Big races, low turnout: Three takeaways from Primary 2023 | Wednesday Morning Coffee

When another election night turns into a Talking Heads song: You may ask yourself … well, how did we get here?

By: - May 17, 2023 7:20 am

Volunteers greet voters outside the polling station at Camp Hill Presbyterian Church in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, on Election Day morning, Tuesday, May 16, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

Another Election Day is in the books. And, in a lot of ways, Primary 2023 felt an awful lot like another odd-year election — with some notable exceptions.

More on that below. But let’s get one big one out of the way now: Democrats hung onto their majority in the state House, prevailing in a special election in Delaware County.

Here’s a look back at what we learned from the election that some operatives have cast as a dry run for the big show in 2024.

The Thing About Turnout:

Even with marquee races on the ballot in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the state, anecdotal evidence on Tuesday pointed the way toward a low-turnout election.

In Erie, GoErie noted that “a lack of high-profile statewide and national races is the likely reason voter turnout has been light at Erie County polling places Tuesday morning for the Democratic and Republican primaries.”

In Pittsburgh, where voters were asked to fill the open seat for Allegheny County executive and cast ballots in a contentious Democratic primary for district attorney, things were similarly sleepy.

“Not gonna belabor the low turnout angle, but [the] county reported a bit ago that most workers in [the] election warehouse have already been sent out because they are done with the mail-in ballots on hand,” WESA-FM’s Chris Potter, who ended up the Steven Wright of primary day politics, tweeted at midafternoon.

Around 6 p.m., however, Potter offered an update, sharing a tweet from a local election officials who observed that the pace had picked up, and was “higher than 2019 with two hours to go.”

In Philadelphia, where voters were picking a Democratic candidate to replace two-term Mayor Jim Kenneya nearly identical story unfoldedCapital-Star Correspondent Ella Lathan reported.

“In Center City early Tuesday afternoon, the polling station at the Kimmel Center had a light – but steady – pace of voters, according to Elaine Petrossian, the 8th Ward Democratic Executive Committee leader,” Lathan wrote.

During a briefing on Tuesday night, acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt told reporters that, as of 8 p.m., around 74% of the mail-in ballots requested by registered voters had been returned, the Capital-Star’s Cassie Miller reported.

Democratic Allegheny County executive candidate Sara Innamorato (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

A big night for women: 

In Allegheny County, unofficial tallies showed state Rep. Sara Innamorato winning the Democratic nomination for county executive, making her an all-but-sure bet to replace outgoing Democratic County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who was term-limited out of office.

Innamorato faces Republican Joe Rockey in November. If she wins, she will become the first woman to ever hold the county’s top job.

“When I launched this campaign, I said I was running because I wanted to build a county for us all,” Innamorato told supporters at a victory rally Tuesday in the city’s Bloomfield neighborhood, the Capital-Star’s Kim Lyons reported.

“The county executive will chart the direction for the next generation. And our refrain continues to be: Let’s create a region where we can all thrive, where we have shared and sustained prosperity for all,” Innamorato said.

Councilmember Cherelle Parker says “I think we, at the local level, can come up with solutions not just for Philadelphia, but also for Pennsylvania, and the nation.”
Philadelphia mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

And in Philadelphia, former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker won the Democratic mayoral nomination, according to unofficial tallies, setting up a fall face-off against Republican David Oh, also a former member of Philadelphia City Council.

If Parker wins, which seems likely given the lopsided Democratic registration margin, she will be the first woman to guide Pennsylvania’s largest city.

Parker was hospitalized Tuesday for a dental emergency, but did offer a statement on her win, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“I’m so incredibly honored to have earned the Democratic nomination tonight,” Parker said on Twitter, according to the Inquirer. “It’s been a long road, and to see the tireless work of my campaign team, supporters, and family pay off is humbling. I’m looking forward to November and bringing our city together as its 100th mayor.”

(Image via Pittsburgh City Paper.)

But Local Races Also Matter:

From suburban Harrisburg to the Lehigh Valley, school board races were an animating factor for many voters, as the national culture war fights bled down to the local level.

In Camp Hill Borough, just on the other side of the Susquehanna River to Harrisburg in Cumberland County, voters were asked to choose among seven candidates who are running for five, open seats, with terms set to start in December, according to PennLive.

“What’s at stake is our great school district,” Camp Hill Democrats vice-chairperson Juliet Moringiello, told the Capital-Star as she greeted voters outside borough hall. “It’s important for our students to have an open mind and to become lifelong learners.”

Last weekend, a multipage letter urging voters to support two Republican candidates asserted that the borough’s school district “used to be about learning. Now they are infested with political and ideological indoctrination.”

Camp Hill Republican Committee Chairperson Paul Lewis told the Capital-Star that while he believed the letter raised valid arguments, it was not endorsed by the borough’s GOP.

‘Some of these issues that have been nationalized – do they deserve to be looked at? Yes,” said Lewis, who was lending a hand at a polling station at Camp Hill Presbyterian Church, just down the block from the borough hall. “The task is how do you present it?”

In Emmaus, just outside Allentown, it was a similar story, as resident Christine Bucks exhorted her friends and neighbors to come out to vote on a slow Tuesday morning, stressing the stakes of a local school board race, the Morning Call of Allentown reported.

“Who is on the school board and what they deem to be important affects the education in our district,” Bucks told the newspaper, referring to the race for the East Penn School Board, and its “somewhat stark choice of progressive and conservative slates.”

Bucks continued: “We have to ask ourselves do we want to raise our kids to be open-minded with a broad worldview or do we want to raise close-minded kids?” the newspaper reported.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.