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In low-turnout Pa. primary, location and luck may have mattered more than policy

A sign reading "Countdown until election day: 0 Days" in an office.
Matt Smith
For Spotlight PA
A sign displayed in the hallway at Northampton County Courthouse in Easton, Pennsylvania, on primary Election Day 2024.

Location, reputation, demographics, and pure luck may have mattered more than policy differences in Pennsylvania’s row office primary elections this week.

Tuesday saw a major upset in the Democratic race for state treasurer and a decisive win in a crowded Democratic attorney general field by a candidate who brought statewide name recognition — but not much cash — to the race.

With the fields settled for November’s marquee presidential and U.S. Senate races, turnout for the Democratic and Republican primaries was low, according to election administrators. The voters who did show up often said they felt unprepared and uninspired.

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Susan Moore, a 79-year-old Democratic voter in Coatesville, told Spotlight PA she tries to vote every year but “almost forgot about it” this time.

She said voting rights, women’s rights including abortion access, keeping Medicare and Social Security intact, and health care are her top priorities. Leaving the polls Tuesday, Moore named two local lawmakers she likes: state Rep. Dan Williams and U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who both had uncontested primaries. But she didn’t recall who she had cast a vote for in the contested attorney general's race.

"Usually I try to know a little bit more,” she said.

In such a low-information environment, unexpected things happen, political observers told Spotlight PA. That includes the night's biggest surprise: the upset win by Erin McClelland, a small businessperson and former project manager for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, over party-endorsed state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of Erie County for the Democratic nomination for treasurer.

The margin of victory — 54% to 46%, according to unofficial election returns — was even somewhat shocking to McClelland herself.

“The stars couldn’t have aligned more perfectly,” she said Wednesday in an interview with Spotlight PA.

A low-key election allows another old-school factor to influence Pennsylvania’s results, said Ben Forstate, an Allegheny County-based Democratic political operative: regionalism.

“In low-information primaries in Pennsylvania, geography is still supreme,” Forstate told Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvanians’ ballots include a candidate’s home county, and the result of this quirk can be seen throughout each major party’s contested row office races. All but one candidate won their home county.

That helps explain why, in the crowded five-way Democratic primary for attorney general, the win went to the candidate who recently had the least cash on hand: former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale of Allegheny County.

He received nearly 36% of the statewide vote, according to unofficial returns, with his next-closest opponent, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, capturing just over 20%.

DePasquale was the sole candidate who had previously won statewide office — he did so twice — and benefited from being the only contender who was not based in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The former auditor general won much of central and western Pennsylvania, Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based Democratic political operative, told Spotlight PA. “It’s fascinating he had all that territory to himself.”

The outcome of the Democratic race for auditor general was less surprising, with party-endorsed state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia easily beating Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley by a margin of 64% to 36%, according to unofficial results.

The Republican row office races were less contentious. The races for treasurer and auditor general both featured uncontested GOP incumbents seeking reelection: Stacy Garrity and Tim DeFoor, respectively.

Unofficial results show that in the contested GOP primary for attorney general, party-backed candidate Dave Sunday, the York County district attorney, easily dispatched state Rep. Craig Williams 70% to 30%. Williams carried only his native Delaware County.

“Having support from different parts of the party, different areas of the party, different regions is just a wonderful thing,” said Sunday, whose campaign was financially supported by many GOP power players.

The establishment support appeared to matter as voters made decisions in the low-information race.

Joanne Dissinger, an 84-year-old voter in Lancaster County, said she voted for Sunday after she received a mailer advising her to vote for him and her local state representative, Bryan Cutler.

The mail led her to believe Cutler, whom she supports, had endorsed Sunday. However, Cutler had endorsed Williams, which surprised her.

Sarah Martin, a registered Republican and self-described “libertarian conservative” in Coatesville, said she felt unprepared and found it hard to find information on the candidates.

However, she voted for Sunday after taking advice from “friends whose opinion mattered.”

A campaign sign for Ryan Bizzarro.
Matt Smith
For Spotlight PA
A campaign sign for Ryan Bizzarro at Forks Township Community Center in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, on primary Election Day 2024.

‘She went everywhere’

From the start, McClelland was running from behind.

Bizzarro’s list of endorsements, displayed prominently on his campaign website, was a who’s who of state Democratic politics. He also snagged the state Democratic Party’s endorsement late last year, setting the stage for him to be the front-runner in the primary.

He also raised almost five times as much money as McClelland: just shy of $500,000 to her $107,133, as of April 8 — with $100,000 of that being money she lent to her campaign.

“It was virtually impossible to raise money,” she said Wednesday, noting that she relied on a loyal army of volunteers rather than paid staff to help her campaign.

Bizzarro had far more cash in the bank to get his message out to voters, outspending McClelland almost 15:1 since the start of the year, according to campaign finance reports.

Still, despite his day job as a member of the General Assembly, Bizzarro, like McClelland, did not have statewide name recognition. McClelland argues that ended up working in her favor.

Both her gender and her Irish last name, she said, likely also helped her with voters who knew little about the race, the office, or the candidates.

“When a person who knows nothing about this race, hasn't heard much about him or me, goes in to vote and sees those two names, what is their visceral reaction going to be?” McClelland said.

Part of McClelland’s strategy, which she believes ended up paying off, was “prodding” Bizzarro on social media, where his at times mercurial posts were a frequent topic of conversation within her campaign.

“When you have two degrees in psychology, game theory comes into play,” said McClelland, referencing the practice of analyzing conflicting interests to gain an advantage.

Bizzarro did not respond to a request for comment. In an email, campaign spokesperson Bud Jackson said the representative was leaving “post-campaign analysis” to the pundits. In an election night statement, Bizzarro simply congratulated “all of tonight's winners” and thanked his supporters.

“While the results were not what I expected or hoped for, I respect the voters’ choice,” he added.

Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist who wasn’t involved in the race, said he thought gender and geography were the biggest factors in McClelland’s win. Since around the time former President Donald Trump became a major figure in politics, he said, “Democratic voters are enthusiastic about voting for a woman.”

Plus, he added, in “low-information races” voters tend to “look for other factors, and having the county next to your name on the ballot is a big advantage. If you're from a larger county and your opponent’s from a smaller county, I think that probably had the most to do with what happened.”

In the end, McClelland garnered more votes than Bizzarro in 53 out of 67 counties, according to unofficial results, faring particularly well in her home district of Allegheny County, as well as its neighbors. She also won in the state’s northeastern counties, an advantage that helped her overcome Bizzarro’s resounding wins in Erie County and in Philadelphia and most of its suburbs.

Chuck Pascal, who chaired McClelland’s campaign and considers her a friend, said she worked hard for the win.

“She went everywhere,” he said of her work ethic and campaign style. “She traveled all over the state.”

Voters tend to focus more on up-ballot contests such as those for president and Congress, rather than for state treasurer. This year’s race between Bizzarro and McClelland, despite the surprising outcome, was no exception.

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University who studies women in politics, told Spotlight PA that all things equal, voters — particularly Democrats — increasingly will back a female candidate over a male candidate when they know little about either.

The same dynamic may have helped incumbent GOP state Treasurer Garrity’s upset win in 2020 over Democratic incumbent Joe Torsella, Sweet-Cushman added.

But McClelland also barnstormed the state — her campaign expenses are mostly gas station receipts and small dollar donations to local political committees — with a message focused on the office rather than national politics.

In a late digital campaign ad, McClelland highlighted cybersecurity and “Republicans declaring war on public pensions and workers.” She also campaigned on prioritizing domestic over foreign investments.

“In a race where nobody knows what the treasurer does — nobody knows how important that may or may not be — she made it salient to what was going on in the world,” Sweet-Cushman said, “and probably in some sense, people got invested in her by doing so.”

In contrast, Bizzarro focused on Garrity’s opposition to abortion and criticized her for attending a pro-Trump rally at the state Capitol the day before the Jan. 6 insurrection. He also attacked McClelland for mistakes in her campaign finance filings, and a handful of previous unsuccessful runs for other elected offices.

Garrity’s campaign picked up on the latter talking point in a statement Tuesday night, saying McClelland is a “perennial candidate in search of a spot on the public payroll” with proposals that are “weird at best.”

In the AG race, a ‘massive advantage’

From the start of 2023 until April 8 of this year, DePasquale spent the second-least out of the five-person Democratic field, at almost $460,000. Only former Philadelphia chief public defender Keir Bradford-Grey spent less.

Meanwhile, the top spender — state Rep. Jared Solomon of Philadelphia — poured $1.4 million into the race, including $964,000 on TV ads. He still finished last, earning 13% of the vote statewide according to unofficial results.

“What it tells me is that Eugene started off with a massive advantage,” Democratic strategist Mikus said. “Even though the other candidates were able to raise a decent amount of money and were able to get on television, they weren't able to communicate at the levels needed to dramatically alter the race.”

It’s expensive to communicate across a state as big as Pennsylvania, he added: “You’re talking a million dollars a week.”

Speaking to Spotlight PA reporters, voters confirmed that familiarity was a factor.

Outside the Fox Chase Library in northeast Philadelphia, Michael Hannum, a Democrat and lawyer, said he thinks DePasquale “has a proven track record of standing up against corruption and calling out people in positions of power.”

He liked Solomon too, but added, “This is kind of one of those weird situations where it's like, I kind of want you to stay where you're at” as a state representative.

As auditor general, DePasquale held frequent news conferences and made a point of undertaking special investigations, often on politically potent matters.

Over the years, these included reviews of state contractors’ use of Medicaid dollars, an audit of an anti-abortion group that received state money, a report on the revenue Pennsylvania could generate by legalizing recreational marijuana, and an audit that touched off a long-term effort to cut down on a backlog of untested rape kits.

Carver Murphy, DePasquale’s campaign manager, said he also thought this history gave voters positive associations that carried the candidate’s strong performance outside of Philadelphia and its suburbs.

“When people are reminded that Eugene's in the race … they remember they like Eugene and they want to vote for him,” Murphy told Spotlight PA.

The Pennsylvania Department of State had not released turnout estimates as of Thursday, but both major parties have acknowledged it was low, an observation echoed by unofficial analysis. Insiders and experts say they expect interest will pick up with the presidency on the line in November.

Meanwhile, the candidates are already previewing their messaging for the general election.

“This November is going to be, at pretty much every level, about protecting our democracy, protecting women's right to choose,” Murphy told Spotlight PA, “and the attorney general's office is front and center in that battle.”

Republican Sunday said his focus heading into the general election is to campaign on his record in York County, including reducing gun violence and addressing the opioid crisis while providing second chances.

“I think that our job is to get people excited, to get them fired up and get them out to the polls,” Sunday told Spotlight PA. “Our democracy functions when people go out to vote, and that's what we have to do.”

Spotlight PA’s Kate Huangpu contributed reporting.

90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at