With key special elections looming, Pa. Dems make a play for rural voters. Will it work? | Tuesday Morning Coffee

April 23, 2019 7:13 am

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Emboldened by legislative and congressional wins in the 2018 midterms, and special election wins in the northeast and the west earlier this year, Pennsylvania Democrats are making an explicit play for rural voters in a trio of special elections in Republican strongholds in May.

And they’re doing it with an explicit play for the hearts, minds, and wallets of a key cadre of voters: Rural Democrats and independents who were so-call ‘Trump Triers’ in 2016, and who remain critical to Democrats’ chances of recapturing the state in 2020.

The Democrats’ ‘Plan for Rural Pennsylvania,’ appeared on the state party’s website last week. And according to one observer, it’s a commonsense — and altogether unsurprising — ploy.

[President Donald] Trump said in 2016 that he was going to win these Rust Belt voters. So this isn’t a bad move,” Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, said.
If you’ve been paying attention to this year’s debate over the state budget, the plan’s pillars might sound familiar. They include:

  • Revitalizing rural infrastructure – which is tied directly to Gov. Tom Wolf’s bond-funded, severance-tax supported (and yet-to-be approved) ‘Restore PA’ program. Democrats are making a play directly for the hearts, minds (and wallets) of rural voters, arguing that, if approved, Wolf’s program will underwrite broadband expansion; storm and disaster preparedness; road repairs and energy programs. And those ideas, in turn,  would “create hundreds of jobs and provide much-needed upgrades to PA’s creaky foundations.” Republicans in the General Assembly, along with their allies in the business community, oppose it. As we’ve previously reported, Wolf has been touring rural Pennsylvania to build support for his proposal.
  • Raising the minimum wage for workers from the current $7.25/hr. to $12/hr. later this year, and then to $15/hr by 2027. Again, this is another Wolf-backed initiative that’s running into GOP opposition. Though Senate Majority Leader Jake CormanR-Centre, whose own seat sits smack in the middle of the contested 12th Congressional District, has said he’s open to a conversation about raising the wage a bit. The Dems are also touting Wolf’s plan to raise teacher minimum salaries to $45,000 a year. This, admittedly, could go a long way in rural Pa.
  • Say it with us now: Workforce development. Everyone loves this one.
    Even if they don’t all agree on what it means.
  • Touting the Pa. Farm Bill: This $24 million moonshot isn’t getting as much attention as some of the other marquee proposals — even if Democrats and Republicans alike dutifully trudge to the Farm Show Complex every January for milkshakes and other stuff that probably shouldn’t be fried, but is anyway, and is freaking delicious as a result.

This rural push, accompanied by the inevitable fundraising effort, comes as Democrats look for pick-ups in the 12th Congressional District seat formerly held by five-ish-term GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Marino; the 33rd state Senate District, formerly held by GOP Sen. Richard Alloway, and the 41st Senate District seat held by long-serving Sen. Don White.

Democratic hopefuls Marc Friedenberg (who lost to Marino last November), Sarah Hammond, and Susan Boser, are respectively running for the three vacancies. The Senate candidates also come to the table with experience: Boser ran for Congress against Republican U.S. Rep Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson in the enormous 15th District last fall; Hammond was a candidate for state House.

The header from a recent mailer from Pa. Democrats ahead of key special elections in rural Pennsylvania (screen capture)

And in an email blast to supporters last Friday, state party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Millsmade the goal explicit: “If we elect these rural Dems and enact our people-first agenda, our small towns, farm communities, countryside, and wilds will thrive like never before.”

But can they pull it off? That’s another matter entirely.

The 12th District, for starters, is overwhelmingly Republican. But, as we were the first to report last week.  activists from NextGen America, the super-PAC run by progressive billionaire Tom Steyer, are on the ground in the district.

They’re looking to register students at Penn State University and acquaint them with the state’s Byzantine absentee balloting procedures. That’s being complimented by the usual digital and text push that Steyer’s camp utilized in 2018 as it mobilized the 18-35s in key congressional races in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Spokespeople for Steyer’s camp, and David Marshall, the head of the state Senate Democrats’ re-election effort, have acknowledged that the three candidates face long odds in heavily Republican districts, where turnout is expected to be light and voter interest will be almost nonexistent. But both are playing the long game.

“We have very strong efforts in both districts,” Marshall contended. “There will be a very strong grassroots effort. We will have a better showing — and there’s a [Republican] enthusiasm gap.”

So even if they lose, there’s a benefit for Boser and Hammond (along with newly elected 37th District Sen. Pam Iovino): And that’s the way Pennsylvania voters pick their state senators.

In the Keystone State, state Senate elections are held in alternating, four-year cycles. So last year, voters chose senators from even-numbered districts. And that means senators from odd-numbered districts, like BoserHammond and Iovino, will be up for full, four-year terms in 2020.

So the pitch to rural voters — along with Democratic efforts in those seats — is more effectively viewed as a prelude for 2020, when state Democrats will seek to close a three-seat gap in the 50-member Senate with a direct attack on suburban Republicans in southeastern and central Pennsylvania where Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., made strong showings last year.

That also means that Iovino will have an extra year to build up organization — as will Boserand Hammond, who are expected to run again in 2020 if they don’t prevail this time around.

The same holds true for Steyer’s NextGen America group, which is also building a grassroots base to defeat Trump in a state the Republican won by 44,000 votes in 2016.

And that can only work to Democrats’ favor as they “make sure they know how do messaging and everything else,” in the highly consequential 2020 election, Elizabethtown’s Kopko said.

Our Stuff:
Elizabeth Hardison
 explains the recent controversy surrounding LG John Fetterman’s marijuana listening tour.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is talking tough with the Harrisburg schools for not cooperating with his auditors, Hardison also reports.
Immigration activists and advocates for low-income Pennsylvanians are raising red flags over a Trump administration policy aimed at squeezing undocumented immigrants out of public housing.

On the Opinion side of the house, Capital-Star regular Fletcher McClellan looks at the crisis confronting higher education in Pennsylvania — at all levels. And a Michigan Statescholar explains what happens when big business tries to remake a community in its own image.

The Inquirer explains what City Council, which has no control over property assessments, can actually do about your property taxes.
The Pa. Dept. of Health is looking into whether an Arizona company is skirting state law on how many medical marijuana licenses a lone operator can hold, PennLive reports.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is lobbying for a Democratic primary debate in Pennsylvania, The Post-Gazette reports.
Now that he’s official, naturalists are going to try to determine how many Eastern Hellbenders live in PennsylvaniaThe Tribune-Review reports.
An Allentown developer who actually asked ‘Who do I have to grease today,’ is being sentenced in federal court todayThe Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:

There’s new help for Philly seniors who want to stay in their homesWHYY-FM reports.
Catholic Social Services can’t discriminate against same-sex couples in its foster care program in Philadelphia, a federal appeals court ruled Monday. The Associated Press has the story (via WITF-FM).
The ACLU is urging a Lancaster County school district to change its mind on a controversial bathroom/locker room policy for transgender students, LancasterOnline reports.
PoliticsPA has some interesting maps showing shifts in voting populations across the state.
Politico has a look inside Joe Biden’s 2020 battle plan — assuming he actually announces something this week.
House Democrats are following Bob Mueller’s leads as they begin their investigations, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
2 p.m.: The House Liquor Control Committee holds a public hearing on brewery taxation at Spoonwood Brewing Co. in Pittsburgh. Which really just sounds like a clever way to blow a per-diem. But we didn’t think of it, so there you go.
6 p.m.: The House Democratic Policy Committee holds a joint hearing with the Pa. Legislative Black Caucus on reentry initiatives at Shusterman Hall on the campus of Temple University in Philly.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 holds an 11 a.m. newser in the Reception Room on clean water needs. And he’ll sign the Eastern Hellbender bill into law. Which means Daryl Metcalfe’s great national nightmare will finally be over.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out to our pal, Natasha Lindstrom, of The Tribune-Review, who celebrates today. Belated best wishes go out to our former PennLive colleague, Ron Southwick, and Megan Healey Augustine, in the office of Gov. Tom Wolf, who both celebrated on Monday. Hope it’s a wonderful couple days all around.

Heavy Rotation.
If you’re not moved by Alison Moyet performing this soaring version of ‘Only You,’ by Yaz, then you need to check yourself for a pulse.

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Are you kidding? Are you flipping kidding??? Game. Freaking. SevenCarolina heads to Washington Wednesday for Game Seven in its Metropolitan Division face-off with the Capitals. The ‘Canes notched a decided 5-2 win in Raleigh on Monday to tie their series and keep their first playoff run in a decade alive.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

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