In purple Pittsburgh suburbs, Democrats eye a future Senate majority while Republicans try to hold the line

By: - April 1, 2019 6:31 am

State Senate candidates Pam Iovino and D. Raja. (Photos via campaign websites)

Republicans and Democrats are duking it out in the Pittsburgh suburbs ahead of a critical April 2 special election, doubling down on their respective strengths — culture war-provoking TV ads and a union-driven ground game.

Voters in the 37th Senate District will head to the polls Tuesday to choose between Democrat Pam Iovino and Republican D. Raja in a race that could further determine the balance of power in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

The result could signal the continuation of last fall’s Blue Wave or staunch the bleeding for the Senate GOP, which lost five seats in last November’s midterm election. It was the worst election cycle for any party in the chamber since the 1950s.

The 37th District, in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, includes such well-heeled municipalities as Mt. Lebanon, Sewickley, and Upper St. Clair, as well as Peters Township in Washington County.

The seat was vacated in January, when former Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican, resigned to serve in Congress.

That month, local Democrats tapped Iovino, a Navy veteran and former assistant secretary of veterans affairs in President George W. Bush’s White House.

Republicans agreed to give Raja a second try at the seat, despite objections from a group concerned about his past losses. He announced his candidacy with the endorsement of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.

Since then, the two have participated in just one cordial debate, while waging a no-holds-barred battle on the airwaves.

Pam Iovino, Democratic candidate for state Senate in a district outside of Pittsburgh, canvasses March 23, 2019 in Bethel Park. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Pam Iovino, Democratic candidate for state Senate in a district outside of Pittsburgh, canvasses March 23, 2019 in Bethel Park. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

An ally for the governor

Democrats are working the same approach that pulled them across the finish line in suburbs across the state last year — union muscle.

On a recent Saturday morning in a union hall west of Pittsburgh, Iovino rallied a dozen volunteers for a day of door knocking. All were union members — from Service Employees International Union, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters — decked out in their locals’ gear and bearing clipboards.

With Lt. Gov John Fetterman standing nearby, Iovino laid out the high stakes of the race.  

“There is this opportunity to pick up another state Senate seat, go into 2020, flip this chamber, and have one of those chambers be an ally, be a colleague, with the governor,” she said.

Gov. Tom Wolf is not a bad ally to have these days. The Democrat easily won victory against a Republican former state senator, Scott Wagner, in November — even turning some historically red counties blue in the process.

Iovino is backing Wolf’s seemingly popular agenda: reducing the burden of local property taxes while increasing state contributions to public education. Like Wolf, she supports a severance tax on natural gas production.

Iovino says she’d also be one more critical vote in favor of a Wolf-negotiated budget as the state careens toward its next fiscal deadline.

Her fundraising bears out ties to Wolf and state unions, WESA-FM in Pittsburgh reported.

Out of more than $1 million raised, Iovino has taken $500,000 from Wolf-affiliated political action committees, as well as at least $115,000 from state union PACs.

A long-time supporter of abortion access, Iovino has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List.

Some Democrats privately grumbled that Iovino was passed over for the Democratic nod in 18th Congressional District special election because of her vocal backing of abortion, City & State Pa. reported in 2017. Democrat Conor Lamb, who is personally opposed to abortion, went on to win that race.

Iovino is now a Democratic nominee in an area that includes parts of Lamb’s old 18th and new 17th district. But she hasn’t changed her mind or tone on the issue. Iovino said abortion is a “personal, private, and difficult” choice that “should only be between a person and a medical care provider and the government not need be in it at all.”

D. Raja, Republican candidate for state Senate, closes a door while out canvassing March 25, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
D. Raja, Republican candidate for state Senate, closes a door while out canvassing March 25, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

A tale of two Rajas

Raja, the county GOP boss who also runs his own IT company, has seized on Iovino’s abortion remarks and other positions as part of an advertising blitz to drum up GOP base enthusiasm ahead of the oddly timed election.

This isn’t Raja’s first run for higher office. He lost in the same district in 2012 to Democrat Matt Smith. Raja, who is of Indian descent, also lost a race for Allegheny County executive in 2011 to Democrat Rich Fitzgerald.

This time around, Raja said his goal is to better define himself. He said he’s tried to appeal to working-class voters with immigrant backgrounds by “[embracing] the first-generation immigrant story.”

Ads featuring the tale also make special note that Raja came to America for college in 1986 “the right way:” gaining U.S. citizenship and starting a business and family in Pittsburgh.

Raja’s opponents — both Democrats and Republicans — have hit at Raja for his business practices, including outsourcing jobs and filing lawsuits against former employees. Iovino’s campaign has started the attacks anew.

After a round of ads playing up her service, Iovino described Raja’s way of doing business as, “Instead of a paycheck, you’re served a lawsuit. Instead of a promotion, a pink slip.”

Today, Raja says foreign business is just 3 percent of his work — even if it was higher in the past.

Given his heritage and the reputation of outsourcing to India, Raja said the combined ads are “playing on the stereotype.”

As for his fundraising, Raja has been a long-time big money donor to Republican candidates and has  poured money into his own run.

According to WESA, nearly 84 cents of every campaign dollar Raja has reported came out of his own pocket.

For many years, the affluent district elected Republicans. Both former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy and failed 2002 gubernatorial candidate Mike Fisher previously represented the 37th Senate District.

Democrat Smith broke the streak in 2012 by beating Raja, before resigning for a job with the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce in 2015. Smith was replaced by Republican Reschenthaler in a special election. Reschenthaler won by double digits then and again in 2016.

Despite the red past, local Republicans say that union ties are important in the district Murphy was notably pro-labor.

Democrats are hoping the backing of more than a dozen trade, public sector, and industrial unions will help Iovino break through. They’re also counting on the same enthusiasm that earned Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey double-digit wins in the 37th last year.

But to Sam DeMarco, an Allegheny County councilman from the district and GOP committeeman, the results of 2018 aren’t indicative of a great leftward lurch in the South Hills.

“Candidates matter,” DeMarco said. “The fact that Casey and Wolf won big in ‘18 doesn’t mean the district has changed. It means [voters] found the alternative unacceptable.”

Ads, doors, repeat

Kids are playing in the street and residents are walking dogs on a recent Sunday when Raja hits the doors in a quiet cul-de-sac in Leet Township — an upper-middle-class municipality overlooking the Ohio River.

Besides a single independent, Raja is checking in on Republican voters, imploring them to turn out for a close race. Many express familiarity with him from TV ads. One even invites Raja inside for a quick selfie and asks him to keep taxes down.

A little later, an older woman steps out of her car to greet Raja. When he mentions Iovino, she tenses up.

“[Iovino’s] the worst thing in the world,” the woman, who declined to give her name, said, because of the Democrat’s stance on abortion. She turns to Raja: “I’m praying for you.”

Raja’s campaign is attempting to spruce up the candidate’s record while tying Iovino in ads to Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a recent New York state law that codifies a woman’s right to get an abortion after 24 weeks if the fetus is not viable or if the woman’s life is in danger.

Some of the claims are further reaches than others. Raja’s campaign says because Iovino has never said she wouldn’t support a similar bill, she supports abortions up until right before birth.

“[Iovino] doesn’t reflect the values here,” Raja said, citing discussions with constituents to back up the claim.

Franklin & Marshall polling from March 2019 found that 26 percent of Pennsylvania voters think abortion should be legal under any circumstance, while 57 percent back abortion with some restrictions.

Raja, who has described himself as a conservative, a moderate, and as “pro-life,” did not say what abortion restrictions he’d back in the Legislature. He only said he’d take a look at bill reintroduced by Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, banning abortions in the case of a Down syndrome diagnosis.

How the ads, positive or negative, work in the aggregate is hard to say. Both sides feel cautiously optimistic about the race. And even though Democrats whiffed on every other down ballot state House race in the Pittsburgh suburbs last year, they look to the neighboring 38th Senatorial District for hope.

Republicans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a negative campaign against Democrat Lindsey Williams for an open seat, painting her — like Iovino — as an extremist.

Williams won, but just by a few hundred votes.

“It didn’t work in the 38th, it’s not going to work here,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said of the ads.

There could also be some backlash. The day before Raja was out in Leet Township, Iovino knocked doors in Bethel Park. One woman answered and said she was sure to vote for Iovino. The reason?

“Some ads I don’t like.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.