Commentary Magazine


Topic: Allyson Schwartz

Pennsylvania’s Nasty Democratic Civil War

One of the evergreens of political journalism in the last few years has been the civil war that has raged on the right between the so-called Republican establishment and the Tea Party. There’s a good deal of truth in that meme, as the guerilla warfare that has been waged between some Tea Partiers against establishment candidates has in some cases cost the GOP winnable Senate seats and led to bad blood stemming from tactical arguments about the government shutdown. That strife on the right is real, though at times overblown and perhaps, as last night’s results in North Carolina illustrated, on its way toward being resolved in favor of the Republican mainstream rather than the more extreme elements among the Tea Party/libertarian faction.

But the notion that only one of our two major parties is engaged in ideological conflicts is somewhat deceiving. It is true that maintaining control of the White House gives Democrats a central focus that the opposition party lacks by definition. Moreover, President Obama is wildly popular among Democrats. Even those who are less than thrilled with all his policies are unwilling to criticize him sharply and thus be lumped with Republicans, who are called racists for opposing the president by liberals. And yet as the administration lapses into lame duck status, conflicts among Democrats are starting to reappear. The best evidence for this is in Pennsylvania, where a gubernatorial primary race is showing that Democrats are employing some of the same themes that were key to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 against each other.

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One of the evergreens of political journalism in the last few years has been the civil war that has raged on the right between the so-called Republican establishment and the Tea Party. There’s a good deal of truth in that meme, as the guerilla warfare that has been waged between some Tea Partiers against establishment candidates has in some cases cost the GOP winnable Senate seats and led to bad blood stemming from tactical arguments about the government shutdown. That strife on the right is real, though at times overblown and perhaps, as last night’s results in North Carolina illustrated, on its way toward being resolved in favor of the Republican mainstream rather than the more extreme elements among the Tea Party/libertarian faction.

But the notion that only one of our two major parties is engaged in ideological conflicts is somewhat deceiving. It is true that maintaining control of the White House gives Democrats a central focus that the opposition party lacks by definition. Moreover, President Obama is wildly popular among Democrats. Even those who are less than thrilled with all his policies are unwilling to criticize him sharply and thus be lumped with Republicans, who are called racists for opposing the president by liberals. And yet as the administration lapses into lame duck status, conflicts among Democrats are starting to reappear. The best evidence for this is in Pennsylvania, where a gubernatorial primary race is showing that Democrats are employing some of the same themes that were key to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 against each other.

The Pennsylvania governor’s race is especially interesting this year because it is one of the few contests around the country where Democrats are heavily favored to topple a Republican incumbent. Governor Tom Corbett is deeply unpopular and trails every one of the leading Democratic contenders. Part of his problem stems from what is perceived as his lackluster pursuit of the perpetrator in the Penn State sex abuse case when he was state attorney general as well as his subsequent willingness to accept a draconian punishment on the iconic football program from the NCAA. But Corbett is also seen as a rigid and ineffective leader in Harrisburg who arouses little enthusiasm among the GOP base.

Corbett’s vulnerability has attracted some well-funded candidates including Rep. Allyson Schwartz, State Treasurer Rob McCord, and a wild card in millionaire businessman Tom Wolf. There are no real differences between the three leading Democrats in the race on the issues, with the only disagreement coming on the issue of just how confiscatory the taxes that would be imposed on companies fracking in Pennsylvania should be with Wolf advocating a huge increase though not as much as Schwartz and McCord.

Many state party leaders saw Schwartz as an obvious choice, but the congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs has found herself trailing Wolf badly throughout the race as the businessman flooded the airwaves with television ads extolling his virtues and establishing name recognition. By the end of April three different statewide polls showed Schwartz trailing Wolf by 25-31 percentage points (McCord is a distant third), a stunning result for a woman who gave up what is now a safe congressional seat to try for the governorship.

But with approximately a third of the third electorate still declaring itself undecided, Schwartz still has hope with less than two weeks to go until the May 20 primary. In seeking to take down Wolf, Schwartz is, as the New York Times recently reported, wholeheartedly embracing ObamaCare. That is newsworthy since the president’s signature health-care law is no more popular in Pennsylvania than in the rest of the country. But more than that, she’s also seeking to use some of the war on women rhetoric Democrats typically employ against Republicans as well as rolling out negative ads seeking to trash Wolf in the same way her party slimed Mitt Romney’s reputation in 2012.

In part, this tactic is based on a belief that Democratic primary voters won’t hold her vote for ObamaCare against Schwartz in the way many independent voters would. But her desire to rally Democratic women to her cause by reminding them that she ran a profitable abortion clinic before being elected to the state senate and then Congress also shows that she believes gender politics works as well in primaries as it does in general elections. Even more to the point, her willingness to smear Wolf for being a successful entrepreneur with charges out of the same bogus playbook used to delegitimize Romney’s business career is also a fascinating test case of whether those tactics work as well against liberal millionaires as with conservatives.

It’s too soon to tell whether Schwartz’s all-out assault on the more moderate Wolf will succeed, but either way it will tell us something important about Democratic voters. If Schwartz’s war on women and “evil capitalist” routines don’t dent Wolf’s lead it may signal that the tactics that Democrats are looking to employ nationwide this fall against Republicans won’t even work among their own voters. The nasty Democratic civil war being waged in Pennsylvania not only gives the lie to the idea that only the Republicans are divided. If Democrats do reject Wolf—a candidate who is a prohibitive favorite against Corbett—in favor of Schwartz who has only a small lead on the governor and who will be a tough sell to a state that is not as liberal as she is, it will do more than give the GOP some desperately needed hope. It will prove that Democrats are as capable of kneecapping themselves by nominating ideological hardliners in place of moderates as Republicans.

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PA May Not Be Site of Next War on Women

The “war on women” meme was a useful tool for Democrats in 2012. It probably wouldn’t have had as much impact on the voting had not Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy encapsulated the stereotype of a misogynist GOP that liberals had labored so hard to publicize. But even without Akin, whose idiotic statement helped drag down many another Republican last fall, the Democratic effort to try to brand their opponents as hostile to women was a potent factor. Having worked once, it is no surprise they will be trying to duplicate that success in 2014, but assumptions of that sort when applied to individual state races may not always work out. Hence, Politico’s preview of next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest may not hinge as much on women’s issues as readers might think.

On the surface, the race for the executive suite in Harrisburg has the potential to be a repeat of what happened in Missouri when Akin’s case of hoof-in-mouth turned liberal Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easily re-elected incumbent. Republican Governor Tom Corbett has not only had a rocky first two years in office but has also been credited with some particularly obtuse quotes about women seeking abortion that will be easily exploited by the Democrats. His likely opponent is Representative Allyson Schwartz who has the smarts and the ability to raise the money needed to fund a campaign that will paint the otherwise dull-as-dishwater Corbett as a Keystone State version of Akin.

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The “war on women” meme was a useful tool for Democrats in 2012. It probably wouldn’t have had as much impact on the voting had not Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy encapsulated the stereotype of a misogynist GOP that liberals had labored so hard to publicize. But even without Akin, whose idiotic statement helped drag down many another Republican last fall, the Democratic effort to try to brand their opponents as hostile to women was a potent factor. Having worked once, it is no surprise they will be trying to duplicate that success in 2014, but assumptions of that sort when applied to individual state races may not always work out. Hence, Politico’s preview of next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest may not hinge as much on women’s issues as readers might think.

On the surface, the race for the executive suite in Harrisburg has the potential to be a repeat of what happened in Missouri when Akin’s case of hoof-in-mouth turned liberal Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easily re-elected incumbent. Republican Governor Tom Corbett has not only had a rocky first two years in office but has also been credited with some particularly obtuse quotes about women seeking abortion that will be easily exploited by the Democrats. His likely opponent is Representative Allyson Schwartz who has the smarts and the ability to raise the money needed to fund a campaign that will paint the otherwise dull-as-dishwater Corbett as a Keystone State version of Akin.

But there are two problems with this scenario that may turn the war on women routine on its head. First is the very real possibility that Corbett will not survive a primary challenge next year. The other is that the assumption that a pro-choice woman will be more than a match for a pro-life man in Pennsylvania is far from certain. Particularly when the women is not just an advocate for reproductive choice but someone who made a living at what her opponents will call an abortion mill. Under these circumstances, there’s really no telling what may happen next year in Pennsylvania.

Let’s start with the fact that Corbett, who won easily in the big Republican year of 2010, may be the most vulnerable Republican governor in the nation. Corbett is seen as a weak leader who has done little to help the state’s economy and has been blasted by both the left and the right for being part of the same old partisan establishment problem in Harrisburg rather than the solution.

However, Politico focused more on Corbett’s unfortunate comments about abortion than any of that. By itself Corbett’s support last year for a bill that would have required women to have an ultrasound before an abortion would have been enough for the Democrats to play the war on women theme. But he made it worse when he said that any women who didn’t want to look at the image of a living fetus produced by the machine could simply “close your eyes.” You don’t have to be a political genius to understand how opponents for the rest of his career will hang this around his neck.

Yet Corbett’s biggest problem is his association with the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. It took the state attorney general’s office three years to charge pedophile Jerry Sandusky in the case after allegations came to their attention. Most of that period encompasses the period when Corbett was attorney general before being elected governor. It’s far from clear that this was the result of any wrongdoing, but Pennsylvanians are so mad about the case and the impact that it had on the beloved Penn State football team and the late Joe Paterno that anyone even tangentially involved in it has become political poison. The probe of Corbett’s conduct in the case ordered by current Attorney General Katherine Kane, who is a Democrat, is a potential game changer in the governor’s race.

Though defeating an incumbent governor is a formidable task, this knowledge has penetrated Republican ranks to the extent that a primary upset of Corbett is not out of the question. The most likely candidate to oppose him is an old foe, Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, who was narrowly beaten by Corbett in a 2004 attorney general primary. Corbett has taken full advantage of his incumbency to raise enough money from major corporate backers—including from some Democrats—to be able to outspend any opponent inside or outside his party. But if Castor can position himself as the reform/Tea Party favorite in a GOP contest, all the pundits’ assumptions about Corbett being the Akin of 2014 go out the window.

But even if Corbett does survive a bitter primary, Schwartz has her own set of vulnerabilities. Pennsylvania may be in the northeast and has not voted for a Republican for president in a generation. But outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it is a generally rural state with a strong pro-gun culture as well as a significant pro-life constituency. Democrats do best when perceived as pragmatic centrists (as was the case with former Governor Ed Rendell) and/or have pro-life and pro-gun stands (as remains the case with Senator Bob Casey Jr.).

As Politico rightly notes, social issues will cut both ways in a Corbett-Schwartz tussle. Schwartz is not well known statewide and is viewed as a stereotypical Philadelphia-area liberal even if she claims to be a moderate on fiscal issues. In 2000, she lost badly in a Senate primary to a little known Pittsburgh-area congressman largely because of her limited appeal in the rest of the state. Though her stature has grown since then, it’s not clear that has changed much.

While her background working at the Planned Parenthood-run Elizabeth Blackwell Center endears her to liberal women, it could be a liability in a general election. Though most voters are not sympathetic to extreme anti-abortion statements, what liberals in the media often forget is that abortion is still viewed with distaste even by many who would not wish to repeal Roe v. Wade. That will complicate any effort to rerun the war on women theme.

If all politics really is local, then national reporters looking to Pennsylvania as turning on a national issue like abortion may be in for a surprise. The Sandusky case may trump it and remove Tom Corbett from the equation before Democrats have the chance to fit him for the Todd Akin clown suit.

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