Pa.’s 2022 primary is a race for the base of the base. Why that’s a problem | Friday Morning Coffee

Scorched earth campaigns, polarizing candidates. Now ask yourself why democracy is broken

April 15, 2022 7:15 am

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller)

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

And Happy Traditional Tax Day. With some of you no doubt nose deep in your 1040s, trying to make sure all of your sums add up for the taxman ahead of Monday’s filing deadline, we’re going to throw a few more numbers from the latest Franklin & Marshall College poll at you just to make things interesting.

Ready? Okay, here they are: 26, 47 and 43.

They are, respectively, the percentage of undecided voters in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate; the percentage of Democratic Senate primary voters who might yet change their mind about their choice of candidate, and the percentage of undecided voters in the Republican primary race for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

And here’s two more, just for good measure: 36 and 29, which are, respectively, the percentage of voters who say they’re worse off financially than they were a year ago, and the percentage of voters who believe the state is headed in the right direction.

Taken together, these numbers are a warning shot for both the state’s political and chattering class and for the candidates themselves.

For all the fuss and massive expense, an overwhelming number of Pennsylvania voters still don’t know whom they’re going to vote for, and likely may not even care about who’s going to win the May 17 primary.

That’s because, as the latter two numbers indicate, they have far bigger fish to fry amid skyrocketing inflation, a pandemic that refuses to go away, and, let’s face it, the looming threat of World War III half-a-planet away.

GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls David McCormick (L) and Mehmet Oz (R) | Capital-Star photo collage by John L. Micek

So given that, the end result is that the primary is going to be decided by the same bunch of highly plugged-in and highly agitated voters who always turn out in primary years. It’s an election for the base of the base, not the mainstream of the Keystone State’s electorate.

Why is that true? Let history be your guide.

Between 2016 and 2020, anywhere between slightly more than a quarter (28 percent in 2020) and a third (33.7 percent in 2016) showed up to cast their ballots for their respective parties’ nominees.

While you may be sitting there saying, “Hey, that’s not too shabby,” and by the law of diminished expectations that tends to dominate our thoughts about primary elections, it’s not entirely awful. But consider, still, that those numbers mean that anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of all eligible voters stayed home in those even-numbered years.

Which means, again, that only the most enthusiastic (and partisan) voters showed up to make their voices heard. And that means, by necessity, that the messaging in those years had to be more apocalyptic to get them exercised enough to get off the couch and into their local polling place.

And we’re seeing that already in the dark money spending that’s been flooding into the Republican U.S. Senate race. As of late last month, outside groups had pumped nearly $13 million into the GOP nominating race to support the  putative frontrunners: TV physician Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick.

There are whole reality shows that treat their viewers with more intelligence and sensitivity than the ads these outside groups have funded and foisted onto your dinner hour TV screens (and probably your cell phone too).

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin (R) and former state Rep. Rick Saccone at the U.S. Capitol on 1/6/21 (Facebook photo)

The situation is much the same in the race for governor, with the nine Republicans seeking the nomination collectively raising more than $13 million over the last 15 months, Spotlight PA reported on Thursday.

One of the GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, former federal prosecutor Bill McSwain, has survived almost entirely on the largess of outside spending. The Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a political action committee run by conservative activist Matt Brouillette, and mostly underwritten by pro-school choice billionaire Jeffrey Yass, has splashed out nearly $6 million in advertising and mailers, Spotlight PA reported.

Then there’s the Donald Trump factor. The former president has endorsed Oz, recently delivered a high-profile public spanking to McSwain, and allegedly talked Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centreout of scuttling his struggling candidacy. That could be enough to swing a couple of percentage points here or there. Either way, it just adds to the chaos.

And before you ask, yes, the Democratic candidates similarly are awash in cash. But there so far has not been the same kind of outside spending that we’ve seen in the Republican contests.

With the head-to-heads in both the Senate and gubernatorial campaigns still so close, it’s entirely likely that candidates with less than majority support of the entire electorate, and a plurality of their own party, will win the nomination, and, thus, the general election beyond that.

That means the messaging and tactics will have to get more extreme (and we’ve already seen that in the air wars) to get that clear minority of already agitated and engaged voters angry enough to vote.

Which brings me back to that third of voters who are sweating their bills and worried for the future. It’s a good bet that they’re getting turned off by the scorched earth messaging and blunt force advertising. One solution, as some reform groups have suggested, is opening the primaries to all voters to increase participation and public interest. Party organizations have long refused. The leverage to get them to participate is to require them to then cover the cost of these party-only plebiscites.

Otherwise, when everyone looks up and wonder why state legislatures and Congress are increasingly paralyzed and governed from the margins, we can remind ourselves that the warnings were there in the numbers all along.

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith, speaks during a press conference, which discussed the need to expand our lens of focus from opioids to fighting overall substance use disorder with the increase of polysubstance and stimulant use across the commonwealth, inside Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Harrisburg on Monday, October 18, 2021 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

Our Stuff.
Pennsylvania will receive $1.07 billion as part of a $26 billion national settlement with three pharmaceutical distributors, and counties should see the first round of payments to address the opioid crisis by early summer, Marley Parish reports.

Marley Parish also has a deeper dive inside those Franklin & Marshall poll numbers we mentioned up top.

In Philadelphia, Democratic candidates for state and federal office made their pitch to the city’s LGBTQ voters at a recent forum, our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News report.

State and local agriculture officials are celebrating a public-private partnership in Lancaster County that they say will help Pennsylvania meet its Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction goals, and promote agricultural conservation practices in the commonwealth’s farming communities, Cassie Miller reports.

What is white nationalism? Reporter Lana G. Stebbins, of our sibling site, the Michigan Advanceanswers your questions.

On our Commentary Page today: When are book bans unconstitutional? A First Amendment scholar explains. And those pinwheels you might be seeing planted in lawns and grassy medians across the state are a reminder of the work ahead of us during Child Abuse Prevention Month, an advocate writes.

En la Estrella-Capital: El estudio de las protecciones en el lugar de trabajo del sector público de las comisiones de la administración de Wolf. Y los oficiales de alto rango de Biden dicen que Pa. se beneficiará de la aprobación de la ley que impulsa la industria de semiconductores.

Josh Shapiro about to speak a press conference
Attorney General and 2022 Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro at a press conference outside Harrisburg on March 24, 2022. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Gun rights groups are targeting state Attorney General Josh Shapiro for impeachment, accusing him of breaking state and federal law with his participation in an NBC News story about ‘ghost’ guns, the Inquirer reports.

Google says it will invest $15 million in Pennsylvania, including an expansion in Pittsburgh, the Tribune-Review reports.

PennLive profiles the candidates for lieutenant governor.

Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities have frozen tuition for the fourth straight year, LancasterOnline reports.

Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk has removed a Council of Youth member after that person was caught on video apparently using a racial slur, the Morning Call reports.

Wegmans grocery stores will eliminate plastic bags by year’s end, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

There’s no verdict yet in the federal bribery case for Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta JohnsonWHYY-FM reports.

With bird flu spreading, Pennsylvania has hit pause on egg and poultry exhibitions at agricultural events until June 16WESA-FM reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day.

What Goes On
Today is Good Friday. Most state offices are closed.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

Heavy Rotation
We’ll go out this week with the 12-inch mix of ‘Don’t Call it Love,’ from Zero 7. It’s just the groove you need to get the weekend going.

Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
The Detroit Red Wings shut out the Carolina Hurricanes 3-0 on Thursday night. Detroit goalie Alex Nedeljkovic made 46 saves against his former team to get the win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.