Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Dog-Whistle Politics: How Getting The Dog Vote Can Help Candidates Running For Office

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Lou Barletta talks with Hamill Executive Bill Bretz. Reilly looks on.

Warning: This story contains dog puns.



It’s the dog days of summer, and both Republicans and Democrats are embracing pet causes to win voters.


Earlier this month, for example, U.S. Congressman Lou Barletta kicked off his Senate campaign's Red White and Lou bus tour, riding a tour bus with his campaign team and his trusty dog, Reilly.


Credit Lucy Perkins / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Lou Barletta's tour bus, featuring Reilly.

The Republican candidate’s English Cream Golden Retriever dog is a central member of Barletta’s campaign staff. He's featured prominently on the side of Barletta’s tour bus, and has been spotted with the candidate all over the state -- and that’s no accident.


“[Barletta] obviously wants people to know that he’s a dog lover,” said Republican political consultant Charlie Gerow of Quantum Communications. “It’s a human connection. It says to people, 'I’ve got a heart, I’m a compassionate person. I love my dog.'”


Laws that protect pets are popular for the same reason. According to the Humane Society, between 100 and 150 laws protecting animals are passed in state legislatures around the country every year.


Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government have supported laws to put an end to animal cruelty. State Rep. Jason Ortitay, a Republican facing opposition in suburban Pittsburgh's 46 District, is backing a bill to ban puppy mills. State Senator Guy Reschenthaler, who is running for Congress in the newly drawn 14th Congressional District, is backing similar legislation in the Senate.


“Every lawmaker, every politician loves an issue where there isn’t a lot of opposition to it,” said Gerow.


But sometimes lawmakers go barking up the wrong tree. During the lead-up to the Republican primary this past spring, Gerow recalled, "There was actually a little bit of a comical dustup, because the media consultant for both Lou Barletta and [Republican gubernatorial contender] Paul Mango had almost identical pictures of them, with their dogs out in the field."


State Representative Rick Saccone, meanwhile, voted against Libre’s Law, a bill that proposed cracking down on animal abuse. The Republican state lawmaker was one of just 20 "no" votes in the entire legislature. Saccone says that while he loves animals,  he was worried about the effect the law would have on the farming community in his district. But that decision really sent him to the dog house with voters.


“People would call me, they’d leave vulgar, vile comments on my cell phone,” said Saccone. “We were accosted in public places by animal rights activists, my wife and I. [They were] screaming at us, telling us we wanted to hurt animals ... and saying this is what I was for.”


In the special election this spring, Saccone said the Lamb campaign highlighted the Libre vote -- a move that Saccone said probably hurt him in such a close race.


“I’m sure there’s a certain segment of people that that probably affected and probably affected their vote,” Saccone said.


Conor Lamb was endorsed by the Humane Society, and posted his photos with puppies and dogs online in early March.



Lamb continued to tout his canine connection on Twitter after the election.


Lamb is now running against Keith Rothfus in the new 17th Congressional District. Democratic state House candidate Emily Skopov, who's seeking to represent a swath of the same area in the state House, says dogs can bridge political divides in her staunchly Republican North Hills district.

“It’s a weird thing but if their dog sort of vets me -- no pun intended -- if the dogs are comfortable around me, it actually sets people at ease,” Skopov said. “They know I’m not there to be combative.”


Skopov wants to unseat Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai in November. She says getting a dog’s approval is really useful when she’s door knocking, especially in a district that historically has been conservative.


“You know, everybody’s talking about -- 'Oh I’m sorry my dog’s jumping on you,' or 'Oh my dog was sick.' It really crosses all barriers,” she said.


Skopov was endorsed by the Humane Society, and supports legislation against animal cruelty. She and her family have rescued three dogs and two cats.


Which raises a question: Why don’t we see politicians hugging cats on the campaign trail?


“The poor cats!” said Charlie Gerow. “I’m a dog guy myself, but I know those who love cats take it very very seriously and you know, the connection’s the same.”


Maybe that means we’ll see more politicians walking their cats through county fairs in the future.