Politically Savvy Friends

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pennsylvania Delivers

Dear Politically Savvy Friend,

In the end, he made it seem so easy. Barack Hussein Obama -- yes, a man with an Arab or Muslim middle name -- won the presidency of the United States by more than 7.5 million popular votes and an Electoral College landslide, or what certainly looks like a landslide after President Bush's narrow wins in 2000 and 2004. President-elect Obama did it the old-fashioned way -- issues, shoe leather, volunteers, and, yes, lots of money!


Pennsylvania Summary:

Early Tuesday evening, it was clear to many of us that Obama’s coalition of supporters would put him over the top. Once the “must-win” state of Pennsylvania was denied to John McCain, it was difficult to envision an electoral scenario that could propel the Republican to the White House. McCain's political nail in the coffin occurred shortly thereafter when the neighboring state of Ohio cast its lot with Obama. From that moment on, it was only a matter of hours until enough electoral votes were declared to give the Democrat his victory at 11:01 pm ET. As McCain delivered his concession speech, Florida came through for Obama as well, giving him a trifecta -- three of the three must-win states.

Obama's win in this Pennsylvania was impressive. With 98% of the votes counted, Obama defeated McCain by 11 points: 3.16 million votes to 2.52 million or 55% to 44% [Ralph Nader and Bob Barr split one percent of the vote] -- or a margin of around 644,000 votes out of the 5,745,000 votes cast yesterday. The last time a presidential candidate won by that big a margin in Pennsylvania was 36 years ago when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in 1972 by 907,000 votes.

So how did Obama do this here? Simply put, he clobbered McCain in Philadelphia and its Republican suburbs -- and he racked up wins in the urban counties around the state like Allegheny (Pittsburgh), Cambria (Johnstown), Centre (State College),Dauphin (Harrisburg), Erie (Erie), Lackawanna (Scranton), Lehigh (Allentown), Luzerne (Wilkes-Barre), and Northampton (Bethlehem). In the end, it didn't matter that most of the rest of Pennsylvania voted Republican.

Still, in many ways, this PA election was the tale of two regions: southeastern PA and southwestern PA. Obama overwhelmed McCain in one – and performed worst than some expected in the other. His biggest win was the city of Philadelphia, where Obama did better than John Kerry, who had set the record with a 414,000-vote margin. Obama broke that record Tuesday, winning the city by a massive 458,784 votes (unofficially). While not the 500,000-vote margin the governor would have loved, it was mighty convincing! Equally important, in the four bedroom counties outside Philly, Obama swept it all, winning three suburban Republican counties. He won Bucks County by 28,000; he won Chester County by 22,000; he won Delaware County by 59,000; and he won Montgomery County by a whopping 86,000 votes.

Southwest PA Plays Hard to Get:

In southwestern PA, it was a different story. Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) gave Obama his biggest victory, winning by 98,600 votes over McCain. [John Kerry won Allegheny County by 97,000 votes four years ago]. But the outlying counties were not so kind to Obama even though most are overwhelmingly Democratic. McCain actually did better than George W. Bush in 2004. McCain won Armstrong County by 7,000 votes; McCain won Beaver County by 2,500; McCain won Butler County by 23,000; McCain won Fayette County by 160 votes; McCain won Greene County by 86 votes; McCain won Indiana County by 2,500 votes; McCain won Lawrence County by 2,000 votes; McCain won Washington County by 4,400 votes; and McCain won Westmoreland County by 26,000 votes. Many of these counties have large Democratic majorities.

Was U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha right? Is it true that western PA (outside of Allegheny County and Cambria County) just couldn't vote for a bi-racial candidate for president? Well, pundits can debate that for years to come. Obviously, race plays some role. But I think a better explanation is the conservative nature of the Democratic voters in these outlying counties: pro-gun, pro-life, pro-religion, pro-small town America. Second, McCain and Palin practically lived here for the last two months with multiple visits designed to stress their identification with the concerns and lifestyle of this region.

The Obama campaign often gave the impression of ignoring southwestern PA while spreading love all over the southeast (Philadelphia). It may have been a smart strategy given limited time for their candidate. But, privately, local Democratic leaders in this region felt the Obama campaign was giving short shift to western PA. Nonetheless, the margin out of the five southeastern counties in the Philly area was an amazing 653,000 votes over McCain.

In the end, Obama did exactly what he had to do, even here in this region. When you subtract all those southwestern counties that voted against Obama from his big vote in Allegheny County, guess who's the winner? You got it. President-elect Obama still won this region, netting 30,000 votes from the 10-county area in this southwest corner of the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Exit Polls:

So how did Obama do it, chalking up numbers unseen in 36 years of presidential politics in this state? Exit polls give some clues. On race, blacks voted for Obama 95% to 5%, but African Americans comprised only 13% of the PA electorate. What gave Obama his solid victory was a nearly even split among white voters, 48% for Obama to 51% for McCain. While Hispanics are not many in PA, Obama won 72% of them here, as well. In short, Obama did well in PA because he attracted voters of all races.

According to exit polls, Obama overwhelmingly won the young voters in Pennsylvania, winning 66% of those 18 to 24 years of age and 64% of those between 25 and 30. But the president-elect also attracted support of some of the older folks, winning 57% of those between 50 and 65. As for the coveted 65+ crowd, Obama split that group evenly, 49% to 50%
While some Catholic clerics tried to influence their parishioners to vote pro-life, Catholic voters – just like Protestants – split right down the middle between Obama and McCain.

Finally, on issues, it was pretty clear-cut: 58% of those who said the economy was the most important issue opted for Obama; 66% of those who said the war in Iraq was most important voted Obama; 53% who named energy as the top issue supported Obama; and 71% who put health care at the top voted Obama.


Corbett Survives the Tidal Wave:

Attorney General Tom Corbett solidified his credentials as the Republican's best hope to capture the governorship in 2010. Despite the Democratic tide, the suburban Pittsburgh Republican won a 365,000 vote margin over his Democratic opponent, Northampton district attorney John Morganelli. Corbett had double the cash and with the help of his superb media consultant, John Brabender (yes, the architect of Rick Santorum's emergence on the political scene beginning in 1990) had the best television ads. Corbett's high profile on the Bonusgate scandal, especially in this region, certainly helped. While Allegheny County was voting for Obama by nearly a hundred thousand votes, Corbett actually carried his home county by 34,000 votes -- not bad for a Republican. What also made a big difference was Corbett's wins in suburban Philadelphia, where he defied the presidential trend by winning Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties and only losing Montgomery County by 2,400 votes.

Wagner Positions Himself for the Future:

Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Democrat, swept to a second term, adding to his own bona fides as a potential candidate for either governor or U.S. senator in 2010. It was a landslide for Wagner who defeated Republican gazebo manufacturer Chet Beiler by 1.27 million votes. Wow! Wagner, a generally conservative Democrat, blitzed the state, winning 41 of the state's 67 counties, a remarkable achievement for a Democrat. In fact, it didn’t take Wagner’s press folks to rush out a press release touting his 3.2 million votes as the most received by any PA candidate on the ballot on Tuesday. But it’s not a record. Bob Casey got 3.3 million votes in 2004 when he was reelected state treasurer.

Enter Rob McCord:

The open seat for state Treasurer will be filled by Democrat Rob McCord who beat former Montgomery County commissioner Tom Ellis by 678,000 votes. McCord is a newcomer to the state political scene, but I suspect it won't be long before the well-spoken suburban Philadelphian makes his presence known. One sign that McCord may have some other elective desires is the fact he decided to spend election night in Pittsburgh rather than in his hometown.


Pennsylvania Democrats not only beat back the Republican attempt to defeat a couple of their incumbent congressmen, but they also added to their numbers from Pennsylvania. The state's 19 representatives in the 111th Congress will be 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans. There's some irony here because when the Republican-controlled state legislature and a Republican governor (Tom Ridge) gerrymandered PA's congressional districts after the 2000 census, they elected 12 Republicans from PA. Now the situation is reversed in the very same districts the Republicans created! Of course, the state now has many more Democrats than in did eight years ago.

Dahlkemper Makes History:

U.S. Rep. Phil English (3rd CD), the Erie Republican, was defeated by Erie Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper. Dahlkemper calls herself a conservative Democrat -- pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small business -- but that didn't stop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) from pumping a lot of money into her race. In the end, she beat English by 8,300 votes. She kept it close in most of the counties, including Butler and Armstrong outside of Pittsburgh, and clinched victory with a 16,000-vote win in Erie County. Dahlkemper has told me that she wants to be more visible in the Pittsburgh media market than her predecessor. Her sister and son live in this area, and her first grandchild will soon be born in Pittsburgh, giving her plenty of "family" reasons to be around here. It will be interesting to see whether the new congresswoman is able to establish any kind of identity in the Pittsburgh media market.

Dalhkemper is only the second Democratic woman ever elected from western PA to the U.S. House of Representatives. Vera Buchanan of Pittsburgh was the first back in 1951 when she was elected in a special election to fill her husband's term. Buchanan went on to win two terms in her own right before dying in office of cancer in 1955 -- the first female Member of Congress to die in office. Dahlkemper will take office after a 54-year absence of a Democratic woman from this region in Congress.

Murtha Flexes His Political Muscle:

U.S. Rep. John Murtha (12th CD) was supposed to be in deep, deep trouble. But that was before he called in a lot of chits, raised a lot of money in two weeks, and overwhelmed his opponent, Republican William Russell, with both attack ads and a positive message of accomplishment for western PA. One month ago, Murtha took reelection in his district for granted. Then Russell, who raised a lot of money through a DC-based direct mail agency, exploited the congressman's own words about racism in western PA. A Republican-based poll suggested Russell was only four points behind Murtha, and all of sudden the nation's eyes were on this district.

In the end, Murtha beat Russell by 41,000 votes, winning a healthy 58% of the vote. Russell, who was upfront that he had moved to the district to run against Murtha, could not beat back the carpetbagger charge, especially when Murtha trumpeted all the millions of dollars his seniority has brought into the district. Murtha carried most of the nine counties through which his district stretches, including Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties which were relatively new to the 12th CD.

Altmire Wins Convincingly:

It was hard to find anyone who ever thought U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire (4th CD) was really vulnerable to the Republican he had defeated two years earlier, former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart. Rematches are always tough in politics, and Hart just didn't have the resources or the issues to plant the seed of "buyer's remorse" among the voters in this suburban Pittsburgh district.

Altmire beat Hart by 39,000 votes, considerably more than the 8,800-vote win he had two years ago, giving the freshman a double-digit victory that probably takes him off the GOP list for some years to come. Altmire beat Hart by nearly 11,000 votes in Allegheny County, 23,000 in Beaver County, 9,000 votes in Lawrence County -- and that was all she wrote!

Murphy Defines a Republican Landslide:

Local Democrats would love to beat U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (18th CD), but they just can't find a candidate who can unseat this popular, well-funded, and politically savvy Republican. Monroeville businessman Steve O'Donnell thought he was the Democrat who could do the trick, but he ended up losing even worse than Chad Kluko, the Democrat who tried with much less resources in 2006. This time, Murphy -- who ran both positive TV ads on himself and negative attack ads on O'Donnell -- cruised to an impressive 90,000-vote win, 64% to 36%, over the Democrat. O'Donnell didn't come close in any of the four counties that make up the 18th CD, which means that thousands of Democrats (in a district with a 70,000 Democratic registration advantage) voted to give Murphy a fourth term in Congress.


Forget Bonusgate, Democrats Stay in Charge of State House:

It appears that Bonusgate had no impact on the legislative races. In this region, House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese faced a repeat challenger from Republican Greg Hopkins in his 50th legislative district. DeWeese knew what was coming and prepared well. Last February, he was out walking his district in the snow, knocking on doors, a practice he says he continued throughout the campaign. The end result was a larger win for DeWeese than two years ago, more than 2,000 votes this time. DeWeese’s return to Harrisburg does not guarantee him his top ranking spot in the Democratic Party, and concerns about his former chief of staff’s private conversations with the Attorney General about DeWeese’s role in Bonusgate trouble a lot of his colleagues. But DeWeese is nothing if not a survivor. Stay tuned.

The latest report is that the Democrats will not only retain control of the House but also add to their numbers. The current number, 102 Dems to 101 Republicans, could end up being 104 to 99. The Dems lost four seats on Tuesday, including Beaver County Rep. Vince Biancucci (15th LD) who was upset by Republican newcomer Jim Christiana and an open Westmoreland County seat (57th LD occupied by retiring Democrat Tom Tangretti) that Republican Tim Krieger won over Democrat John Boyle. The third Democratic loss was in Elk and Clearfield Counties where incumbent Rep. Dan Surra (75th LD) was upset by Republican Matt Gabler, and the fourth loss was in Bucks County where incumbent Rep. Chris King (142nd LD) was upset by Republican Frank Farry.

These four Democratic losses could have been fatal to state House control had they not picked up six seats in eastern Pennsylvania. Four Dems won open seats: Steve Santarsiero (31st LD in Bucks County), Richard Mirabito (83rd LD in Lycoming County), Paul Drucker (157th LD in Chester County), and Brendan Boyle (170th LD in Philadelphia). Two other Democrats defeated Republican incumbents on Tuesday: Democrat Tom Houghton beat Republican John Lawrence (13th LD in Chester County) and Matt Bradford defeated Jay Moyer (70th LD in Montgomery County).

The most interesting question now is whether the Democrats will be able to reach some consensus on a Democratic Speaker of the House. As the truly savvy know, two years ago the Dems picked Philadelphia Republican Dennis O’Brien to be their speaker because their top Democrat Bill DeWeese could not get the votes from his caucus. O’Brien would love to keep his job, and he’ll keep it as long as 102representatives cannot agree on someone else!

State Senate Goes Even More Republican:

You would think that with the Democratic landslide for Obama, a couple of Dems might have won some state Senate seats. Not so. The Republicans actually increased their control of the Senate, 30 to 20. In two nasty contests in western PA, Republicans managed to keep control of one seat and picked up another. In the 39th SD (Westmoreland County), county commissioner Kim Ward defeated Democratic chiropractor Tony Bompiani by 8,000 votes. Ward replaces retiring state Sen. Bob Regola, a fellow Republican. In the 47th SD (Beaver & Lawrence Counties), Republican Elder Vogel defeated Democrat Jason Petrella by 14,000 votes to replace Democratic state Sen. Gerry LaValle. The stories behind these defeats take too much time to digest, but at the beginning of this campaign year the Dems were favored to win both and managed to blow the opportunity. They were out out-foxed, out-hustled, out-negatived (yes, that too), and out-spent by the GOP, so two senate districts with more Ds than Rs now join the Republican column for four more years.

That’s a quick run-down 24 hours after the election results have come in. I welcome your insights and comments. Now it’s time for all of us to take a break, get some sleep, and start to think about Campaign 2010! Yeehaw!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Just One Day to Go

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Election Day! One day to go – can you imagine? This interminable, never-ending campaign for president is just about over. Millions have already cast their ballots in the 31 states that allow “early voting,” but most of us will go to the polls on Tuesday – and later that night we shall know who the 44th president of the United States will be. No, I do not believe the vote-counting will drag on to December, and, no, this will not be another 1888 or 2000 where the winner of the popular vote loses the electoral college. Thankfully, this election will produce a clear-cut winner, one way or the other.

So, in these last minutes of Campaign ’08, let me offer some final thoughts to my politically savvy friends along with some observations of sorts. Since my last PSF a week ago, I had the chance to do one-on-one interviews with Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and a satellite interview with Joe Biden. John McCain is back in Pittsburgh this morning (Monday), but so far no word on whether he will chat with me. (I’ve talked to him twice this fall). While I am aggressive in seeking out these interviews – and scrupulously fair to all candidates – I know the reason they talk to me has very little to do with me and a great deal to do with the importance of western Pennsylvania in this campaign. Never has a region been so eagerly sought by candidates enroute to the White House! Read on for more.


Why Pennsylvania is So Important:

With the magic number of electoral votes being 270, RealClearPolitics now puts 238“solid” electoral votes in Obama’s column with 118 solid votes for McCain. Four states are leaning to Obama: Colorado (9 electoral votes), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), and Pennsylvania (21). If he wins the first three, but not Pennsylvania, he does not hit the magic 270. Could it really all come down to Pennsylvania? John McCain & Sarah Palin seem to think so. They have invested an incredible amount of time and resources throughout this state, and the latest SurveyUSA poll out on Sunday shows they have made some inroads: a 12-point lead for Obama last week is down to 7 points this week.

But Obama does have other options. He could become the first Democratic president since Harry Truman in 1948 to win the White House without PA. You see, RealClearPolitics now has an unbelievable 128 electoral votes still up for grabs, including Florida (27 electoral votes), Ohio (20), North Carolina (15), Georgia (15), Virginia (13), Missouri (11), Indiana (11), Arizona (10), Montana (3), and North Dakota (3). Obama can clinch the presidency with a win in Florida and Ohio without Pennsylvania.

The numbers are much more difficult for McCain. He must win all the toss-up states and then take Pennsylvania. Since Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to carry PA back in 1860, only two Republicans have made it to the White House without the Keystone State: Richard Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 2000 & 2004. If McCain loses Pennsylvania, it’s hard to see how he wins the presidency.

The Battle for Pennsylvania:

McCain and his strategists know the history lesson, which explains why he and Palin have been campaigning non-stop in this commonwealth. Since the end of the GOP Convention, McCain has made 17 campaign stops throughout the commonwealth, including one today (Monday) in Pittsburgh. For her part, Palin has made 23 campaign visits, including last Friday’s stops in Latrobe and York. That’s a lot of love from two Republicans for a state that has a million more Democrats than Republicans!

While the McCain-Palin events are smaller in crowd size than Obama-Biden, the supporters can be just as enthusiastic. This past week, it was all about Joe the Plumber, spreading the wealth, socialism, higher taxes – familiar messages on the GOP trail. And both candidates insisted that Pennsylvania was going to surprise a lot of folks on Tuesday. As I’ve opined before in earlier PSFs, PA is winnable for the Republicans if – and it’s a big if – things break for them. What are those things? First, a low turn-out in Philadelphia and a margin of victory for Obama that is under 400,000 votes in the city. Second, a break-even in the Philly suburbs, where both John Kerry & Al Gore beat George W. Bush. Third, a win or break-even in Northeast PA. Fourth, a solid victory over Obama in the center part of the state, including Democratic areas that stretch from Johnstown to York to Lancaster to Reading. Fifth, a loss in Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) of under 80,000 votes – Kerry won here by 97,000. And, finally, a big GOP win in Westmoreland County (by more than 30,000 votes) and consistent wins in all the conservative-voting Democratic counties that surround Pittsburgh and swing north to Erie. Under this scenario, McCain could eke out a victory in PA.

Palin Hits Latrobe:

Dressed in jeans, a Republican “cloth” coat (anyone remember Nixon’s speech?), and a orange Halloween scarf, Sarah Palin hit the make-shift stage (festooned with pumpkins on bales of hay) at a hangar at the small Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe (Westmoreland County) on Friday. About 2,500 supporters welcomed her on a frigid cold morning. She was accompanied by former Gov. Tom Ridge and another western PA football Hall of Famer – Coach Mike Ditka. Ditka who told the audience he was both a Republican and a conservative, introduced Palin. Pittsburgh football fans know that Ditka, born in Carnegie and raised in Aliquippa, was a local high school player before joining the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. The rest is history. Palin’s speech was not much different than the one she delivered in Beaver County a week earlier. It didn’t have to be – her supporters love her and she gets cheers just for showing up. Anybody think “Palin in 2012”?

This was my first chance to meet the Alaskan governor in person, and I admit I like her. She’s warm, down-to-earth, and (yes, guys) easy to look at! She answered my questions without hesitation – which, admittedly, were not tough ones – and was friendly and funny. And, yes, she talks just like Tina Fey, dropping her “g’s” as in fishin’ and huntin’ and the like. Is she qualified to be Vice President or President? Well, that’s a question for you to answer. I talked to her about Ditka’s endorsement, whether she thought western PA was like Alaska, and her iconic political role. She thought it was bizarre that people were dressing up as her for Halloween, but cracked that she was going out as Tina Fey. In her speech, she called on “Casey Democrats” to vote for McCain, so I asked her who those Casey Democrats were. I also gave her the chance to tell me how she would have run the campaign differently if she was in charged. No surprise, she ducked the question. You can watch the full uncut interview here: http://kdka.com/video/?id=48238@kdka.dayport.com.

In my view, the McCain campaign did a disservice to Palin when they hid her from the local media in the early fall. She does just fine, and by refusing to let her talk, they only created the impression that she was too dumb to answer questions and needed to be protected in some way. Moreover, I tend to think that local media are more fair than the national media, or at least less likely to have an axe to grind. Palin has been a great asset to McCain in exciting the Christian evangelical base, but it’s also true that she has hurt McCain among plenty of other voters, particularly some suburban women. We’ll know Tuesday night whether Palin helped more than she hurt.

Obama Hits the ‘Burgh:

Pittsburgh supporters of Barack Obama are nothing if not passionate about their candidate. At 7 am on a very cold day last Monday (Oct. 27), they started to line up to get into the Mellon Arena – home of the Pittsburgh Penguins – when the doors were not going to open until 3 pm and the candidate wouldn’t speak until 5:30 pm. This was Obama’s last visit to western PA, and at least 16,000 (a near capacity crowd) showed up to hear his “closing speech.” He brought out the typical political entourage: Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato, and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. But the introduction was reserved for a man whose popularity exceeds all the politicians combined: Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney is one of the nicest guys around, and his early endorsement of Obama last spring has had an impact. [A couple weeks ago, when Michelle Obama was in Pittsburgh, she stopped by the Rooney home on the Northside for a private fundraiser]. The crowd clearly loved it all, and I saw more than a few terrible towels being swirled around, albeit this came the day after the beloved Steelers fell to the Giants.

Before the end of Obama’s remarks, I had the chance to go back stage where I would interview Obama right after his speech. While I always enjoy interviewing the candidates, it’s a special treat to chat with some of the campaign operatives. I have talked to David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, on several occasions, and this time we had a bit more time together as Obama worked the rope line before exiting the Arena. I consider these conversations very much off-the-record, although I doubt Axelrod told me anything he hasn’t told others publicly. I like Axelrod, not only because he is a former political reporter (so he understands what it likes to be on this side of the camera), but because he is a soft-spoken, intelligent man who does not rant or rage or spin his words. In this business, that’s often rare.

Following his rousing reception, Obama was obviously revved up, if understandably a little bit tired. When I interviewed him behind a barn in Ohio in September, we had more time for chit-chat before the interview. This time it was pretty much all business. As the first reporter to talk to him since the story broke shortly before his Pittsburgh speech about those Nazi skinheads in Tennessee plotting an assassination, I had to ask him about that news item – but my general rule is to keep things Pennsylvania-focused and that’s what I did. I asked Obama about his reception in Pittsburgh, the state of the contest, the impact of racism, the skinheads, and his own safety – all in the mere two minutes I was allotted! You can check it out here: http://kdka.com/video/?id=48006@kdka.dayport.com.

While this was the Obama’s last visit to the region, both President Clinton and Senator Clinton were dispatched here for the late campaign hours. President Clinton spoke at Washington & Jefferson College on Thursday, while Senator Clinton is returning here today (Monday) after being here just a week ago Friday. Given the support the Clintons have always received in this region, it’s probably smart politics.


Did you miss Saturday Night Live this weekend? Check out John McCain’s great performance with Tina Fey right here: http://www.nbc.com/Saturday_Night_Live/video/clips/mccain-qvc-open/805381/

For you “Irish rednecks” in Pennsylvania, check out this tune that acclaims Obama’s Irish ancestry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EADUQWKoVek

And for those who (like me) love the musical Les Miserables, enjoy this parody of the Obama’s campaign last day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3ijYVyhnn0


Statewide Battles Unchanged:

Last week, I reviewed the three major statewide contests on the ballot tomorrow. For attorney general: incumbent Republican Tom Corbett versus Democrat John Morganelli; for state auditor general, incumbent Democrat Jack Wagner versus Republican Chet Beiler; for state treasurer, Republican Tom Ellis versus Democrat Rob McCord. The odds favor Corbett, Wagner, and McCord, but clearly Corbett is worried that a Democratic tide in PA could sink his Republican ship. He has assailed Morganelli on television and in direct mailers, although the Northampton district attorney has fought back. Voters in this state often “split” their tickets on Election Day, and my gut still gives it to Corbett. The appearance of a partisan, one-sided attack on House Democrats over “Bonusgate” – wherein both parties allegedly paid out legislative bonuses with taxpayer dollars for political campaign work done by legislative aides in the House and Senate – has hurt Corbett. But whether it’s enough to sink the political fortunes of this visible attorney general seems doubtful. I think it would take a Democratic tsunami for Morganelli to win.

PA Congressional Races Reviewed:

Most pundits think the four Democratic freshmen elected in 2006 will be returned to Congress tomorrow: U.S. Reps. Jason Altmire (4th CD), Joe Sestak (7th CD), Patrick Murphy (8th CD), and Chris Carney (10th CD). The most interesting contest of the four is former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart’s comeback try against Altmire, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is so confident of Altmire’s victory that it has pulled out of the race. Nonetheless, Hart has a creative television ad (blowing up a house) that seek to blame Altmire and Nancy Pelosi for failing to take action in the current economic crisis. It’s a dramatic ad, but probably comes too late to affect the outcome. The Dems think Altmire could win by double digits.

If any Democratic incumbents are to fall tomorrow, the most likely is U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Nanticoke (11th CD). My impression from afar is that Hazelton mayor Lou Barletta, the Republican, has the 24-year incumbent Democrat on the ropes over a variety of issues, and that Kanjorski could be one of the few Democratic House incumbents to lose this year. Still, the district is Democratic and that could count for a lot in a Democratic year. And in a last-minute effort to help, President Bill Clinton will campaign for Kanjorski tonight (Monday) at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. Kanjorski can still win this, but Barletta could pull an upset.

Most of the attention over the last week has been on U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown (12th CD). Murtha’s opponent is William Russell, a retired lieutenant colonel who recently moved to Pennsylvania from Virginia to take on Murtha. Nobody thought Murtha was in trouble a month ago – then Murtha put his foot in his mouth with comments about racism in western PA. Although he has apologized, Russell has hammered Murtha in TV ads on the “insult.” This week, Murtha responded with a blitzkrieg of his own, attacking Russell by name as a carpetbagger and highlighting his own success at bringing millions of dollars to western PA. And the DCCC has rushed in to help Murtha. Later today, President Clinton will campaign for Murtha. Both Russell and Murtha are social conservatives – Murtha is pro-life and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association – but Russell has attacked Murtha for being the king of earmarks, something Murtha is proud of. The question for voters in the 12th CD is whether they are so unhappy over Murtha’s mouth that they are willing to toss him out with all his seniority and the money it brings this region. It may be close, but I think Murtha can pull this out.

The DCCC is salivating over the 3rd CD where incumbent U.S. Rep. Phil English, an Erie Republican, may lose to Kathy Dahlkemper, an Erie Democrat. English is a reasonably moderate Republican – he touts a support record of 50% for George W. Bush last year – but Dahlkemper has gone after English on trade, tax, and economic issues. The 3rd CD stretches from Erie south into some outlying counties just north of Pittsburgh: Armstrong, Butler, and Venango Counties. Both English and Dahlkemper think it may come down to these Pittsburgh-oriented counties, so the Pittsburgh media market has been flooded with television ads, mostly DCCC ads attacking English. The last time English had a close race, it was the Republican-voting Butler County that bailed him out. If it’s really close, that could happen again.

Steve O’Donnell, a Monroeville Democrat, has been attacked relentlessly by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (18th CD), an Upper St. Clair Republican, in television ads this past week. Citing articles from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Murphy says O’Donnell essentially ran a non-profit mental health group into bankruptcy, rewarding himself and his family in the process. O’Donnell denies the charges, but does not have the resources to defend himself on TV. In an interview with me this week, O’Donnell said one shot in the TV ad where O’Donnell raises his hand up in front of a camera – just like most criminal defendants do when confronted by TV news cameras – is a fake. He was never the subject of a TV news story, but rather raised his hand to protect himself when one of Murphy’s people shoved a camera in his face. Murphy’s campaign has released some raw video tape, suggesting O’Donnell actually approached the camera. Whatever the truth really is, the real question is why is an incumbent congressman engaged in what some think is political overkill when he ought to be a safe bet for reelection? Two years ago, Murphy won over an unknown Democrat by 16 points. Sure, the 18th CD has 70,000 more Dems than Republicans, but the hard-working Murphy has attracted Democratic, and labor, support over the years. So is 2008 different? Well, again, unless Dems do something this year they haven’t done before, Murphy should win another double-digit victory.

A Pet Peeve – It’s Democratic Party, not Democrat Party:

A number of years ago, I was assailed by both pro-life and pro-choice folks because I refused to accept their characterization of their opponents. Pro-lifers want me to call their opponents pro-abortion, while pro-choice people want me to call their opponents anti-choice. My rule is fairly simple: I will call you whatever you want, but you can’t impose a name on others. The official names of our two major parties are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Over the last decade or so, some narrow-minded Republicans and their allies in the media have tried, unilaterally, to change the name of the Democratic Party to the Democrat Party. They have no right to do that, any more than Democrats can rename their opponents as the Repub Party. When you hear someone do that, it tells you a lot about their political idealogy.

Congrats to Luke & Erin:

Finally, I’m sure all my politically savvy friends join me in congratulating Pittsburgh’s 28-year old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, and his wife Erin on the birth of their first child, son Cooper, on Friday. It’s a great reminder that amidst all the politics some things are more important – our families are really the reason that we need to elect quality individuals to public office. Little Cooper Ravenstahl cannot cast a vote until 2026, but his parents can – and you can – and it will never hurt us to think about which of the many candidates on the ballot can advance the interests of all our families in this state and nation.

This is obviously my last PSF before America votes on Tuesday. Over the next few days, I welcome your accounts of what is happening – and your own post-election analysis. I’ll share my thoughts on what happened at the end of the week. In the meantime, enjoy this most important aspect of American democracy – the right to vote in and vote out our government leaders. Good luck!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Just One Week to Go

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Greetings from a “battleground state” with just over one week to go! Admittedly, if you are in a state where the Obama and McCain political ads have dominated the airwaves – to say nothing of all those “independent” ads – you can’t wait for all this to end. Forgot all those car ads – now all we see are campaign ads, most of which attack the other guy. My gut says that the old channel changer is in overdrive these days.

The truth is that 95% of folks know exactly what they are going to do on Election Day – even here in Pennsylvania – but that, of course, is the problem. It’s not yet 100% -- and in states like this one without “early” voting the real voting is yet to come. That means all this political warfare is directed at a very few number of voters, but voters who can make the difference in whether this is a landslide for Barack Obama or a narrow come-from-behind victory for John McCain.

So, my dear politically savvy friends, one week out, here are some thoughts of mine about both the presidential contest and some of the other political fights going on here in Pennsylvania. Whether you are a new savvy friend, or a familiar seasoned one, I welcome your personal off-the-record comments on how things are going in your neck of the woods.


My Overview:

If you listen to the national media, you might think this race is over. But even Obama’s closest confidantes know that there is no such thing as a done deal until all the votes are counted next Tuesday night. It’s true that Obama is leading McCain in enough states to reach that magic 270 electoral votes, but leading in the polls is quite different from leading at the polls. I certainly think the odds favor an Obama-Biden victory over McCain-Palin. After all, given all the unhappiness in the direction of this country – 85% say America is headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest CBS/NYTimes poll – and the general repudiation of the current Republican in the White House – 23% job approval for President Bush in the latest Newsweek poll -- it’s surprising that any Republican candidate has kept it as close as McCain has done. That’s a personal testament to John McCain.

My friend Charlie Cook may have it right when he says that a lot of folks are just so unhappy about the way things are going they feel they have nothing to lose by giving Obama and the Democrats a chance to govern. McCain keeps trying to tell people how they might lose with Obama, but I think a lot of folks have tuned him out. While the latest “Joe the Plumber” riff wins lots of cheers at GOP rallies, it’s not resonating enough to be a deal-changer. In fact, the whole notion that Obama wants to “spread the wealth” hardly seems ominous, since most poor and middle class Americans have seen their own wealth disappear while the wealthier keep getting richer. Indeed, most middle class families – that’s most of my PSFers – have not seen their incomes rise as rapidly over the last decade as those who make the really big bucks and, lately, most middle income families have lost ground because of inflation.

So if this election really comes down to the economy, it’s hard to imagine the Democrats losing. But, again, a week can be a lifetime in politics, and we all know that a national security crisis or some other unpredictable event can change the dynamic dramatically.

Is Pennsylvania Up for Grabs?

The last time a Democrat won the White House without Pennsylvania was back in 1948 when Harry S. Truman lost the state but won the presidency. It is conceivable for Obama to lose PA and still win, but this state’s 21 electoral votes make it a coveted prize. In the last week, every poll puts Obama ahead of McCain, often by 10 points, but both John McCain and Sarah Palin have been campaigning all over PA like this is their last stand. Last week, both were in the Pittsburgh area within three days of each other. Do they know something the pollsters don’t know? In contrast, Obama has spent most of his PA campaign time back east. He makes his first public return to western PA since August 29 on Monday (today) at the Mellon Arena.

In some ways, it’s not hard to see why Obama and Biden campaign in eastern PA so much. If they can “run the numbers” in Philadelphia and its suburbs and sweep the area around Joe Biden’s “hometown” of Scranton, the lead becomes difficult for McCain to overcome elsewhere in the state. But if McCain can hold his own in the Philly suburbs and in the northeast, then victory in PA comes down to western PA. And most of the polls I’ve seen show this part of PA very much “up for grabs.”


So What’s Happening in Western PA?

As I have suggested in earlier PSFs, Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) is almost certainly going to vote for Obama. Latest registration figures show approximately 586,000 Democrats to 254,000 Republicans and 101,000 independents. John Kerry beat George Bush here by 97,000 votes, a margin that Obama could exceed, especially if all the new registrants show up to vote.

Speaking of new voters, here’s an interesting statistic from a county that is often compared to Miama-Dade for the older age of its residents. The number of registered voters under age 25 has now surpassed 100,000 in Allegheny County, up to 100,162. Of course, voters 75+ still exceed that number here at 119,487. Yeah, that’s right – registered voters 75+ still outnumber those under 25, and we all know the older folks vote! Looking a bit closer, however, voters under 35 in Allegheny County now exceed those 65 and older: 261,887 youngsters to 206,817 oldsters. If Obama can turn out the youngsters, anything is possible.

It looks better for McCain outside Allegheny County. While Democrats have a 49,000 voter registration advantage in Westmoreland County, nobody thinks Obama will beat McCain there. Bush beat Kerry there by 22,000 votes. Local Dems blame Richard Mellon Scaife and his Tribune Review newspaper. I think that’s unfair. The editorially conservative newspaper has some outstanding local reporters and has been fair in its coverage of the presidential race, as far as I can see. A more accurate explanation is that Democrats in Westmoreland County are simply more conservative, both economically and socially, than Obama. Rather than blame a local newspaper, Dems would be smarter to focus on issues that might attract Democrats to their ticket.

It’s also true that Christian evangelicals are an important segment of many western PA counties. While pundits often speak of this important base within the Republican Party, there are plenty of Democrats who are religious conservatives, too. It helps explain why Bush only lost Washington County by 552 votes in 2004 when the county’s Dems outnumber Republicans by 40,000 – or why in Beaver County where Dems have a 34,000 registration edge, Kerry won by only 2,200 votes. When Palin held a rally at the Beaver Area High School stadium last week, I saw many signs and stickers identifying with her anti-abortion views and, yes, I talked to Democrats in the crowd.

McCain Volunteer Hoax:

If you google the above words, you’ll get more than you want about the bizarre story from this region last week wherein a 20-year old white female McCain volunteer from Texas concocted a story out of whole cloth about being mugged by a black male in a Pittsburgh neighborhood who etched a reverse “B” in her face because she had a McCain bumper sticker on her car. The story turned out to be completely bogus, but that didn’t stop the Drudge Report from “teasing” it or the local McCain campaign from passing along the details to local news outlets. As far as I can tell, local news people acted professionally, obtaining the police report filed by this young woman, reporting its bogus contents, along with statements from the McCain campaign and reaction from the Obama campaign. Once the facts were known, the hoax was first reported by KDKA-TV and other local media, and I daresay the hoax got a whole lot more news coverage than the initial story did. While there may be some unanswered questions to some in the blogosphere, both local campaigns say they want to move beyond this sad story of a very troubled young woman who will face criminal charges for filing a false police report.

Is Pennsylvania a Racist State?

The notion that PA is full of racist rednecks was not helped by U.S. Rep. John Murtha’s recent assertion that this region is a racist one [see below]. But to suggest that somehow this area has more racists than other parts of the state – or, indeed, that PA is more racist than Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York (the states that surround us) is ludicrous. But make no mistake: race will play a role for some voters next Tuesday. Murtha suggested it may be more a problem with his generation – he’s 76 and I suppose he should know – than it is with my Babyboom generation or with the younger folks. My gut says he may be right on that point, but, again, it’s wrong to generalize, since we all know racists at every age level. The more important question, politically, is how large is the racist vote?

I don’t know how we can measure this even after the election, particularly since people often lie to pollsters. There are plenty of white Democrats who oppose Obama on issues important to them – abortion, guns, taxes, military – and to suggest they would have voted for a white Obama is crazy. Obviously, voting for McCain does not make you a racist, so you can’t draw a judgment on a vote total.

For all the talk about race, I hope that however the vote turns out in Pennsylvania and around the country, the one thing we can say is that race did not play a decisive role in the outcome. And, by the way, let’s address the canard that black folks are racist if and when they vote for Obama. First, that’s only true if they never vote for a white candidate. History suggests otherwise: African Americans have been one of the most dependable constituencies for white Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt. This time, the Democrat happens to be black (or at least half black). Second, every ethnic, religious, and now racial group tends to “vote for its own” when its candidate is a first-time history-maker. It’s hard to find a Catholic, for example, who did not vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960. By the time John Kerry, also a Catholic, was the standard-bearer 44 years later, that kind of religious allegiance had waned. Finally, there’s no real evidence that blacks are voting for Obama solely because he’s black any more than there is evidence that whites are voting against Obama solely because of race.

Besides the presidential race, Pennsylvanians will elect three statewide officials, 19 members of Congress, 203 members of the state House, and 25 (or one-half) of the state Senate. For those interested in these races, read on.

Attorney General Race May Be Closer Than Thought:

It’s hard to imagine anyone defeating Tom Corbett, the Republican attorney general from suburban Pittsburgh, losing reelection for a second four-year term. Corbett is a likeable, generally moderate Republican, who has strong roots in the G.O.P. He got his first position – US Attorney for Western PA – by heading up the 1988 campaign in this region for George H.W. Bush. After he was ousted by President Clinton, he was named by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1995 to fill out the term of the resigned and convicted Ernie Preate. To get confirmed, Corbett had to promise not to run for the open seat in 1996. That opened the way for another Pittsburgh suburban Republican, Mike Fisher, who narrowly election to a job that only Republicans have held since it became an elected statewide office in 1980. With Fisher term-limited, Corbett got his chance in 2004, although he had a very contentious primary against Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor that still has scars. He barely won the general election against Philadelphia attorney Jim Eisenhower (a distant Democratic cousin of the late Republican president), defeating the Democrat by 109,000 votes out of just over 5.4 million votes cast.
Fast forward to today. Corbett is being challenged by John Morganelli, the district attorney of Northampton County (the greater Bethelehem-Easton area). Corbett is running on a record that includes an aggressive attack on sexual predators on the internet, along with his role in charging Democratic legislators and staff people involved in “bonusgate” – shorthand for legislative leaders using tax dollars to give out big bonuses to staff people who engaged in campaign work for their party. Morganelli, who has 17 years as a criminal prosecutor and styles himself a pro-gun, pro-life, and pro-death penalty conservative Democrat, asserts that Corbett has botched the investigation, first, by not appointing an independent prosecutor who would go after wrong-doing in both political parties, and, second, by giving the Republicans time essentially to clean the books for any subsequent charges that Corbett has promised might come after his reelection. See my KDKA-TV interview with Morganelli at http://kdka.com/video/?id=47592@kdka.dayport.com for the specifics.

Now Corbett has responded with a solid television ad campaign across the commonwealth, and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks Morganelli will win except Morganelli. But Morganelli is also on television, at least in this region where nobody knows him, but Corbett has out-fundraised him, $3.3 million to $1.3 million. When Fisher was reelected in 2000, he won by 504,000 votes; but the reelections of both LeRoy Zimmerman in 1984 and Ernie Preate in 1992 were much closer, within 2% of the total vote. Corbett wants a big win next Tuesday to establish himself as the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor in 2010. He can do that, but it’s just as possible, particularly given the Democratic voter registration advantage, that Morganelli keeps it close. Stay tuned.

Jack Wagner Seems a Shoo-In for Auditor General:

Quickly now, can you name the Republican running against Democratic incumbent Auditor General Jack Wagner? Probably not, which is why Wagner, a former state senator and city council president from Pittsburgh, will likely be reelected state auditor general next Tuesday. Wagner’s opponent is Chet Beiler, a Lancaster County Republican and local businessman who built a local gazebo business into one of the nation’s largest gazebo retailers. Beiler says his business experience is exactly what the state needs to audit its accounts, but he has raised only $475,000 to spread that message statewide, while the better-known Wagner has over a million bucks. Like Corbett, Wagner wants a big win as a set-up for 2010. His name is frequently on the short-list for either governor (an open seat coveted by many) or U.S. senator (against U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who has every intention of seeking another 6-year term).

State Treasurer Office Up For Grabs:

When U.S. Sen. Bob Casey became a senator, he left vacant the office of state treasurer. This year, two newcomers to statewide politics are on the ballot – Democrat Rob McCord versus Republican Tom Ellis. Both men come from the Philadelphia suburbs and generally unknown. McCord ran a somewhat visible race for the Democratic nomination last spring, which might give him a leg up, but what really helps him is his bankroll. A venture capitalist, McCord has pumped at least $1.4 million of his own money into this race. Ellis, a former Montgomery County commissioner and bond finance lawyer, has raised about $360,000. At a time when the stock market is crashing, you might assume the candidates for this office would be getting more public attention. After all, the state treasurer manages about $100 billion in state monies (well, who knows exactly what it’s worth these days) and signs off on about 23 million checks from the state treasury each year. But this race has been about as invisible as the one for auditor general. That’s probably good news for McCord, who seems to have all the advantages in this contest.

PA Congressional Battles:

Pennsylvania was one of the key states that gave Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in 2006. Five Republican incumbents were ousted – U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Reps. Melissa Hart (4th CD), Curt Weldon (7th CD), Mike Fitzpatrick (8th CD), and Don Sherwood (10th CD) – the Democratic winners were Bob Casey and Jason Altmire, Joe Sestack, Patrick Murphy, and Chris Carney. Each of these incumbents look like winners next Tuesday, although the Republicans are not letting it go without a battle. Hart, for example, has engaged Altmire in a feisty rematch, and Carney’s district is so Republican it requires Carney to garner GOP votes (which he has done) against his challenger, Chris Hackett.

The more interesting races involve other incumbents in other districts. U.S. Rep. Phil English (3rd CD), an Erie Republican first elected in 1994, is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie. Some polls actually have her in the lead right now, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is pumping money into her race. The district stretches from Erie into Butler and Armstrong Counties just north of Pittsburgh. Dahlkemper is a pro-gun, pro-life, pro-business conservative Democrat, she says, but attacks English on economic and trade issues. You can check out my TV interview with her at http://kdka.com/video/?id=47842@kdka.dayport.com for more.

Could the dean of PA’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha (12th CD) of Johnstown, seriously be in electoral trouble? Well, it didn’t help that he stated publicly to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that “there is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area.” Now whether you believe Murtha was right or not, it’s not the kind of talk folks like to hear from their congressman. Murtha’s comments have been lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” and are now featured in TV ads by his GOP opponent, William Russell, a retired but still young lieutenant colonel who just recently moved to Pennsylvania. Russell is a true conservative on every imaginable issue, who accuses Murtha of “aiding and abetting the enemy” in Iraq for his comments about the U.S. Marines accused, and then cleared, of murdering Iraqis in Haditha. Here’s my TV interview with Russell at http://kdka.com/video/?id=46261@kdka.dayport.com and http://kdka.com/video/?id=46263@kdka.dayport.com. This weekend, Murtha’s campaign, which has largely ignored Russell, issued a statement accusing the Republican of calling himself a “West Point graduate” on his website when, in fact, Russell was dismissed from the academy for “academic failure.” It’s true Russell flunked out of West Point, but his campaign says the website posting is from another organization. Murtha is also accusing Russell of being a Virginia carpetbagger who just moved to PA to run against him. Beside the racism hullabaloo, Murtha, a social conservative, has pumped millions of dollars in “earmarks” into this western PA district that generally likes the money enabled only because of Murtha’s incredible clout on the Appropriations Committee. The question is whether the 76-year old’s comments on racism are enough to cost him an election. Two years ago, Murtha clobbered Washington County commissioner Diana Irey with 61% of the vote. This race will almost certainly be closer. Last week, the Susquehanna Poll, published by the Tribune Review, has Murtha ahead by just four points.

Without a doubt, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (18th CD), a Republican from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, seems to luck out every election year. Despite a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic (by 75,000 voters at least), the moderate-to-conservative Republican wins every time. His campaign will tell you, with some accuracy, that this is because nobody works his district harder than Murphy. But it’s also true that the Democrats never quite seem to gel behind an opponent. This year, Monroeville businessman Steve O’Donnell won a contested primary (featuring the daughter of former state treasurer Barbara Hafer) to challenge Murphy. O’Donnell is trying, largely with a lawn sign, radio, and direct mail campaign – while Murphy is blitzing in all the typical ways, including lots of TV ads. Two years ago, against an opponent who did little, Murphy got 58% of the vote. This year, it will be closer, but O’Donnell is fighting the odds – and the failure of the DCCC to target this race says something. One sign that this race may be tighter than some think is that Murphy has now launched an attack ad on O’Donnell on television, surprising many since O’Donnell hasn’t been on TV. But unless the Democratic tide is overwhelming, most people still think Murphy will emerge the victor.

General Assembly Contests a Snoozer:

Gone are the days when an irate public in PA ousted some powerful incumbents because of their unrepentant vote for a massive pay increase. This year’s legislative battles have been largely overshadowed by the presidential race.

The state Senate will certainly remain in GOP control. In this region, some state senators are unopposed, while others have token opposition. PA Sen. John Pippy (37th SD), a Moon Township Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Amy Jude Schmotzer, a nurse from Whitehall who appears to have won the lawn sign battle. The district is marginally Democratic (83,000 Dems to 72,000 Republicans and 18,000 independents/other). Schmotzer has run a grassroots campaign, focusing on a reform agenda, while Pippy echoes the same. Although the Dems have no women from this region in the state Senate, it would take a perfect storm of Dems and independents voting for Schmotzer to upset Pippy.

The race to replace PA Sen. Bob Regola (39th SD), the Westmoreland County Republican who was acquitted of certain gun law violations that resulted in the death of a youngster next door, has been nasty, brutish, and long. Republican Kim Ward and Democrat Tony Bompiani have assaulted each other with accusations that each is a tax-raiser. Ward was just elected minority commissioner for Westmoreland County last year and stepped in for Regola when he suddenly resigned his nomination in August. Bompiani served as a Hempfield school director while Ward was a Hempfield supervisor, which means that both have votes to attack. The state campaign committees of both parties have invested in this battle, and I think the outcome is a toss-up.

PA Rep. Sean Ramaley was the odds-on favorite to replace PA Sen. Jerry Lavalle (47th SD) in this heavily Democratic mostly Beaver County senate district, until Corbett charged Ramaley with doing campaign work while on former state Rep. Mike Veon’s legislative payroll way back when. Democrats think these charges were trumped up, but Ramaley had little choice to step down as the party nominee. That allowed Jason Petrella, who lost in the primary to Ramaley, to get the nod from the executive committee of the Democratic Party in Harrisburg. But their choice of Petrella was at odds with a majority of local committee people in Beaver County who preferred county commissioner Joe Spanik for the nod, while the Beaver-Lawrence Labor Council wanted Bob Grotevant, former aide to Bob Casey. Now a divided Democratic Party is hoping Petrella can withstand attack from a united Republican effort behind their nominee, Elder Vogel. This seat should never go Republican, but it just might this year.

Finally, the one House battle everyone is watching in this region is the Republican effort to unseat the House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (50th HD). Two years ago, DeWeese beat Republican Greg Hopkins by 1,039 votes. This year, Hopkins is back, but the situation is slightly different. First, DeWeese’s former chief of staff has turned state’s evidence in the Bonusgate scandal, and lots of folks think he is fingering DeWeese in the process. Second, DeWeese is running scared, unlike last time, knocking on doors throughout the district even during the snow of last February. Third, DeWeese is going after Hopkins this time, accusing him of spending most of his time in California where Hopkins coaches an arena football team and replaying on TV comments Hopkins made about the district being on welfare. In short, if DeWeese loses this time, it won’t be without a fight from the Democrat.

Well, that wraps this PSF up for the moment. I may try to get another one out before the election. In the meantime, email me your thoughts and predictions. I love hearing from you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Three Weeks to Go & Counting

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Columbus Day! While the legal holiday is observed on a Monday, it was actually October 12, 1492, that Christopher Columbus saw the Bahamas. As we all know now, he was not the first European to “discover” America, but be careful to whom you say that. I am old enough to remember the late PA Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Musmanno, a wonderfully colorful man who went on a six-week tour of the nation to defend Columbus when Yale scholars declared that Leif Ericson had landed in America first. Ironically, Musmanno died on Columbus Day!

As many of you have reminded me, it’s been weeks since I’ve taken hand to keyboard to share my thoughts about this presidential race. It’s not like I’m vacationing! Between money (read the economy and Wall Street) and politics, my two principal news beats these days, my plate has been very full indeed. Since the presidential conventions, I’ve had two interviews with Barack Obama and one with John McCain and multiple interviews with surrogates. Obviously, both campaigns know how important Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio (just 30 miles west of me) are in this contest, and I can practically guarantee that if Pennsylvania and Ohio vote alike on November 4, that man will be president.

So, three weeks from decision day, where do we stand? Can you say President Obama? No, wait, could it be President McCain?

In this latest PSF, let me share my thoughts as someone who has spent 25 years in the political world – first, as a behind-the-scenes player, and, now, as an observer and commentator. As always, I welcome your off-the-record views. If you prefer not to get these occasional missives, there’s a button below to get off the list. Otherwise, dear Politically Savvy Friend, read on.


The Wall Street Mess -- Calling FDR:

A friend of mine asked me the other day where was Franklin D. Roosevelt when we needed him. The reference, of course, was to FDR’s famous call in his First Inaugural: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In the wake of the collapse of the Stock Market, causing most of us to lose more than one-third of our retirement funds, the absence of presidential leadership has been obvious.

It’s not that President Bush isn’t trying. It’s just that nobody cares what he says. His job approval ratings are in the mid-20s, the lowest of his presidency, and most financial analysts concluded that every time he spoke to the nation last week the market dropped some more.

Of course, presidents are not economists, finance wizards, or portfolio money managers. But they do have experts around them that are or should be. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke may know a thing or two, but it’s not clear that even they know how to turn this market or the economy around. We begin this week with some hopeful signs. The stock market has resurged some 900+ points, and we are now seeing some concrete action out of Washington.

What surprised me most is that the Bush administration, having pushed so hard for its Wall Street rescue plan (or bailout, as detractors call it), seemed so unprepared to implement it, once Congress approved the bill a week ago. I would have thought the implementation plan would have been on the drawing board as the Congress debated its inevitable passage. The consequence has been delay, instead of action, and we all saw how Wall Street reacted to that. But concerted global action over this last weekend gives hope that maybe, just maybe, we can regain our footing.

Ultimately, the market will bottom out and eventually regain some, if not all, the losses over the next two years, if not sooner. At least that’s what the experts say. But all this focus on the economy demonstrates like nothing else how important it is to have a president with a team in place to make sure these meltdowns don’t occur and, if they do, to have a plan to minimize their impact on average working people. The Bush administration had neither.

It’s the Economy, Stupid:

When you’re hurting economically, it’s always about you. That’s a basic rule in politics. The candidate who can address your concerns or at least appears sympathetic to your plight will get your support. No surprise, every recent poll puts the economy and jobs as the #1 issue in this presidential race – 57% in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Most of us have felt a lot of economic pain in recent months – unrestrained energy and food price increases, higher unemployment, devaluation of our homes, and now the evisceration of our 401-Ks and IRAs.

Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), some 76 million of us, are particularly hurt by the latter, even if it’s just a paper loss (as long as we don’t cash in). My father’s generation had guaranteed company pensions, the so-called defined benefit plans, where the retired employee got a check every month from his employer for as long as he lived. Corporate America abandoned that approach when it became too expensive to sustain, and substituted a plan tied to the stock market wherein employees would deposit part of their own money (often matched partially by the employer) in a 401-K. Gone are those guaranteed monthly pension checks during retirement – except, of course, Social Security. Your retirement security depends on the return of your money set aside in investment accounts of your choosing and always subject to the vagaries of the stock market. That’s why everyone is so angry about what happened on Wall Street and the failure of our politicians to prevent it.

[Parenthetically, the only people left with those old-fashioned pension checks are public employees – teachers, government workers, and elected officials. We, the taxpayers, pay much of that monthly check, and I suspect that this last remnant of defined benefit will disappear in the years ahead, particularly if the typical American retiree appears to struggle while their neighbor who worked for the taxpayer enjoys a comfortable retirement.]

All this is to say that Americans hunger for a president who, not only understands all this, but appears willing to protect our jobs and restore jobs shipped overseas, raise our wages so we can (at least) stay even with inflation, provide affordable health care for all, and maintain our retirement security. It’s a very tall order.

McCain or Obama – Can Either One Make Life Better?

In their gut, most Americans don’t think either John McCain or Barack Obama can really do all that is necessary to make our lives better. Such is our cynicism that it’s easy to say that it doesn’t really matter who wins the White House, at least on the economy. But empathy is important and forced to choose, most Americans think Obama can address the economy better than McCain. In the latest Newsweek poll, those polled said Obama would do a better job on the economy and jobs than McCain by a 54% to 35% margin. Close to the same result in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 50% to 30%. We see similar results on health care, 56% to 30% for Obama in the Newsweek poll and 52% to 32% in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll.

McCain’s initial response to Wall Street even if taken out of contest (“The fundamentals of our economy are sound.”), coupled with his short-lived suspension of his campaign and refusal to debate Obama until Congress resolved its response to the crisis, made it easy for Obama to portray him as “out-of-touch” and a bit schizophrenic. That’s not fair to McCain, but nothing is ever fair in politics.

Fundamentally, what hurts McCain, in my view, is the general sense that, at least on the economy, he is really not much different than President Bush, someone traditionally hostile to government regulation of Wall Street, generally pro-business, and much more attuned to the interests of the wealthy than working Americans. In short, in difficult economic times, it’s tough to be a Republican politician because it’s so easy for Democrats to affix a label to you.

McCain Tries to Change the Theme Line:

Democrats don’t like it, but the McCain campaign did exactly what a smart candidate does when the number one issue in a campaign is against you – change the issue. Enter Bill Ayers, a ‘60s anti-war radical who cofounded the Weathermen underground movement and participated in the bombing of the NYC police headquarters, the U.S. Capitol, and the Pentagon in the early 1970s, activities that occurred when Obama was a young kid, but actions that caused damage to public property but, fortunately, no death or injury. Not my kind of guy, that’s for sure.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s in Chicago. By this time, Ayers has become a prominent educator in that city, with multiple Masters degrees and a doctorate. Ayers, now a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, worked with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to write the so-called Chicago Annenberg Challenge, securing $49 million to reform the Chicago public schools over a five-year period. [Walter Annenberg, a Republican who died in 2002, was the billionaire Philadelphia publisher who was President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom]. Obama was an original member of the board named to distribute that money. Besides their association in this project, Obama and Ayers were board members on the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty philanthropic group. It’s also a fact that Obama was in Ayers home when Ayers hosted an event at which then-Illinois state Sen. Alice Palmer presented Obama as her choice to succeed her in the 1996 Democratic primary.

What are we to make of all this? Obama has condemned Ayers’ illegal activity and calls McCain’s attempt to question his character through Ayers as “guilt by association.” He says he never “palled around” with Ayers, as McCain’s running-mate has charged. But McCain and his allies suggest that it’s just not believable that Obama was unaware of Ayers’ background and that he should have, if he had any decent character at all, completely excused himself from any association with this man. [This is similar, by the way, to the same argument made against Obama because of his long-time association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright whose anti-American, anti-white rhetoric was so inflammatory during the primary season].

PSF’ers can make their own judgment about what this says about Obama or McCain, for that matter. The political question is – has it worked to help McCain? Not yet, is my quick answer. Sure it’s “red meat” for the Republican base that wants McCain to attack Obama more vigorously, but the last-minute nature of the attack strikes many as “desperation” politics. The Fox News poll last week found that 61% of those polled said it made no difference to their vote. Even worse for McCain, some 51% said McCain was running a “negative” campaign for president, while only 21% said that of Obama.

So while McCain’s campaign may be right to change the issue from the economy to something else, a character assault on Obama because of his association (whatever it was) with Bill Ayers doesn’t seem to be working, at least not yet. Perhaps a better issue for McCain might be national security.

Sarah Palin (a/k/a Tina Fey) Becomes a Pop Culture Phenom:

Whether you think Gov. Sarah Palin is qualified to be President of the United States, no one can doubt that she has taken America by storm – and thanks to Tina Fey – has singlehandedly restored Saturday Night Live to “must-watch” television.

I have not met Palin, so I don’t know what she is really like in person, but her spunky style has certainly hit a chord with many. But, let’s be honest, she has also become a figure of ridicule – and, at this stage of the campaign, it’s unclear whether the strong support she gets from some trumps the shake-of-the-head others give her. The most recent Newsweek poll gives her a 49% to 45% favorable rating.

Nonetheless, McCain’s choice of Palin, in my view, did exactly what was intended. It brought the Christian conservative evangelicals back on board the Republican ticket. McCain is a social conservative, but he’s never really been comfortable with the Falwell-Robertson ideology. Palin is not only comfortable with that ideology -- she lives her beliefs. That scares some Americans, but it was those Christian conservative voters who delivered the state of Ohio to George W. Bush in 2004 and nearly delivered Pennsylvania.

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that either Joe Biden, who can quite legitimately point to his Pennsylvania roots, or Sarah Palin determines the outcome of this election. The race is between Obama and McCain, not their running-mates. The last vice presidential nominee to make a difference electorally was Lyndon Baines Johnson who delivered Texas – and the White House – to John F. Kennedy in 1960.


Up for Grabs:

As the economy got worse, Barack Obama’s poll numbers got better in Pennsylvania. His lead last week over John McCain ranged from 12% (Marist poll) to 15% (SurveyUSA). Mind you, in September, Obama’s lead was well within the margin of error, ranging from 1% (Strategic Vision) to 4% (Morning Call). So is the recent double-digit bump for Obama a temporary surge, or a predictor of the final outcome?

McCain obviously believes it’s temporary, as both he and Palin criss-cross much of the state and, almost as importantly, their TV ads – and those of groups that support them – continue to run at full strength. Obama hardly thinks PA is decided yet either, as he and Biden stump the state and bring in some heavy-weights like President and Senator Clinton to campaign in Scranton this past weekend.

In short, both candidates act like this state is up for grabs, regardless of the polls. Maybe they know something we don’t know!

The Key for Victory in PA:

James Carville once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. It was a clever line, but not exactly right. In many ways, PA is like 50 states – urban centers, manufacturing river towns, rural deer country, agricultural heartlands, areas that identify with the east coast and other parts that are clearly Midwestern in outlook. PA has liberal Republicans and very conservative Republicans, just as it has liberal Democrats and very conservative Democrats, and both parties have Christian evangelicals. And, yes, many Pennsylvanians have guns, religion, and a small-town ethos. Bottom line, this is a hard state to categorize.

But the keys to victory are not hard to discern.

Four years ago, John Kerry just barely defeated George Bush in PA by 2.5% of the vote, or 144,000 votes out of 4.7 million votes cast. The Democratic victory began in Philadelphia where Kerry racked up a record 412,000 vote margin over Bush. In August, Gov. Ed Rendell told me that he hoped Philadelphia would beat that record for Obama this November. The latest registration figures show it possible: Philadelphia has about 852,000 Democrats, 145,000 Republicans, and 93,000 independents (or other third-party members). Could Philadelphia give Obama a 500,000 vote lead? It would be astounding, but do-able. Last Saturday’s four-stop visit within Philadelphia by Obama was designed to do just that.

The suburbs of Philadelphia used to be a sure Republican thing. No more. In 2004, Kerry carried three of the four “bedroom” counties – Montgomery (by 46,000 votes), Bucks (by 9,000 votes), and Delaware (by 42,000 votes), losing only Chester County (by 10,000 for Bush). This year, McCain thinks he can do better by stressing his “maverick” independent style. What hampers that is the growth of Democrats in these counties. Montgomery County has now turned Democratic by 19,000 votes, with only 10,000 votes separating Republicans from Democrats in Bucks County and 23,000 in Delaware County.

But even if Obama scores big in Southeastern PA like Kerry did, that does not guarantee victory in the state. Pennsylvania has important concentration of voters in the Northeast (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), Northwest (Erie), South Central East (Harrisburg/Lancaster/York), South Central West (Johnstown, Altoona, Somerset), and the voter-rich area surrounding Pittsburgh in Southwestern PA. And I’ve left out lots other important nooks and crannies of the state.

Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) is almost certainly going to vote for Obama. While not as lopsided as Philadelphia, it is overwhelmingly Democratic. Latest registration numbers have roughly 586,000 Dems here to 254,000 Republicans and 101,000 independents. In 2004, Kerry beat Bush here by 97,000 votes. In my view, Obama has the potential to win Allegheny County by more than 100,000 votes, depending on whether all the new registrants actually turn up to vote, but it is hardly a done deal.

It looks much better for McCain outside Pittsburgh and its immediate environs. Take Westmoreland County, where Democrats have a 49,000 voter registration edge over the Republicans: Four years ago, Bush beat Kerry in this county by 22,000 votes. In Washington County, Dems have a 40,000 registration edge today but Kerry only beat Bush by 552 votes. In Beaver County, Dems lead Republicans by 34,000 voters but Kerry only won by 2,200 votes. Take Lawrence County where Dems outnumber Republicans by 12,000 voters but Bush won by 551 votes. You get the picture.

The conservative Democrats in Southwestern PA can never be taken for granted by a Democratic candidate running statewide. Neither Obama nor McCain have campaigned in this region since late August – although Palin was here last Friday and Michelle Obama is expected on Thursday – but at some point the race will come down to regions west of the Susquehanna River. Both Gov. Ed Rendell and former Gov. Tom Ridge have certainly counseled their party nominees – western Pennsylvanians like retail politics, vote a higher percentage than back east, and are never predictable. In the end, while small in numbers, how Democratic counties like Beaver County and Washington County vote could well predict who wins the state of Pennsylvania.

The Role of Race in PA:

Finally, a word about race. I had a Democratic committeeman from this area come up to me a few months ago and bluntly tell me that he could never support Obama because he’s black. It’s abhorrent to me that anyone would vote for or against someone on the basis of race, gender, or religion, but we all know that it happens in every election. I have written about this in earlier PSFs. While most of us can point to stories from friends or relatives who say they know somebody who will never vote for Obama because of his race, it’s hard to measure the impact of this.

Last spring, Rendell observed that he felt in his race against an African American in Pennsylvania, the white candidate benefitted by as much as five to seven percentage points. He should know, not only as an astute politician but also as one who ran against an African American in 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, a Republican. If Rendell is correct, then Obama needs a double-digit lead to win PA.

But I don’t know if Rendell is right, especially when it comes to Barack Obama and John McCain. It seems to me that there are so many other legitimate reasons to vote for one or against these candidates that race is consequential only for the true racists, which I hope is less than one percent of the PA electorate, not seven percent.

Still, there is a gnawing feeling that race will play a greater role in this election than anyone wants to admit. There is not much Obama can do about this, although his recent 60-second biographical ad featuring his white mother and white grandparents was a subliminal way to deal with the issue. My gut instinct is what worries some white voters is not Obama but other African Americans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (notice how they’ve disappeared this election season?) who appear to have made a career blaming whites for everything wrong in the black community. One white woman asked me the other day if I thought Obama would be beholden to those leaders if he won.

Obama deserves to be judged on his own, not by what people think of Jackson or Sharpton – just as John McCain deserves to be judged on his own, not by what people think of George W. Bush. But it’s the nature of politics to obfuscate rather than clarify. We won’t know the role of race in this contest until the votes are counted.

There is always much more that I can opine on, especially here in Pennsylvania. But let me save something for another PSF next week. I’m committed to doing at least one a week through and right after the election. As always, I welcome your comments – and hope to see some of you out on the campaign trail.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Week That Was

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Last week was certainly a fascinating political week where political news – local, state, and national -- seemed to pile up on itself, and much of it involved Pittsburgh. So much for the summer doldrums. For me personally, last week week was a hectic week with one-on-one interviews with Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain during his visit to Pittsburgh wherein he confused the Pittsburgh Steelers with the Green Bay Packers and with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney on the future of the beloved local football team, followed by a trip to Harrisburg to cover the financial rescue plan of Don Barden’s North Shore casino (still under construction) by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm on the very same day that state Attorney General Tom Corbett charged 12 past and present Democratic officials and staffers with multiple felonies for using state tax dollars to reward employees for political campaign work. And let’s not forget a Westmoreland County jury acquitting state Sen. Bob Regola of perjury charges over the death of his next door neighbor’s 14-year old with a loaded handgun of Regola’s. Wow! Catch your breath.

We’ve got a lot of issues to cover in this edition of my PSF e-newsletter. As always, I welcome your off-the-record comments, or if you want to post something publicly, go to my blog at www.delanosden.blogspot.com. As always, if you prefer not to receive this occasional email, feel free to use the unsubscribe key below. I really hate to lose you, but I don’t want to be anyone’s spam! As regular PSF’ers know, I write this freebie out of love on the dubious assumption that after 14 years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to a PA congressman and now nearly 14 years on the “other” side as a television/radio political analyst and TV reporter in “real” America outside the Capitol Beltway, my observations might be amusing, if not helpful. The honest truth is that I just like to write about politics!


Did McCain Fumble in Pittsburgh?

The political blogosphere, the cable news shows, and now some of the mainstream print and broadcast media have picked up on parts of my KDKA-TV interview with John McCain last Wednesday at the Consol Energy Research facility in Pittsburgh. The essence of the story is, that in response to my questions, McCain recounted how he resisted physical torture (he calls it “pressure”) by the North Vietnamese to name his crewmates by reciting instead the names of the Steelers defensive line. Well, as many others have already pointed out, McCain’s original account of this story was that he named the Green Bay Packers, not the Steelers as he said to me. The McCain campaign says the senator just made a mistake in this Pittsburgh interview.

What Actually Happened?

As the political editor for KDKA-TV, I have wanted to do a sit-down interview with the Arizona senator for quite some time. During the PA Democratic primary, I had a number of one-on-one interviews with U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the Republican candidate was not available to local media when he visited Pittsburgh in April. This trip in July was different. Working with McCain’s new press person for PA & Ohio, the campaign set aside 5 minutes for me, following the senator’s tour of the Consol research facility. [The day before I was able to cover McCain’s arrival and his ‘unannounced’ visit to Primanti’s, Pittsburgh’s famous sandwich shop, wherein he joked on camera with me that Primanti’s sandwiches, known for piling on French fries and sauerkraut along with meat between two slices of bread, was actually “low cal.” It was at Primanti’s, by the way, that McCain also joked about U.S. cigarette exports to Iran killing more Iranians].

As is typical of most campaigns, I was asked to be in place about a half-hour (at least) before the one-on-one interview. My photographer, Jeff Roupe, working with the photographer from WPXI-TV, another local station getting an interview, was actually there a couple hours ahead of time, setting up lights, positioning chairs, and testing microphones. And the campaign staff had their American flag properly positioned for the camera shot. At the last minute, we were told that Cindy McCain would also be joining the senator for the interview. The photographers quickly rearranged everything!

Now my approach to these presidential interviews, especially since time is so constrained, is to keep the focus very local. The national media, who have much better daily access to the candidates than the local media does, can query Obama and McCain about the great national and international issues. I want to ask about things that are important to western Pennsylvanians, and I never ever have sufficient time to do even that.

In preparing my questions, I decided to ask McCain the same first question I asked both Obama and Clinton in my initial sit-down interviews with them last March – when you think of Pittsburgh, what do you think of? It’s a good opening question, designed to get a quick honest answer. Not surprisingly, both Obama and McCain gave the same answer – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now this, of course, is a popular answer in football-crazed western PA, but it is also very political. What is more interesting is what they say about the Steelers. In essence, the Illinois senator told me how he did not have a football team growing up in Hawaii so he adopted the Steelers as his own, and then he proceeded to name some of the great players from the Super Bowl team of the 1970s. You can check out Obama’s answer on the KDKA-TV website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=39209@kdka.dayport.com. .

Senator McCain’s elaboration on his answer last Wednesday was even more surprising to me. Here is the text:

Jon Delano: “Senator, when you think of Pittsburgh, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”

Sen. McCain: “The Steelers. [Laughter]. I was a mediocre high school athlete, and I loved and adored sports, but the Steelers really made a huge impression on me, particularly in the early years. When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the pressure, the physical pressures, that were on me, I named the starting lineup, the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron mates.” [Laughter].
Jon Delano: “Did you really?”

Sen. McCain: “Years ago, yes.”

Jon Delano: “In your POW camp?”

Sen. McCain: “Yes, yes, indeed.”

Jon Delano: “Could you do it today?”

Sen. McCain: “No, unfortunately, I couldn’t. But I certainly could then.”

Knowing my time limitations, I segued from this Steelers talk to ask McCain about Dan Rooney and the Steelers ownership issue, a very big front page news story in Pittsburgh, and then quickly moved on to more substantive local issues (i.e., does the senator, as a millionaire, feel the pain of average Pennsylvanians in this difficult economy – I had asked Obama the same question two weeks ago – and the use of PA coal to give us energy independence, along with the standard political questions about his chances in PA). You can watch my full interview with McCain on the KDKA-TV website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=43538@kdka.dayport.com.

The Aftermath:

At the moment McCain uttered his Steelers comment, I knew I had a story for one of our evening broadcasts – KDKA runs double the local news of the other two stations, from 4 pm to 7 pm – and I also knew McCain’s comments on the Rooneys added to its value. Smart politicians – and McCain is smart – know that framing an answer to a local audience is a guaranteed way of getting coverage.

Driving back to station after the interview, Jeff and I, along with my summer intern, reviewed what we recalled from the interview. I must admit that each of us, upon reflection, was puzzled by McCain’s comments because we all knew that the “Steel Curtain” of Super Bowl fame was a 1970s phenomenom. Did McCain really know the Steelers team during the earlier years when he was imprisoned? While I could name Greene, Greenwood, White, Holmes, and many other Steelers from the championship years, don’t ask me about those earlier teams. To be honest, we were not exactly sure when McCain was shot down either. Could McCain be making this stuff up about the Steelers?

Back at the station, after learning exactly when McCain was captured (October 26, 1967), our executive producer had the same reaction that something seemed peculiar. But none of us knew about the Green Bay Packers’ story, so the piece ran without comment, but carefully noted exactly when McCain was held captive so folks could draw their own conclusions. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=43555@kdka.dayport.com. By the next day, we all were aware that McCain’s autobiography contradicted his statements in Pittsburgh. In his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers, he named the Green Bay Packers as the team he recited to his captors. Of course, Thursday evening we reported that, along with the McCain campaign’s view that this was simply a mistake. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=43612@kdka.dayport.com.

Since then, the story seems to have had a life of its own. I was surprised to open Saturday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette to find the story on the front page, and I gather it has been picked up coast-to-coast in print and broadcast. Google “McCain Steelers” and you’ll get the drift.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Is this all much ado about nothing? Maybe and maybe not. Either John McCain deliberately lied to me in order to maximize local television coverage in a critical swing state, or he simply made a mistake, for whatever reason, confusing the Steelers with the Packers, perhaps because he had, just moments earlier, been presented with a special Steelers jersey and obviously had the Steelers on his mind.

I was there, and I have reviewed the original tape. I simply do not think that McCain was engaged in some deliberate, deceptive, or manipulative attempt to deceive western Pennsylvanians. Nothing about his demeanor in that portion of the interview appears calculating. Moreover, it would have been profoundly stupid to lie about something that he apparently not only wrote about in his autobiography but has also repeated orally. Whatever else the partisans may think about McCain, he is not stupid. Personally, I believe he made a mistake.

Why he made that mistake, we can only guess. I do think the jersey presentation might be part of it, but I think it was an innocent slip, nothing more. His political opponents, of course, have every right to characterize this as something more – and you know they will.

The larger question is: what impact, if any, will this have on the November election in Pennsylvania? In that regard, it may have some minor effect, but nothing fatal. True, everyone in Steelers country will know John McCain confused the Steelers and the Packers. Even if it’s an innocent mistake, it gets attention at the water cooler. McCain’s detractors will characterize this as some deliberate lie, or perhaps (almost as bad) the failings of an elderly man, but I’m not sure that will sell, at least not unless a pattern of similar behavior emerges that the public perceives. This is similar to the effort to portray Obama as a flip-flopper because he occasionally minces his words.

In the end, Pennsylvanians care a whole lot more about jobs and the economy, energy prices, health care, and the war in Iraq than they do about a slip of the tongue by either McCain or Obama.


Corbett Makes His Move:

State politicians have been waiting months for Attorney General Tom Corbett to announce the results of secret grand jury investigations into what has been dubbed Bonusgate. On Thursday afternoon, Corbett, a Republican running for reelection this year and likely to run for governor in 2010, announced charges against twelve individuals, including one former high-ranking House legislator, one incumbent legislator, and ten legislative staffers and former staffers – all Democrats.

Former state Rep. Mike Veon, a Beaver County legislator defeated in 2006, was a prime target. After all, Veon was the second-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives. Corbett accused Veon and Mike Manzo, former chief of staff to current Democratic Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, of engineering a scheme to reward with taxpayer dollars (bonuses) those legislative staffers who worked on political campaigns or in other political efforts, like keeping presidential candidate Ralph Nader off the ballot in 2006. Corbett also claimed that a variety of political efforts, including fund-raising and opposition research, were run out of Veon’s government offices. Manzo is also charged with maintaining a ghost employee in Pittsburgh who engaged in sex with Manzo but did no legislative work for her government paycheck.

The allegations are very serious, and, if proved, could cost the defendants both massive fines and time in jail. I have known Corbett for two decades, and I have great respect for his legal skills. He says the investigations are on-going and that Republican legislators, who also handed out bonuses although not at the dollar level as the Democrats, are also targets. Time will tell.

Whither Bill DeWeese:

The most obvious remaining Democratic target is House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, the loquacious former Marine from Greene County for whom Manzo worked. In an exclusive TV interview with me five months ago, DeWeese made it clear that, not only did he do nothing wrong and was betrayed (my words, not his) by his staffers, but he also does not expect to be charged because he himself did nothing illegal. He told me that, while he knew of traditional Christmas bonuses in the sixty to one hundred dollar range, he was as surprised as anyone to learn about the thousands of dollars of bonuses linked to campaign work. Once he knew of the scheme, he brought in outside legal counsel to review the documents, make recommendations about changes to Democratic procedures that would prevent a repeat, and then turn everything over to Corbett and cooperate fully with the grand jury. DeWeese also fired Manzo and several other senior employees.

Harrisburg insiders always believed that Veon ran the political show, so it’s more than conceivable DeWeese was not involved in Bonusgate. In my interview, he called himself the CEO of a 1,000-person operation who, like a true Marine, delegated responsibility to others in the chain. Still, some think that he must have known more than he lets on, and that Manzo may cut a deal with Corbett that brings down DeWeese. Who knows. If you want to watch my February interview with DeWeese, it’s on the KDKA website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=38563@kdka.dayport.com.

The Peculiar Case of Sean Ramaley:

The only incumbent legislator charged by Corbett last week was 33-year old state Rep. Sean Ramaley, often portrayed as one of the young reformers in the state House. The presentment against Ramaley was the biggest surprise of the day, and the one that some Harrisburg insiders think smells the most of politics. Why? Because Ramaley is the Democratic nominee for state Senate in Beaver County (and a small part of Allegheny & Lawrence Counties), an open seat because of the retirement of the incumbent state senator. The district is three-to-two Democratic, and Ramaley was the odds-on favorite to win in November. The Republican candidate is Elder Vogel.

What brought Ramaley to Corbett’s attention was apparently his connection to Veon. In 2004, Ramaley, who is a lawyer and whose wife is an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, left his job with the U.S. Department of Labor to run for state House in an open contest. After Ramaley won the Democratic nomination, Corbett says Veon hired Ramaley for a part-time job in his Beaver Falls office, working four hours a day. Nothing wrong with that except, says Corbett, Ramaley did nothing for his legislative paycheck. Instead, Corbett accuses Ramaley of campaigning on government time and using Veon’s office equipment for campaign work. Through his attorney, Ramaley denies all the charges.

Has anyone ever met a politician who does not campaign, or politick, on government time? As long as Ramaley did something “governmental” for his weekly paycheck, that charge will be hard to sustain against him. The more difficult count for Ramaley involves using taxpayer equipment and facilities for campaign purposes. While political old-timers reading this PSF will say that, too, was standard operating procedure in the old days, the law does not permit that today, either in Washington or Harrisburg. In the 21st century, smart politicians separate their campaign staff and resources from their governmental ones. If Veon did not, and Ramaley took advantage of that, the AG’s office has a case to take to the jury.

The political challenge for Ramaley and his fellow Dems is that he is on the ballot for state Senate this November. Innocent until proved guilty, he has the right to stay on the ballot, and nobody believes this will go to trial before the election. While some local Dems think Ramaley should step down, allowing Democratic committee people to pick a new nominee, others are not sure this is fair to Ramaley, who obviously believes he did nothing wrong. The decision is solely Ramaley’s, and there’s no indication of what he will do.

Could Corbett Aim Higher?

Besides looking at whether Majority Leader Bill DeWeese violated the law, there’s buzz that Corbett may be looking at whether the Nader petition battle leads to other officials at the highest level of state government. In 2004, Ralph Nader sought to run as an independent candidate for president against Republican George Bush and Democrat John Kerry. That year, Pennsylvania required such candidates to submit petitions signed by 25,697 registered voters in order to get placed on the ballot. Nader submitted 51,273 signatures. But after his petitions were challenged, the Commonwealth Court found that nearly two-thirds of Nader’s signatures were either invalid or fraudulent.

Writing for the Court, President Judge James Colins was scathing. “I am compelled to emphasize that this signature-gathering process was the most deceitful and fraudulent exercise ever perpetrated upon this court,” wrote Colins, saying Nader’s petitions “shocked the conscience” of the court.

Getting Nader off the Pennsylvania ballot was highest priority for Gov. Ed Rendell, the Kerry campaign, and the Democratic Party in 2004, and proving the fraud of Nader’s petitions was a massive undertaking. Polls showed a very tight race between Bush and Kerry with Nader hovering around 3 percent. In the end, with Nader off the ballot, Kerry squeaked out a win in Pennsylvania with 2.5 percent of the vote.

On Thursday, Corbett, who in 1988 was the Western PA campaign director for then Vice President George H. W. Bush and who, after Bush’s victory, became U.S. Attorney for Western PA, noted that at least 50 House Democratic caucus employees were engaged in reviewing the Nader petitions on government time. In his press statement, Corbett said the grand jury found that these employees contributed “a staggering number of man-hours.” Did the order to use Democratic staffers in this effort come from someone other than Veon? Well, as Corbett says, the investigation is on-going.

Upcoming Congressional Battles:

In 2006, Pennsylvania was one of those key states that helped deliver the Congress to the Democrats. Besides Bob Casey’s win over Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate, four incumbent Republican members of the House lost reelection here in PA to Democratic challengers. In 2008, Democrats hope to add to those numbers, while Republicans think they have a shot at regaining a couple seats.

Back to reclaim her old seat is former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican from Allegheny County who lost to now U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire by about 9,800 votes. The 4th C.D. is one of those swing districts in Southwestern PA that voted for Bush in 2004, Lynn Swann (for governor) and Bob Casey (for senator) in 2006. Hart thinks she lost because the public mood was sour against incumbents (it was) and she did not react quickly enough against attacks that linked her to Bush and Santorum (that’s true, too). In the rematch, Altmire has a tremendous advantage in money and has been visible, especially on veterans issues. At the moment, this is Altmire’s to lose, and nobody I talk to really thinks he will. But if anyone can make a race of this, it’s Melissa Hart.

In Delaware County, many think U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, should keep the 7th C.D. in Democratic hands. Sestak defeated former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon by a whopping 33,000 votes two years ago. This year he is opposed by Republican Craig Williams, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, who served in the Marines during the Gulf War and returned to serve as legal counsel to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the current Iraq War. Williams’ background is impressive, but nobody knows him – yet.

Not far away in the 8th C.D. in Bucks County, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick by 1,500 votes, may have a tougher time holding onto his seat. The Republican is Tom Manion, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive whose son was killed in Iraq. Murphy himself is the only Iraq war veteran serving in Congress, and has done well in the fund-raising department. But this is a competitive district, and Republicans think Murphy can be beaten.

The fourth Democratic winner of ’06 who faces a challenge in ’08 is U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, a Democrat who defeated the morally challenged U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood by 12,000 votes in the 10th C.D. in northeast-central PA that should never elect a Democrat. This year the G.O.P. aims to prove that with its candidate, Chris Hackett, that the Carney win was a fluke because of Sherwood’s escapades with a mistress. Hackett, a wealthy entrepreneur who loaned his primary campaign some $800,000, narrowly won his G.O.P. primary but has the personal resources – and the voter registration edge – to make this competitive.

While freshman Democrats Altmire, Carney, Murphy, and Sestak have to defend their seats against Republican challengers, the Dems think they can actually pick up a couple more seats in PA. In the 3rd C.D. that stretches from Erie down into the suburbs of Pittsburgh, U.S. Rep. Phil English faces Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, a newcomer to politics who heads up the Lake Erie Arboretum. English, who is generally regarded as one of the most moderate of PA Republicans, has breezed to victory in years past, but Dems think Dahlkemper can pull an upset. Like most of these races, much will depend on how much money she can raise to get herself better known.

Another perennial Dem target is U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents parts of three SW PA counties in the 18th C.D., including many of the southern and eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. This year Murphy’s challenger is local businessman Steve O’Donnell who won a three-way primary in April. O’Donnell may have some personal money, but most think Murphy is going to be very tough to defeat even if he continues to have some alleged ethical issues. Murphy has been accused by some former staffers of requiring them to campaign on government time – sound familiar? – and the House Ethics Committee and the local FBI are reportedly looking into this. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=21611@kdka.dayport.com. Now this stuff was out shortly before the 2006 election and did not hurt Murphy at that time. Whether O’Donnell can make more of it this year remains to be seen. Most analysts I know think the hard-working Murphy is likely to get reelected, but O’Donnell has the potential to make this close.

While the Dems target two more incumbent Republicans, the G.O.P. thinks it has a good shot at another Dem incumbent, U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski. Kanjorski has represented the north-central 11th C.D. for years, and his challenger this year is a familiar one, Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta. Six years ago, Barletta lost to Kanjorski by 22,000 votes. But since then the mayor has become an iconic political figure because of his anti-immigrant stance, including a ban on illegals working in his city. The court later struck down Barletta’s ordinance, but he would appear to be stronger today than in 2002. One problem for the G.O.P. Kanjorski is an incredibly strong fund-raiser. At the end of the first quarter, Kanjorski already had $1.8 million in cash on hand.

While Pennsylvania could provide some pick-up for the G.O.P., the more likely scenario is status quo. That means the Dems also fail in their effort to unseat G.O.P. incumbents. Of course, it’s early, and I reserve the right to revise and extend as we get closer to Labor Day.

There’s always a lot more to write about, but this is long enough for the moment. Please feel free to leave your comments on these or any other topics. In the meantime, let’s hope this coming week is just a little less politically consequential than the one just past.