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This week in Pennsylvania politics: surprising polls, ground games, and mail-in ballots

A man in a suit waves
Matt Rourke
Democratic Lt. Gov. Austin Davis departs from the Senate chambers after becoming Pennsylvania's first Black lieutenant governor, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

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.

A lot of political coverage focuses on things that can be measured, such as poll results or fundraising totals, even if it’s unclear how important they are. It’s harder to assess the strength of a good ground game or a candidate’s work ethic, but those matter, too. As Republican political consultant Karl Rove put it, “They stack the odds, still we take to the street for the kill, with the will to survive.”

Or wait, maybe that was 1980s band Survivor. I’m always getting these guys mixed up. And maybe it’s all just vibes now. Is Donald Trump really pulling even with Joe Biden among voters under 35, as a CNN poll of Pennsylvania contends? Is Biden actually ahead of Trump by two-to-one in northwest Pennsylvania — a bigger margin than a Susquehanna poll shows him holding in Allegheny County?

Such uncertainty is why a common political maxim is that if you’re not running unopposed, run scared.

Congresswoman Summer Lee’s activity amid her bid for re-election, for example, appears to be outstripping the ability of local newsrooms to keep up. On Wednesday, I was the only local reporter on hand as she welcomed Robin Carnahan, the Biden appointee who heads the agency that oversees federal property.

Carnahan was announcing $16 million in improvements to the federal courthouse on Grant Street, and Lee has made such investments a key part of her pitch to voters. When I observed that Lee would no doubt be boasting of this project too, she countered that the money was “brought in, truly, by the work of the administration, by the investments that they’re making. We’re obviously excited.”

Lee has been accused by her Democratic rival, Bhavini Patel, of being insufficiently loyal to Biden, partly because she was the only local House member to vote against a $1.2 trillion spending bill that averted a government shutdown. (“Democrats have to stick together, but today Summer Lee decided to vote with fringe extremists against our party, and it hurts us all,” Patel said.)

When I asked how she squared support for government spending with that vote, Lee said she was “proud of the ways in which the Democratic caucus and our administration fought back against some of the worst instincts that the Republicans had.” But she said it was still a GOP-drafted bill that included “cuts to labor [and] education, and all those things are truly concerning for me.”

Such justifications may not satisfy Lee critics. But Democrats are hoping that voters, too, will find things to admire in Biden despite frustrations, and that investments in Western Pennsylvania will pay off this November.

Which is why Biden’s campaign opened its first local headquarters in East Liberty last weekend — a month before a primary in which its victory is assured. It’s a move consistent with a broader message Biden has been sending to political journalists: Dems are focused on raising money and deploying a ground game, while Donald Trump struggles with courtroom fights and his caps lock key.

By itself, opening an office may not grab much attention because the energy inside the space is what matters. And the crowd on hand Saturday skewed toward an older demographic you’d expect to connect with young voters about as well as, say, the 1980s band Survivor.

But I was reliably informed that at least one contingent of College Democrats was already out knocking doors for a state House candidate that morning. And Saturday’s event was attended by Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, who told me that opening the office so early “sends a message [that] this is a state [where] we’re not taking anything for granted. And that we have … to make sure that we have that long line of infrastructure that we’re going to need.”

Republicans haven’t been idle either: Voter registration statistics show they’ve been eating into a longstanding Democratic registration advantage. (So far this year, they’ve converted twice as many voters to their party’s cause as Democrats have.) And while some of those party-switchers had probably been voting Republican anyway, Democrats got word of a new challenge days after the Biden office opened: A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a requirement for mail-in ballots that could consign thousands of Democratic ballots to the trash this fall.

State and federal courts have gone back and forth on whether it’s fair to disallow a ballot if its return envelope isn’t marked with the date. That requirement is in the 2019 state law that established mail-in voting … but critics say it serves only to dismiss otherwise legitimate votes. A federal judge agreed last year, but Republicans got that decision reversed on Wednesday.

In a 2-1 opinion, the appeals court actually agreed that requiring the date is a pretty stupid rule: “The date requirement, it turns out, serves little apparent purpose,” its opinion asserts in the first paragraph.

But if it weren’t for pointless rules, God would never have given us state legislatures. And the court majority also found that while the requirement might be dopey, it wasn’t in the same category as measures such as literacy tests, which have been used to keep Black voters away from the polls. Instead, the majority likened the situation to America’s other cherished ritual: driving. A state may give you a license, it said, but ticket you for running a stop sign you didn’t see.

The conventional wisdom is that this ruling will harm Democrats, who are far more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. (In 2022, Democrats running statewide received four-to-five times as many mail-in votes as their GOP rivals.) More broadly, lamented voting-rights advocacy group Common Cause, “This ruling will undoubtedly have a negative impact on elderly voters and voters of color.” An appeal is possible, but in any case “We will work with partners to ensure that voters … know how to make sure their votes are counted.”

That is the kind of groundwork that can decide elections. And it doesn’t show up in polls.

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.