Like a well-worn copy of “Political Mad Libs,” whatever adjective you use to describe this election cycle will somehow be appropriate to a degree. Conventional political wisdom has been “thrown out the window” (in the words of one of our commentators), with wildly fluctuating polls and looming, unanswerable questions about voter anger and turnout. Perhaps more than ever before, state candidates are beholden to the personality contest between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Subordinated by the unceasingly ugly presidential election, even high-profile statewide races have been forced to jockey for attention via televised air wars. With few developed policy issues dominating the national political conversation, major statewide races have been reduced to breathless bromides about “security” or “jobs.” Further down the ballot, races for treasurer or auditor general have barely registered on voters’ radars, if at all. If the political conversation was vapid before, it’s only gotten worse.
That said, here’s what to look for as a seemingly endless election cycle draws to a merciful close.
In Pennsylvania, the big question at the moment seems to be “how badly will Clinton beat Trump?” – and that’s especially relevant for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. In this, the most expensive Senate race in the country, nearly as much money has been spent in Toomey’s defense as by challenger Katie McGinty – but it may not amount to much if Hillary wallops Trump.
“He and McGinty are like corks floating on the ocean. They will be swept along by whatever the tide is,” said City & State PA’s Tom Ferrick, a former Inquirer political columnist. “If Hillary ends up winning by the polling numbers we’ve seen, by eight or nine points, it’s going to be a blowout for Democrats down-ballot.”
Toomey was pegged early as both politically vulnerable and lackluster on the campaign trail. The race to date has been dominated by Toomey’s dithering over whether to support Trump due to his very real fear of alienating both suburban Republicans who despise the billionaire and zealous Trump supporters. But McGinty is similarly uninspiring, including an amorphous resume with stints in a lobbying firm to boot.
With total campaign spending careening toward $100 million, the money has gone mostly to attack ads, some featuring not-especially clever nicknames, like “Shady Katie” and “‘Fraidy Pat.”
What do the candidates have to show for it? The race still appears to be in a statistical dead heat, not too different from when City & State checked in during the spring. That could be fatal for Toomey in a Clinton landslide, as split-ticket voting is a dwindling trend.
“If Hillary wins by even six or seven points in Pennsylvania, which is possible, you’re demanding a lot of ticket splits,” said Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna. “In the presidential race, the polls are varying, but they’re all showing one leader.”
Pity the attorney general candidates, Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican John Rafferty, in this presidential election year. The office has little to do with national politics and has been utterly eclipsed by the Senate and presidential race in terms of attention and outside money.
While Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, is somewhat known on a state level through his brief flirtations with higher office, Rafferty, a Montgomery County state senator, has fought to even register his candidacy with voters.
“We know Rafferty, but the average voter doesn’t – that’s not uncommon in these types of elections,” said Madonna.
What is uncommon is that the race will conclude just two weeks after a judge sentenced Kathleen Kane, the former Democratic attorney general, on felony perjury charges. In any other year, that would seem like a slam dunk for a Republican, but Rafferty has yet to fully seize upon the connection.
“(Kane) is in the news; it’s an opportunity for Rafferty – there’s a link to be made,” said Randall Miller, a political science professor at St. Joseph’s University. “I don’t know why he hasn’t done it yet.”
Shapiro, meanwhile, seems untarnished by running as the Democratic successor to the troubled Kane.
“The idea is what the A.G. office needs is order and respect … and Shapiro is saying, ‘I’ve got the skills to do it,’” Miller said. “He’s wearing the label of a Democratic A.G., but he’s not wearing it as Kane’s label.”
Voters may just be too distracted to pick up on the nuance. There has been no polling of the race, but the same rules apply: If Hillary does well, Shapiro will, too. And both men hail from Montgomery County, where Trump is deeply unpopular – another omen boding ill for the Republican attorney general candidate.
8th Congressional District
This is the congressional race to watch in the commonwealth, and one of few competitive congressional contests in the country. The Bucks County district has been inexorably trending in favor of FBI agent-turned-Republican candidate Brian Fitzpatrick. His brother, Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, is vacating the seat – no small boon for the junior sibling.
“PA-8 was first charted as a house seat the Dems could a least hope to win, but it looks like there’s no Fitzpatrick fatigue in the 8th,” said Miller. “Some are calling him a carpetbagger, that he’s just trading on his brother’s name ... But he’s also trading on themes that are running in the national election.”
To that end, the younger Fitzpatrick has burnished his candidacy against Democrat Steve Santarsiero by making much of terrorism and other national security threats. To be fair, so has Santarsiero, but the Republican’s law enforcement career may give him a more compelling story.
“One of the things Trump has said that resonated in Pennsylvania is that things are out of control. He’s become the law-and-order guy,” said Miller. “Fitzpatrick is trotting out his FBI credentials, but not associating himself with Trump.”
It’s tough to say if that will be enough to make up for the handicap Republicans face in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Trump’s unpopularity is over 70 percent. There has been no independent polling of this race, but internals and political analysts either have the race neck-and-neck or give an edge to Fitzpatrick.
Ballot question: Judicial retirement age
If any element of an already weird election cycle stands out as exceptionally odd, it’s probably the ballot question on raising the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age from 70 to 75.
The effort was initially perceived as a way for Republicans to keep state Supreme Court Justice Thomas G. Saylor on the bench for five more years, but it has grown more complex. Two former Democratic justices have sued to remove the question, but wider bipartisan outrage has been muted.
“Lots of judges from both parties want five more years,” Madonna noted.
But for voters, that’s not much of a reason to approve the ballot question, which was deliberately reworded by the legislature at one point to make it seem more innocuous.
“Now, the question doesn’t even clearly explain that they’re raising the age from 70 to 75,” Madonna said. “Normally, I think it would pass easily, but given all the recent judicial controversies” – a reference to the “Porngate” scandal – “the voters are probably not keen to giving longevity to any judges, if they can even understand the question.”
While there may be some demographic arguments for updating retirement ages as people live longer, Ferrick questioned the civic value of the proposal.
“Nobody is irreplaceable. Every time I’ve seen a judicial vacancy, it’s gotten a of of attention. So there’s not a shortage of candidates,” he said. ■