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Pitt Prof: Primary Will Reflect And Reshape Political Landscape

Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump points to the crowd during the 37th annual National Peace Officers Memorial Service on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, in Washington.

Today’s primary ballot allows voters to pick their champions in races for governor and U.S. Senator on down. But University of Pittsburgh political science professor Kristin Kanthak argues what’s at stake this year isn’t just the identities of the candidates–but of the parties themselves.

“All of the political trends and stories that are going on in the United States–Pennsylvania is a microcosm of that, and these races are a microcosm of Pennsylvania,” she said.

Politicians in both parties are wrestling with how the political landscape is being redefined, both by a Congressional redistricting ordered by the state Supreme Court and by President Donald Trump. Should Republicans emulate his style? How hard should Democrats resist his policies? Is there still a place for a political establishment, and what is it?

"There's a lot of dogfights out there” in this year’s primaries, she said. “There's this kind of insider/outsider dynamic in a lot of these races,” with an unusually high number of incumbents facing challenges from within their own parties. “Our political parties, both in Pennsylvania and nationally, are at this state of flux."

Statewide, the race that has drawn the most attention has been the Republican gubernatorial primary, where health care consultant Paul Mango and attorney Laura Ellsworth, both of Allegheny County, are competing with state Senator Scott Wagner of York. The winner will take on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf this fall.

Kanthak said she’s been struck by Mango’s blistering attacks on Wagner, which have featured TV ads in which Mango depicts Wagner as a slumlord and scofflaw. If those attacks succeed, she said, “One thing could be that it means that voters really like negativity, because that’s something that Trump has gotten a lot of traction from.”

But the special election in March, Kanthak argued, suggested the reverse. In a bid to replace Congressman Tim Murphy, Republican Rick Saccone lost a heavily Republican district to Conor Lamb, despite–or perhaps, because of–more than $10 million in outside money.

Ads paid for by outside groups were almost universally negative, and Kanthak said she thinks that hurt Saccone, "which is sort of unfortunate, because it wasn’t Saccone’s choice to air them.”

"I’m interested in seeing what happens once you take out all the money and the national attention and it becomes a regular U.S. House race. It really could cut both ways," she said. "Saccone had an apparatus up and the name recognition from the special election, but there’s also the argument that he had a shot and lost, so let’s give someone else a chance."

Kanthak said she's also paying close attention to two state House races around Pittsburgh. State Reps. Dom Costa and Paul Costa are both facing spirited challenges from fellow Democrats, by progressive women Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee. Kanthak said that race could test whether Pittsburgh, which has undergone tremendous social changes, is ready for new political leadership.

"The idea that any Costa would be in trouble is surprising. … That's telling me something about how the city of Pittsburgh is changing. These are not the same kind of voters that they've had before. "