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.