Pennsylvania has some big races in 2022, but political parties are mostly staying silent. Why?

Technology, big money candidates, and the electorate’s anti-establishment tendencies have a lot to with it, insiders say

By: - February 3, 2022 7:08 am

(Getty Images)

Even with an open governor’s mansion and control of the U.S. Senate potentially running through the commonwealth, Pennsylvania’s once powerful political parties are poised to play little role in picking their candidates for November.

Parties were once able to make or break political runs, providing such key resources as access to campaign donors and getting the candidates’ names on sample ballots, political observers, operatives, and candidates noted. 

But now, in an age of social media and online fundraising, as well as anti-establishment feelings across the political spectrum, the official nod from either the Democratic or Republican Party is less valuable.

“There’s no point stepping in and being brutal and trying to push people out,” longtime Pennsylvania political watcher Terry Madonna told the Capital-Star. “There’s so many candidates representing too many factions. I think they’ll just let it play out.”

The Democratic establishment is behind Josh Shapiro for governor. Will Pa. follow?

The one exception was last weekend, when the state Democratic Party endorsed Attorney General Josh Shapiro as their one-and-only viable candidate to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The party also backed state Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, as Shapiro’s handpicked running mate over Davis’ legislative colleague Rep. Brian Sims, of Philadelphia.

In a statement, Sims said that it made “little sense” for Democrats to “choose candidates ahead of the voters’ decision” in the May primary. While the governor and lieutenant governor run together in the November general election as a ticket, they are picked by voters in two separate primaries.

“We shouldn’t be trying to dictate the outcome of our primaries when primaries are what engage and excite our core voting base,” Sims added. “I look forward to spending the next few months talking to the voters of Pennsylvania.”

But the party, which requires a two-thirds vote from its members to award its endorsement, did not hand out an endorsement to replace retiring GOP U.S. Sen Pat Toomey. 

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, did win a majority of the votes after two ballots. But he fell short of the endorsement mark.

“All four candidates had the same opportunity to make their case to committee members and answer questions, and more than 60 percent of them agreed that Conor Lamb is the best candidate to beat the Republicans in November,” Lamb’s campaign manager Abby Nassif-Murphy said in a statement, “We’re thrilled by that show of support.”

The other candidates who went for the party nod were Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, who did not appear on the second ballot, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia.

Kenyatta told the Capital-Star he was happy just winning enough votes to stay in for the second round of voting.

“We knew we had a tough hill to climb,” Kenyatta said. “Our goal was to beat expectations and I think we did that pretty resoundingly.”

His strategy, he said, has been to engage with “the most important voters in this election” — young people, voters of color, suburban women — with a simple pitch: A good job, good schools, good housing and a good doctor.

Those voters, Kenyatta noted, are underrepresented on the state committee. But that Kenyatta remained on the second ballot, he argued, “shows our message resonates even in places that aren’t our bread and butter places.”

Deemphasizing party gatekeepers — who are often older, white males — is consistent with the growing diversity of the American electorate, Chatham University political scientist Jennie Sweet-Cushman told the Capital-Star.

This switch from party-centered races to candidate-centered races has been common in other states, she added. And it presents an opportunity for politicians such as Kenyatta, the General Assembly’s first openly gay Black lawmaker.

Building a ticket that matches Pennsylvania’s diversity could pose challenge for Democrats in 2022

In a political environment where fewer and fewer people respect the party institutions, Sweet-Cushman noted, it isn’t clear if endorsements are even worth the work.

“There is increasingly a sense that the party endorsement signals ‘establishment’, which in this electorate is not good on either side of the aisle,” Sweet-Cushman said. “So candidates are having to weigh whether the resources that come with party backing are worth it to even seek the endorsement and it sure seems like many of them are deciding it isn’t.”

That can be easily seen on the Republican side, where campaigns have downplayed the importance of the upcoming endorsement vote on Saturday, mostly agreeing that an endorsement was out of reach in the marquee races.

That’s been backed up in regional straw polls of Republican committee members that precede the official endorsement meeting. 

Some campaign officials hoped that a strong showing among Republican committee people would signal that those same officials would then spread the word in their home counties, helping to gather petitions and garner support among rank-and-files voters ahead of the primary.

Otherwise, just showing up was a chance to spread the word about a campaign, starting voter outreach efforts that could be continued down the stretch with campaign spending.

In a statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s, R-Centre, campaign said it  believed an endorsement was unlikely.

“We’ve respectfully advocated for an open primary, and regional caucuses have all supported this,” Corman’s campaign said. “We believe primary election voters should elect our nominee. Some campaigns will likely be disappointed on Saturday after chasing headlines to tout straw polls.”

The polls, held among Republican committee people in the lead up to the official endorsement, have shown some strong support for a handful of candidates, some more well known than others.

Among the top poll performers in the Senate field are Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos and right-wing influencer Kathy Barnette — who has gained attention hunting for voter fraud — as well as former Delaware County Councilmember Dave White and Poconos heart surgeon Nche Zama for governor.

But when the polls include an option to offer no endorsement, it has won out.

Most observers chalked up the lack of appetite for party leaders to wade in to the sheer size of the statewide field, as well as some of the candidates’ deep war chests.

The 2022 candidates for Pa. governor are raising big money for a big race

Multi-millionaires such as TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz, hedge fund manager David McCormick, and White could outspend opponents even if shunned by party officials, as could a candidate like former prosecutor Bill McSwain, who is backed by an independent conservative group flush with cash from billionaire Jeff Yass.

With or without the party, “these guys have the resources to get their message out,” Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairperson Sam DeMarco told the Capital-Star. The point of an endorsement typically is to “steer voters in the right direction,” DeMarco added. But in this case, “we can let the voters make the decision.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.