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Zappala wins GOP write-in bid, setting up potential November rematch

Matt Dugan and Stephen Zappala.
Dugan campaign; Keith Srakocic
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. (right) appears to have another chance to take on Matt Dugan (left) who bested him in the Democratic primary.

One week after losing the Democratic Primary, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has a chance for a retrial: As many political observers expected, he has secured enough write-in ballots on the Republican ticket to be the GOP nominee in November.

That would set Zappala up for a rematch against Matt Dugan, Allegheny County’s chief public defender, who bested him easily by running on a criminal justice-reform platform.

Zappala secured 9,697 write-in votes on the GOP ballot, according to a release from Allegheny County on Tuesday. Dugan himself finished second on the GOP ticket, with 636 write-in votes. (Vote totals are likely to change as provisional and other ballots are added to the total.)

State law generally prohibits candidates who’ve lost primary races from running again in the general. But there is a loophole in the so-called “sore loser law:” If voters themselves write in a candidate’s name, the candidate can get a second bite of the apple if the candidate is the top vote-getter and receives the minimum number of votes cast (500 for the DA's race).

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Zappala will be formally notified by the county of his eligibility to be the Republican nominee. He can either accept or decline the position. (If he declines, the nod would go to the next candidate eligible — which in this case would be Dugan.) His campaign said he was “very likely to run through November” on Tuesday, and he certainly sounded on primary night like that was his intention.

“I’m learning as the Democratic Party evolves,” he said in conceding his loss. “But I’ll tell you what I think — if we stick around until November, we can kick some ass and take some names.”

Zappala’s write-in success was widely expected among politicos, and the chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, Sam DeMarco, openly urged his voters to back Zappala.

The Dugan campaign responded with a statement calling it “disappointing though unsurprising that Mr. Zappala is showing his true colors by entertaining a bid as the Republican nominee, but we look forward to beating him again in November should he choose to accept his Republican friends’ nomination.”

The county announced that two other Republicans had earned enough votes to run countywide against Democrats this November. Bob Howard received more than 10,000 votes to challenge incumbent county controller Corey O’Connor, and Herb Ohliger will challenge Democrat Erica Rocchi Brusselars for the county treasurer post, which is being vacated by longtime incumbent John Weinstein.

Weinstein decided to run for county executive, and there was some speculation that he would mount a GOP write-in bid for the treasurer post as an insurance policy. Both he and Zappala secured write-in nominations in 2019, so they were both the Democrat and the Republican candidates on the ballot that fall. But Republican leaders pressed their voters to support Ohliger and Howard, both longtime fixtures in the local GOP who have run countywide before, albeit unsuccessfully.

Democrats have a two-to-one registration advantage in Allegheny County, which would give Dugan a strong advantage going into November. But at least on paper, Zappala might have a friendlier electorate in the fall than he did in the spring. A Campos Pulse survey conducted for WESA suggests that there is a strong, if unsurprising, partisan divide over the best approaches to solving crime.

The survey did not poll voters specifically about the district attorney's race. But when asked where leaders should focus their efforts on public safety, Democrats were far more likely to suggest the kind of alternative and holistic approaches preferred by Dugan and justice-reform advocates. Among Democrats, the most popular solutions involved hiring more non-police first responders such as social workers, and providing economic opportunities and other resources.

Republicans had the opposite priorities: Only about one-fifth said hiring non-police to respond to calls should be a priority, compared to three-fifth of Democrats, and more than half of Republicans said hiring more police was the solution, as compared to fewer than one-fifth of Democrats. Non-affiliated voters fell somewhere between the two major parties.

DeMarco said the GOP was "pleased to see the write-in candidates we supported for county-wide office won overwhelmingly. ... We look forward to running a robust and aggressive campaign to inform the voters of Allegheny County what is at stake in November's election."

Updated: May 23, 2023 at 1:09 PM EDT
This story was updated at 1:08 p.m. on May 23, 2023 to include remarks from Republican Committee of Allegheny County Chair Sam DeMarco.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.