Local Democrats and Republicans and gathered a few hours, and a few miles, apart on Sunday to select champions to replace Guy Reschenthaler in the 37th state Senate District.
And while the two parties took different paths, they both ended up backing Mt. Lebanon residents who were perceived as frontrunners: Democratic Navy veteran Pam Iovino and Republican businessman D. Raja.
In acceptance speeches, both candidates reminded party faithful of the looming April 2 election to fill the seat Reschenthaler left vacant by rising to Congress. Raja pledged that “We are ready to go to hit the ground running,” while Iovino urged Democrats, “Let’s start sprinting.” Each party, however, has already navigated some curves along the way.
Iovino was chosen at a morning gathering of Democratic committee people in the 37th District, which stretches from the airport-area suburbs through the South Hills and into Peters Township. More than 250 committee members, elected or appointed to represent voting districts across the Senate map, convened at a fire hall in Library to make their pick.
They quickly chose Iovino as their champion: She beat emergency room physician Bob Solomon by 137 to 115 on the first ballot. The committee's choice must now be ratified by the state party's executive committee, though that is all but assured.
Iovino is a Navy veteran who later held a top position in the Department of Veteran Affairs. She sought to be the party’s nominee in last year’s special election for the 18th Congressional District, but was bested by the race’s eventual winner, Democrat Conor Lamb.
That experience paid off this time for Iovino, who at the outset had an extensive campaign team. She said the ability to execute strategy would be key to winning the special election itself.
“I believe with a good field organization and a good message, that this seat can be easily flipped back to the Democrats,” she said.
Iovino’s path was cleared when a third candidate, Olivia Benson, made a surprise last-minute withdrawal during a speech before the committee vote. Benson announced that she would run for state Auditor General in 2020 instead.
Benson later told reporters that as late as Sunday morning, she heard from committeepeople who were worried that a black female candidate like herself would struggle in a mostly-white suburban district. She said some committeemembers were simply worried about “not knowing how their neighbors would take it” – but others were unaccustomed to the idea themselves.
“Ahead of [the presidential election in] 2020, that can’t be something the party is facing, especially when it’s probably going to be a woman – and maybe a woman of color – at the top of the ticket," Benson said.
Republicans made their pick later in the day, at a hotel located across the street from the South Hills Village shopping mall. The event was smaller -- only 78 "conferees" chosen by party leaders for the purpose were involved -- and the process conducted behind closed doors, with media sequestered as deliberations took place.
Raja was the first candidate to enter the race, jumping into it roughly six months before Reschenthaler, the incumbent, had won the race for Congress that ultimately left his state seat vacant. He chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, and had support from party leaders. GOP politicos said he would be able to help finance his own bid – an important consideration for a party that expects to be fighting a number of Senate battles through 2020 – while hailing from vote-rich Mt. Lebanon.
But there have also been GOP misgivings over the fact that Raja was perhaps best-known for losing the same Senate seat in 2012, when he was bested by Democrat Matt Smith, and for his failed 2011 county-executive campaign against Rich Fitzgerald.
On Sunday, as the Democratic field shrank, the number of Republicans swelled to a half-dozen, though Raja had only two serious rivals: businessman and Marine veteran Devlin Robinson and North Fayette Township supervisor Bob Doddato.
Raja too won easily on his party's first ballot, garnering 41 votes to Robinson's second-place finish with 27.
After his win, Raja professed to be unconcerned by his previous loss to Smith. “The first thing I’m going to do is sort of define myself. I think the last time what happened is I was being defined by the opposite side.” (He’d also been subjected to bruising—and what some called racially tinged—attacks during a primary battle with former state Rep. Mark Mustio that year.)
“I’m a moderate, but I’m a conservative,” he said. “I am certainly looking to motivate the base to come out.”
Going into Sunday, there had been concerns, especially among Robinson supporters, that the party would select its nominee through an open roll-call vote. The fear was that conferees would be unwilling to buck the candidate backed by party leaders. But Raja himself said he backed using a secret ballot – “I think everybody’s more comfortable” – and conferees quickly agreed to that process.
“The Republican Party is unified in its desire to see that he is successful, to send to Harrisburg someone who can be a check on this governor’s attempt to continue to raise taxes and hurt Pennsylvania’s business climate,” said state party chairman Val DiGiorgio, who was on hand for the selection Sunday.
Democrats, too, expressed optimism. Iovino contrasted the Democratic nomination process -- which involved a series of public debates before Sunday -- with the largely private Republican approach. "Their process is very, very different from our transparent and open process," she said.
Republicans currently hold a 28-to-21 majority in the state Senate. But Democrats picked up a handful of seats last fall, including the 38th district seat in the North Hills won by Democrat Lindsey Williams. And the 37th seat is central to Democratic hopes of erasing the GOP advantage by 2020.
Iovino's bid “will be one of the races that we’ll be investing in,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat who leads his party in the Senate.
Pittsburgh’s suburbs were uncertain territory for both parties last year. Williams won her seat largely because her district included city neighborhoods that turned out heavily for her: Iovino will not have that advantage. Nationwide, Democrats have seen big gains as college-educated suburbs have rejected President Donald Trump and other Republicans. Suburban voters in Pittsburgh too rejected Republicans in the top-of-the-ballot races for Senator and governor last year But down-ballot Republicans – especially Republican women -- fared well in the area, including in state House races that overlay parts of the 37th district.
“I can’t speak to what happened in the House races,” Costa said. But he hailed Iovino's credentials and said her race was “the first step on our path to the majority. That’s what we’re really excited about.”