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While all eyes are on Lee’s district, challengers are preparing to take on Deluzio and Reschenthaler

A family passes a snowman as they walk toward the sledding hill at the U.S. Capitol.
Jacquelyn Martin
A family passes a snowman as they walk toward the sledding hill at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

We all know where this is headed, if there was ever any doubt. After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump is all but assured of being the Republican presidential nominee for the third election running. President Joe Biden secured a victory in New Hampshire as well, after a write-in campaign gave him his best finish in its primary, even though he wasn’t on the ballot. (Maybe he should have tried that before?)

And so while the primaries will clunk along for months, Americans seem fated to decide an election match-up everyone thought was inevitable, but that no one seems to want.

But look on the bright side: While the title fight may be wrapped up by Pennsylvania’s April 23rd primary, there will be primary battles — including bids for offices like state attorney general and Congress — where voters can have an impact.

The one getting the most attention locally, of course, is Summer Lee’s re-election fight in the 12th Congressional District’s Democratic primary.

Sure, right now it’s in the phase where headlines focus on stuff like fundraising totals: Lee just announced raising $1 million in the last three months of 2023 — a prodigious sum. Rival Bhavini Patel previously announced a total of $310,000, an impressive total in its own right. But the nuances within those numbers — like how much of the money came from inside the district itself — aren’t yet available.

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But things kick off in earnest at 2 p.m. Sunday, when a slew of Democratic groups host the candidates for the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum at Carnegie Mellon University’s Jared L. Cohon University Center. (Yes, I’m serving as a moderator. But you might learn something about the candidates anyway!)

Meanwhile, area Republicans may get a contested Congressional primary as well — in the District 17 Congressional seat currently held by Democrat Chris Deluzio. State Rep. Rob Mercuri is the odds-on favorite to be the GOP’s challenger, but at least one Republican hopes to offer an alternative.

“I’m running because the country is dying. I don’t know how else I could sum that up,” said Jesse James Vodvarka, who may have the best name in this election cycle.

Vodvarka said he has nothing against Mercuri personally, but “there needs to be a conversation” in the Republican Party. “There’s a divide: You have ground-level people doing a lot of [political] work, and then you have the political establishment that chooses who they get as candidates. I think the people deserve to see different candidates, not just have the party say, 'This is your guy.'”

Vodvarka’s family owns a business that manufactures springs and wireforms. While business is “actually not too bad these days, he said he worries about the future of manufacturing: “I want to support Donald Trump and his trade policies,” he said.

If Vodvarka’s name sounds familiar and you aren’t in the market for wireforms, it may be because the other family business is politics. Vodvarka’s father, Joseph, has been a repeat candidate for U.S. Senate, and hopes to take on Bob Casey this November. Doing so will require going through GOP frontrunner Dave McCormick, the Army veteran and former hedge fund executive who is making a second bid of his own this year.

“If we can both get on the ballot, that will be a really dynamic situation,” said the younger Vodvarka.

That could be a big “if”: Joseph Vodvarka has struggled in the past to meet state petition requirements. The younger Vodvarka had to withdraw from a 2020 Congressional bid for the same seat, due to petition problems of his own.

“That was a painful experience,” he recalled. “You have a few weeks to get on the ballot in the middle of winter.”

Such setbacks have made the Vodvarkas a rare kind of political dynasty — the kind that has yet to hold high elected office. But as Vodvarka said, “If anything is worth fighting for, it’s America.”

That’s a sentiment shared, from the other end of the spectrum and the other side of the region, by Democrat Ken Bach. He’s one of three Democrats — the others are Chris Dziados and Kimberly Felan — who have filed paperwork to challenge Guy Reschenthaler in the 14th District. Reschenthaler is the prohibitive favorite no matter which Democrat is nominated, but for his part Bach says his campaign is part of an effort “to build the Democratic Party from the foundation up, so we can represent the people, not big donors.”

Democrats are unlikely to have the temptation of big money in the deeply red 14th. Given past election performance by other Democrats, Bach said, “If I was in charge, I would struggle to give me money too.”

But citizens have to look to themselves for answers in any case, he added. “So many people want to elect a king figure to fix our issues, but our country is set up so that we have to do that” work for ourselves.

And for all their differences, both Bach and Vodvarka echo a sentiment that appears to be widespread: the conviction that our democracy is at stake, combined with the misgivings that our politics haven’t been up to the crisis.

At such times, it’s hard to remember that just as Trump and Biden were once cute little infants, Reschenthaler was at one time an adorable baby-faced state Senator. What happens in Harrisburg, and who we send to it, doesn’t always stay there. There are a couple legislative primary fights shaping up already this spring — looking at you, state House Districts 32 and 38! — and the stakes in a competitive attorney general race are huge. For one thing, the last guy elected to that office is now a governor and a potential 2028 presidential candidate himself.

And the next time you find yourself wanting to vote for “none of the above,” you won’t want it to be because you long ignored the choices offered below.

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.