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With another western Pa. win, Democrats redraw map again

Written by Chris Potter/WESA | Apr 4, 2019 3:12 AM
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Pam Iovino with supporters after winning the special election in Senate District 37. (Courtesy of the Iovina campaign)

(Pittsburgh) -- State Senator-elect Pam Iovino's Tuesday-night special election win over Republican D. Raja won't attract the same attention Conor Lamb's did when he was elected to Congress last year.

But both Democrats triumphed in the southern and western suburbs of Pittsburgh, prevailing over Republican attacks based heavily on national issues.

And both were working from a similar script -- one that cast a military veteran as a pragmatic standard-bearer -- while campaigning with support from a coalition of unions and grassroots groups opposed to President Donald Trump.

"This is a well-oiled machine," said Darrin Kelly, who heads the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, hours before Iovino posted a 52-to-48 percent win in a race decided by over 2,500 votes.

Kelly marshalled an intensive field operation in which union members went door-knocking over the weekend and into Election Day itself. While there was less national media attention on this year's race than on Lamb's bid, Kelly said, "The intensity level on our side is the same."

For Democrats, it was a satisfying reversal from 2015, when Heather Arnet lost a special election in the same district by roughly 10 percent to Guy Reschenthaler. (Reschenthaler's departure from the seat after winning a Congressional election last year triggered Tuesday's special election.)

"We put together a good team, and they put together a good campaign," is how Iovino characterized the effort.

Her win suggests how much the district has changed in the past four years.

Both Iovino and Arnet are Mt. Lebanon residents, but Iovino captured a much higher percentage of the vote there, and turnout was higher. In vote-heavy Ward 2 District 1, for example, Iovino captured two-thirds of 439 votes cast: Arnet garnered only 55 percent of the 327 votes cast there in 2015. Politicos credit the improved performance in part to an intense get-out-the-vote effort coordinated with suburban activists energized by opposition to President Donald Trump.

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The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tom Downing/WITF)

While Raja still won many traditional GOP bastions, like Jefferson Hills and Peters Township, there were shifts in many places. Arnet didn't win a single precinct in Pleasant Hills, for example; Iovino captured most of the districts in the community, which has seen renewed interested in Democratic politics in the past few years.  

And Kelly's union members were particularly active door-knocking in communities like Bethel Park and Whitehall, where residents are middle-class but not necessarily professional class, and where votes are up for grabs. Iovino did well in those areas, winning most Whitehall precincts, sometimes by sizable margins. 

Iovino had ample financial support as well. Arnet's effort struggled to get money from Harrisburg Democrats, but Iovino was backed heavily, starting with a half-million dollars from sources tied to Gov. Tom Wolf. 

Democats did have to contend with another dynamic familiar from Lamb's 2018 efforts: a Republican rival who tried to nationalize the race.

Raja's campaign, like that of Lamb challenger Rick Saccone a year ago, tried to link the Democrat to controversial figures or issues on the national stage. One early TV ad depicted Iovino in the company of such hard-left politicians as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Later spots took up the issue of late-term abortion, seizing on a state law passed in New York earlier this year to portray Iovino as an avid supporter of the procedure.

Before results began coming in Tuesday, many Democrats privately expressed concern that the abortion attacks might prove effective, given the visceral nature of the issue. Republicans have signaled a willingness to use it in national races next year. But it wasn't enough to reverse the outcome Tuesday night, Iovino noted.

"My area of expertise doesn't lie in knowing how much an issue drives voter behavior," she said after her victory. "It didn't work this time is all I know for certain."

"The Republicans nationalize every race, and I think this race was a good example of it not working," said Nancy Patton Mills, who hails from Moon Township and who chairs the state Democratic Party. Efforts to link candidates like Lamb to Nancy Pelosi failed last year, she said, and this year "the abortion issue was ugly. But I think people are very, very tired of wedge issues. They're looking at healthcare, jobs and education."

At Raja's election-night event in Upper St. Clair, meanwhile, Republicans grappled with the defeat.

Some party members had hoped to nominate Marine Corps veteran Devlin Robinson, warning that Raja was likely to reprise his 2012 loss to Matt Smith for the same Senate seat. But party leaders had urged the GOP to line up behind Raja, who chairs the GOP's county committee, in part because of his deep pockets: He spent more then $1.2 million of his own money on the bid, and has spent over $4 million combined on unsuccessful campaigns.

The party hailed his commitment Tuesday. "Raja poured every effort into this race and we are proud of everything he's done," said Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the state Republican Party. "We'll be reviewing results and our strategy here and look to learn from everything that happened."

Other Republicans said Raja never countered Iovino's own attacks against him, which focused on years-old controversies involving his consulting firm's treatment of workers.

"I think the negative commercials hurt Raja," said Sam DeMarco, the Republican at-large member of Allegheny County Council. The attacks were, he noted, similar to those used against Raja both in his 2012 state Senate run and in a 2011 campaign for County Executive.

And Republicans, DeMarco lamented, could have made better use of Iovino's vulnerabilities, depicting her as too left-leaning for the district. "She wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour but had no answer for the 35,000 people who would lose their jobs, according to the independent fiscal office who would lose their jobs," he said. "All these things she talked about, she could have been attacked upon -- [they were] never exploited."

"At this point I don't think anyone really knows Pam Iovino" much beyond her military service, DeMarco added. "And this region loves to support our veterans."

Iovino, who served over two decades in the Navy, said she hopes for a spot on the Veterans and Emergency Preparedness committees: "I have a little background in both those areas." An early priority for her, she said, would be health care. "Voters are really concerned about protecting their health care and access to it."

It remains to be seen how much progress she will make: The Senate remains in Republican hands. But Democrats said that Iovino's win had confirmed the wisdom of an approach of tailoring their candidates and issues to the district. And while the party needs to capture three more seats to gain operational control of the Senate next year, officials said Iovino's win - in a district traditionally held by the GOP - augured well for their prospects.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, who holds the Senate district next door to Iovino's, noted that Democrats remained in the minority. But, he said, an immediate impact of Tuesday night's events was "momentum. This is a district that's majority Republican. When you have someone like her win, it's that much easier to recruit candidates and raise money."

Lucy Perkins contributed reporting to this story.

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