Pennsylvania Senate (and Governor’s) Race: Three Things You Oughta Know

Family campaigns, a “way of sharing,” and Sodom on the Schuylkill

With the 2010 midterm elections looming on the horizon—and some primaries rapidly approaching—Campaign Desk will soon be devoting more attention to the coverage of the campaign for control of Congress. To start, we’ve selected five Senate races for close scrutiny: Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. We’ll be kicking off our coverage with a series of columns titled “Three Things You Oughta Know,” in which we ask a veteran journalistic observer in each state to discuss the candidates, the race, and the local political culture—anything that would make national reporters, and national readers, more informed.

On May 18th, Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls to vote in party primaries, as well as a special election to replace Rep. John Murtha, (D). Senator Arlen Specter is running for reelection to the Senate, this time as a Democrat. He faces a real challenge from Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, who represents Pennsylvania’s 7th District. Pat Toomey, a former congressman, is expected to win the Republican nomination.

In the governor’s race, Attorney General Tom Corbett is expected to be the Republican nominee over Rep. Sam Rohrer. The Democratic candidates are Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato (the front-runner), auditor General Jack Wagner, county commissioner Joe Hoeffel, and Sen. Anthony Williams.

On Thursday, CJR’s Liz Cox Barrett spoke with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tom Fitzgerald, who covers Philadelphia and state politics, about the matchups. Fitzgerald joined the Inquirer in 2000, and has been a reporter in the paper’s Harrisburg Bureau and chief of the City Hall Bureau. In 2004, he covered the Howard Dean and John Kerry presidential campaigns.

Fitzgerald, after wondering aloud whether he was “too steeped” in it all to be able to recognize what less-steeped reporters might not know, quickly identified the following oughta-knows:

1. In the Specter and Sestak campaigns, it’s all in the family.

The most interesting match-up is Arlen Specter [v. Joe Sestak] and whether Specter is going to win after switching parties last year. There’s an interesting factoid about that primary race: Arlen Specter’s chief strategist, effectively, is his son, Shanin, who is a huge trial lawyer in Philadelphia. With Sestak, people have been puzzled by his campaign because he’s never really hired any professionals to run it, it’s run by his brother Richard who is a former professional triathlete and lawyer, not a campaign professional. These campaigns are alike in that respect, like family businesses. Their closest trusted advisers are family, a la the Kennedys.

2. History calls the governor’s race for the Republican (it’s their turn).

There’s a governor’s race going on as well. Since World War II, the Democratic and Republican parties have alternated holding the governor’s office without fail every eight years. That includes when governors weren’t allowed to succeed themselves, [before 1968], when they could hold only one [four-year] term. It’s always eight years without fail. There’s been a low energy around the Democratic primary in the governor’s race because a lot of Democratic insiders think, you know, we’re going to pick the best loser, they’re almost resigned, though they’ll still spin and pick themselves up and come up with arguments that so-and-so might defy that [history]. There’s this sense that Pennsylvania just has this way of sharing or whatever you want to call it.

3. Specter (the Democrat and the Republican) has a western PA problem.

This is random, but Specter has never polled well in western Pennsylvania, even as a Republican. It’s kind of a mystery, although theories abound as to why. People in western Pennsylvania really loathe Philadelphia in general. It’s like Sodom on the Schuylkill. Maybe because [Specter]’s this slick city guy—even though he’s from Kansas?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.