This week, Democrats in the PA House and Senate will vote on key leadership positions. But in light of recent electoral losses, some are calling for fresh blood – or, maybe, just blood.
“It’s time for both at all levels,” said Jim Burn, former chair of the PA Democratic party. “We need leadership changes in the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. We haven't been this small since 1958 – and that needs to change.”
Well before Tuesday’s historic victory for Republicans, some Democrats in Pennsylvania were worried that as many as five state Senate seats could fall. But party leadership urged calm.
“In spite of Republican gerrymandering, we've created the largest coordinated campaign operation in state history to help elect Democrats from the presidential level to our row offices and state Legislature,” Brandon Cwalina, press secretary for the PA Democratic Party, told City&State just before the Nov. 8 election.
Clearly, those efforts weren’t enough to stave off the Trump-fueled Republican wave that swept across the Keystone State last week. In the end, Democrats lost three Senate races and gave up a contested open seat in Delaware County; they fared little better in House races.
Yet insiders say leadership change is unlikely. House sources said Rep. Madeleine Dean would make a play for Rep. Mike Sturla’s slot as Democratic policy chair in a Tuesday vote. Rumors have also swirled that Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams or Sen. John Yudichak were eying Sen. Jay Costa’s minority speaker post, but few gave credence to that notion ahead of a Wednesday Senate vote.
Mike Mikus, the campaign manager for Katie McGInty – who lost to Republican US Sen. Pat Toomey by a hair – said keeping the status quo was just as well after a crushing, and possibly inevitable defeat.
“You could be a genius one cycle and a moron the next in the eyes of some of these people,” he said. “I’m not saying there weren’t changes that should have been made, but you’re never going to rebound as a party by axing every single person after every election. Say you had different leadership – would anyone win a district that Trump won by 30 points?”
Burn nevertheless blamed Democratic losses on a lack of coordination between the state Democrats and the Clinton campaign. He said the party’s lack of interest in rural counties exacerbated those losses.
He reserved particular scorn for Gov. Tom Wolf.
“I haven’t seen any proactive effort by the governor to build margins in the House and the Senate. And this cycle saw no effort on the part of the governor to support vulnerable members like (state Sen. Rob) Teplitz or (state Sen. Sean) Wiley,” he said. “My impression of this governor is of one who’s disengaged with the party.”
Burn notably clashed with Wolf, refusing to step aside as party chair after the governor’s 2014 election before he eventually resigned from the post in 2015. But even the GOP noticed Wolf’s lack of engagement in down-ballot races.
“He was much more active in campaigns in this part of the world before he got elected governor than after,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Republican Senate Pro-Tempore Joe Scarnati. “He used to be a highly considered source of campaign resources for a whole host of Democrats. The lack-of-money issue confounds me. I mean, I’m happy he’s not donating, don’t get me wrong.”
Preston Maddock, communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said Wolf had paid his fair share.
"While we're all disappointed with the results of the election, the Democratic Party ran the most robust, coordinated campaign in Pennsylvania history. At this point, and without the facts, finger-pointing is completely inappropriate," Maddock said. “Gov. Wolf invested over $800,000 in races up and down the ballot across the commonwealth.”
Maddock said that of that $800,000, more than $500,000 had gone towards state legislative races.
Burn may be in the minority, but several Democrats privately grumbled that last week’s defeat was a signal the party needed to adopt more radical leaders, like John Fetterman, the Braddock mayor who ran on a leftist platform more in the mold of Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton.
Northeast Philadelphia state Rep. Kevin Boyle also defended the efforts of party leaders like Wolf and state party chair Marcel Groen, but said this past election had to be a wake-up call to PA Dems that it was time to abandon neoliberal economic policies.
“The unfortunate outcome in Pennsylvania was driven by a national dynamic related to a lessening of support nationally for Democrats amongst white, working class voters,” Boyle said. “We need to acknowledge that the trade agreements forged by the (Democratic Leadership Council) wing of our party is not only wrong for working people, but also electoral death.”
Updated: Sen. Rob Teplitz responded to Burn's statement about a lack of support from Gov. Wolf. His reponse is printed, in part, below.
"Burn's statement that the governor made 'no effort' on my behalf and that he was 'disengaged' is absolutely and demonstrably false. Since taking office, Governor Wolf and his administration could not have been more supportive on both the official and political sides. The governor did everything that I asked him to do and more, most significantly, by contributing and helping raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that helped me stay competitive with a well-financed opponent...The bottom line is I didn't lose reelection because of a lack of money or support from my party or its leaders. I lost because of partisan gerrymandering, pure and simple."