If Pennsylvania is a barometer, an endangered species list could be taking shape for incumbents in this fall’s elections as increasing voter anger spreads across the political landscape.
Unhappy voters tick off a list of offenses — some national, others local — in a swing state critical to deciding what party controls Congress for President Bush’s last two years and to shaping the presidential race in 2008.
Rising gas prices and the continuing bloodshed in Iraq have stoked the Pennsylvania discontent to levels not seen since 1994 when Republicans pushed out Democrats to seize control of the House and Senate. Twelve years ago, President Clinton’s approval ratings were in the 30-percent range statewide and Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford’s popularity had dropped.
In Pennsylvania, opposition to the Iraq conflict surfaced early, in part because of the May 2004 beheading of Philadelphia-area contractor Nick Berg, the involvement of some reservists in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and war dead among the highest in the nation. The state has lost more than 110 in the conflict.
Last summer, local politicians earned the voters’ wrath when the Republican-controlled state legislature voted itself a pay raise in the middle of the night and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell signed the increase into law. The uproar forced lawmakers to repeal it four months later.
Pennsylvanians increasingly have adopted a throw-all-the-bums-out attitude, reflected in part in last Wednesday’s survey by the Pew Research Center that showed nearly half of Pennsylvanians are dissatisfied with the state’s direction.
“I feel that the administration and a lot of politicians are not in touch with the reality of this nation and the people that live in this nation and their plights and worries and problems,” said Jolene Springer, 44, a retail store manager from Hershey, Pa.
High-profile candidates whose futures are at stake include Democrat Rendell; Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate leadership; and three GOP incumbents in House seats in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“I’d like to get a bunch of pacifiers, box them up and send them down there,” said Scott Kline, 41, a conservative whose grease-smeared face reflected a day spent repairing air conditioners in Steelton, a central Pennsylvania town marked by abandoned steel mills.
Incumbents can take solace in Pennsylvania’s economic numbers. The state unemployment rate has dropped to 4.5 percent from 5.2 percent last year; the national average is 4.7 percent. The state has 32,000 more people working than a year ago.
“We in Pennsylvania should be happier than the rest of the nation based on last year’s performance,” said Fariborz Ghadar, director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Penn State University.
In the near term, Tuesday’s state primary will be a barometer of the public mood. Nearly 350 challengers have filed to run for the 253-member legislature, the largest number of candidates in 14 years.
The pay raises — ranging from 16 percent to 54 percent — already cost at least one incumbent his job. Last November, voters denied Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro a second term, two days after the pay hikes were repealed.
Santorum becomes a prime target
Santorum is the Democrats’ prime target. He’s conservative, cocky and powerful, a close ally of Bush on issues from private accounts for Social Security to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
National Democrats point to the cold, hard numbers in Pennsylvania in their optimism about unseating Santorum. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans — 3.8 million to 3.3 million — and President Bush’s approval ratings are as low statewide — 30 percent — as they are nationally.
Bush campaigned in the state more than any other in his 2004 re-election bid, but still lost to Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Democrat Al Gore won the state in 2000 — the same year Santorum captured a second term with 52 percent of the vote.
“I’ve bucked a few trends,” Santorum said. “I tend not to worry about national moods.”
The Republican, who unseated Wofford in 1994, can point to a few other Pennsylvania truths. Voters tend to be conservative and will cross party lines. Republicans hold both Senate seats and 12 of the 19 House seats. The state also has some of the most conservative abortion laws in the nation.
In a nod to that reality, Democrats recruited a conservative to challenge the incumbent senator. State Treasurer Bob Casey, son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, is anti-abortion, Catholic and willing to talk about his faith. He tries to portray himself as a uniter instead of a divider, a riff on what George W. Bush told voters in the 2000 campaign.
“I think what people are most frustrated by in Washington, second only to the inability to deal with ... basic issues, is the sense that it’s all about partisanship and ideology, and there’s no sense that people are working together,” Casey said.
For months, Casey held a double-digit lead in polls, in part because of the reverberations from Santorum’s book, “It Takes a Family,” which faulted women for working outside the home when it’s not financially necessary and compared abortion rights to slaveholder rights.
Unable to criticize Casey’s conservative record, Republicans have targeted his time campaigning, arguing that he’s paying too little attention to his job as state treasurer.
Casey lacks Santorum’s effectiveness as a public speaker, and the incumbent holds a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage in a race that could cost $50 million. National Democrats are certain to help Casey financially as November looms.
Recent polls vary from a double-digit advantage for Casey to single numbers.
Voters, argued Santorum, “increasingly don’t vote the party. They vote the person.”
The ‘everyman politician’
Even though his eight-year tenure as Philadelphia mayor ended in 2000, Rendell is still introduced as the man responsible for turning a city on the brink of financial ruin into a popular tourist destination. The “everyman politician” also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2000.
Republicans recruited Lynn Swann, a Hall of Famer who starred on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ championship teams in the 1970s, a television sports commentator and one of the Republicans’ top black candidates this year. Typically, Swann draws crowds of autograph-seekers during his public appearances.
Swann “is not messed up with all the political baggage of everybody else,” said Springer, a Democrat who said she was considering voting for him.
Rendell’s mouth occasionally gets him in trouble, as it did recently when he told the Bucks County Courier Times that he signed the pay-raise bill because he had to “kiss a little butt.” But he’s a seasoned politician who knows how to get elected. Rendell started the month with $13.6 million on hand, five times more than Swann, and recent polls showed him with a double-digit lead.
He promotes a record of job growth, legalizing slot-machine gambling, and expansion of a program that provides low-cost prescription drugs to senior citizens.
At times, Swann has come across as a political neophyte. During an interview in February on ABC News’ “This Week” show, he appeared to be under the mistaken impression that abortion would automatically be outlawed nationally if the Supreme Court were to overturn its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
A rising star
In Democratic circles, Lois Murphy is a rising star. A lawyer who worked for NARAL Pro-Choice, Murphy nearly beat Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach in 2004 in a district outside Philadelphia that’s a mix of bedroom communities and rural areas. Their rematch in November is billed as one of the nation’s most competitive House races.
Gerlach, along with Republican Reps. Curt Weldon and Mike Fitzpatrick, are prime Democratic targets as all three districts went for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004.
Weldon, a 10-term incumbent, faces Joe Sestak, who recently retired after serving as a Navy vice admiral.
Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran, and Andy Warren, a Republican-turned-Democrat, are competing in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the chance to challenge Fitzpatrick — a freshman.
Of the House challengers, Lois Murphy is considered to have the best shot at unseating an incumbent. In the first quarter of the year, she outraised Gerlach by $250,000, although he still has more cash.
Republicans, with more incumbents, have more to lose in November.
As Sestak greeted voters at a commuter train station one early morning, attorney Jay Brenner, 28, approached him and volunteered to work on his campaign.
“I just want the House to change hands. That’s big,” Brenner said.