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Politics & Government

Tuesday Special Election Has Implications For 2020, No Matter Who Wins

Matt Rourke

Residents in the airport area and South Hills will vote in a special election Tuesday, choosing a state Senator in the 37th district to replace Guy Reschenthaler, who went to Congress earlier this year. The winner will represent them through the end of 2020 -- and the race itself may shape many other election contests that year.

Pollster Chris Borick says the race will be closely watched, in part because it’s the only game in town – but mostly because it involves the suburbs, where votes are up for grabs.

“There’s a reason suburbs are so coveted: It’s because elected candidates have a fighting chance there, no matter what their party. [And] people are looking to get some hints about where the mood of the electorate is."

Control of the Senate, like control of the House, is firmly in the hands of Republicans, who currently hold a 26-to-21 edge (with three vacancies) in the upper chamber. But if Democrat Pam Iovino beats Republican D. Raja, Dems will cite it as a good omen for 2020, when they hope to mount strong challenges in Erie and elsewhere.

They are investing heavily in Iovino, a former Naval officer who later worked on veteran’s affairs. As of late last week, she’d raised roughly $1.5 million from allies inside and outside the district. Late-breaking support from groups that included a $125,000 contribution from a Philadelphia trial-lawyers group joined earlier sums from Gov. Tom Wolf and other Democrats -- who turned out for a Friday-afternoon get-out-the-vote rally last week. Teachers and other unions also made five-digit contributions.

There is reason for Democratic optimism. Last year, Conor Lamb eked out a narrow victory in a special Congressional election in the area. Lamb did it by running up huge margins against Republican Rick Saccone in the South Hills, with help from suburban activists who rose up after the election of Donald Trump.

Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh professor who has studied suburban politics in the Trump Era, said "The grassroots stalwarts are 100 percent all in on this race. And they have been since before Pam Iovino was chosen as candidate."

But Raja has his champions, too. In recent days, district households have been blanketed with mailings from Raja-supporting groups like Firearm Owners Against Crime – a staunch foe of gun-control regulations – and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, whose mailers have hailed his low-tax agenda.

And while he hasn’t seen the kind of support from Harrisburg that Iovino has, he has made up for that with his own deep pockets. As of Thursday, he'd invested over $1.2 million of his own money in the race.

Attacks from a long time ago, and districts far away

The campaign has been fought along familiar lines: Iovino favors a tax on natural gas drilling, for example, which Raja opposes. Iovino favors the legalization of recreational marijuana use while opposing the privatization of the state liquor store system; Raja takes the opposite position on both those questions, and seems less enthusiastic about a minimum wage hike than his rival. Raja has signaled a willingness to follow other states in raising the minimum wage, while Iovino favors a full $15 per hour hike. 

But the airwaves have been dominated by negative attacks – often focusing on issues from a long time ago, or in a contest far, far away.

Iovino’s campaign, for example, has blasted Raja for business practices that date back nearly two decades. One ad faults his firm, software consultant Computer Enterprises, Inc., for having to pay over $133,000 in back pay to 75 employees, after a dispute with the Department of Labor in 2002.

Records show that almost all of that money stemmed from a legal dispute about whether workers should be classified as eligible for overtime or not. A records request to the Department confirms that the firm has had no labor citations since 2002.

Another attack on Raja faults his company for filing lawsuits against over 80 employees. Most of the suits date back 20 years, and the last appears to have been filed in 2009. Raja says his firm sued a small portion of employees – those who violated their contracts by quitting in the middle of a job without adequate notice. That, Raja says, left clients high and dry.

The Raja campaign, meanwhile, has blasted Iovino for things other Democrats have done, contending in one ad that she “stands with extremists who celebrate and defend New York’s radical late-term abortion law.”

Passed earlier this year, New York’s law eases some restrictions on obtaining late-term abortions. Republicans nationwide have seized on New York’s law – and a moribund bill in Virginia – to blast Democrats as champions of the procedure.

Late-term abortions are rare, and observers have said GOP attacks on New York’s law are often exaggerated. Some provisions of the law changed prior state rules that violated Roe v. Wade, the landmark court case that guaranteed a right to an abortion. The state previously only allowed late-term abortions to protect a woman’s life, for example. It now allows the procedure to protect her health as well, and eliminates the need for a second doctor’s opinion. It also allows medical professionals who aren’t doctors to perform the procedure.

Iovino supports abortion rights, and is backed by Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading abortion provider. (The group gave her campaign $5,000 as recently as March 19.) She hasn’t taken a position on the law in New York, and her campaign said she wouldn’t discuss hypothetical bills.

Pennsylvania already allows abortion after 24 weeks if there is a risk to the mother’s health. But while New York’s law doesn’t define the severity of that risk, in Pennsylvania the threat must represent “the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.” At least in theory, that requirement could be eased, and the state could copy other New York revisions, like eliminating the need for a second doctor to approve of, and be on hand for, a late-term abortion.

That's unlikely, at least given Republican control of the state legislature. But Borick says the attacks are likely a precursor of what voters can expect in a number of elections next year.

“Republicans are trying to take some of these high-profile debates and parlay it into portraying Democrats as too extreme,” agreed Borick. “I think what you’re seeing is in some ways a preview of what you’ll see in the 2020 election cycle.”

'An Interesting Test'

“Some progressive voters tend to dismiss the emotional potency of these claims,” Putnam said of the abortion issue. “I actually think Democrats are undercounting how important that message is going to be in the suburbs for the next two years.”

In any case, she said, the race will be “an interesting test case of the suburbs’ new willingness to vote Democratic” in the age of Donald Trump.

Democrats party missed out on a number of chances to flip state legislative seats that were open last year: Republicans held open state House seats in both the South Hills and the airport area, for example. The only Democratic pickup was in the 38th state Senate seat won by Lindsey Williams – and that victory relied on a swath of city voters drawn into a largely suburban district.

Putnam surmised that the suburbs are being roiled by a number of conflicting trends. A long-term shift of traditionally Democratic working-class voters toward the GOP, she said, was being countered by a newer trend: suburban whites who saw themselves as moderate Republicans, and who were appalled by Trump.

“Those same voters, when making their choice for governor or Congress, were firmly pushing back against the national GOP,” she said. “But it seems like at the state House and Senate level, they were eager to be able to say, ‘Well, I vote for the person, not the party.’”

“This is a battleground race, and there’s every reason to think it should be winnable by the right Democrat,” she added. “There is also every reason to think, looking at the results from last November, that it’s not a done deal.”