody knife. 

I will not apologize for putting that image in your head.

            You’d think a two-term Congressman and former Admiral who came close to winning as a Democrat in a landslide Republican year would be an obvious favorite in the primary if he decided to seek the office again.
            You’d think.
            Still, when Joe Sestak, who lost to Pat Toomey in 2010 by only 80,000 votes out of almost four million cast, announced he’d be seeking a rematch in 2016, the Democratic establishment’s reaction was less than enthusiastic.  After Kathleen Kane’s implosion, they attempted to recruit former state treasurer Rob McCord (who had to resign due to his own scandal), former U.S. Reps. Chris Carney and Allyson Schwartz, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, and Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams without success.  They did get Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski as a candidate, but he dropped out due to a scandal, leaving them with Katie McGinty, a former secretary of environmental protection who came in fourth in the 2014 primary for governor and later served as Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff. 
            What makes Democratic politicians’ reluctance to run against Toomey all the more surprising is that it will be the last chance for a Democrat to run for a major statewide office for some time.  A Democrat wishing to become a U.S. Senator or governor will have to (a) hope Gov. Tom Wolf or Sen. Bob Casey announces a surprise retirement when they’re up for re-election in 2018; (b) challenge Wolf or Casey in the primary; or (c) wait until 2022, when Sen. Toomey’s seat is open again and either Wolf will be term-limited or a Republican who defeats him in 2018 will be up for re-election.
            The origins of the Democratic party’s feud with Joe Sestak are mysterious: it might be because he didn’t go with the party’s choice for his campaign manager; it might date all the way back to 2010, when he refused to leave the primary after former Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties; or, as Sestak claims, it might be because of his independence in choosing how to vote (which usually takes the form of hemming and hawing before voting like a conventional Democrat anyway).  Regardless, despite the endorsements of everyone from former Gov. Ed Rendell (her campaign chairman) to President Obama and Vice President Biden, Katie McGinty trails Joe Sestak in the polls.  There are two other candidates: John Fetterman, a former AmeriCorps volunteer who became mayor of Braddock, a hardscrabble, majority-black town outside Pittsburgh (you might remember him from this Levi’s commercial), and Joe Vodvarka, a perennial candidate from the Pittsburgh area who managed to get on the ballot by winning a court case this week.  Fetterman’s campaign is underfunded and trailing badly in the polls, but he’ll have a base of support as the only candidate from western Pennsylvania (both Sestak and McGinty are from suburban Philadelphia) and among liberal voters (he has endorsed Bernie Sanders).  His presence on the ballot probably helps McGinty by splitting the anti-establishment vote.
            Going into the general election, Pat Toomey’s odds of re-election are probably more than fifty percent.  He leads in the polls, he has a distinct fundraising advantage, and the Democrats will likely have a candidate the party establishment can’t stand or someone the party establishment had to drag across the finish line.  Still, Pennsylvania is never a state Republicans can take for granted, and the fact that this race could decide control of the Senate gives Democrats all the motivation they need. 


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