I am never one to compliment Democrats in how they work their campaigns. Far too often they force themselves into ideological barriers in primaries that leaves them weaker in the general. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party, however, rarely falls into these traps. They have been the example of a strong state party for the past decade and a half. A flipping of the Governor’s office in a GOP year in 2014 tells you all you need to know. They are strong.
However it seems that in the only statewide competitive primary this year, the Auditor General race, the voters may have dropped the ball. The party had found their candidate in Michael Lamb, an Allegheny County Controller. He was everything that was typical in a Pennsylvania Democrat: moderate, could gain votes in a swing area, and someone who has potential for something much greater in the state. Instead though voters chose an unabashed progressive who seems destined to nationalize the race. Nina Ahmad, a Philadelphia based politician, won the primary and thus changed the face of this race for good.
How the west was bested in the Auditor General primary
It has been common knowledge in Pennsylvania that Pittsburgh-area Democrats have generally fared better in statewide races than those from the Philadelphia area. In general the Pittsburgh Democrats have done a better job at getting swing voters, which has allowed them to win close races. In primaries it is also common knowledge that generally one candidate from the West would beat out three or four from the East. The common knowledge was bested this past Thursday when Michael Lamb conceded the race to Nina Ahmad. Even though Lamb was the only Western Pennsylvania candidate on the ballot, he was outrun everywhere else and lost by six points.
Rarely in Pennsylvania’s history do we see a primary end like this. Rarely do we see voters buck the party establishment so hard, especially in a row office primary. Yet in this race it happened. The question that needs to be asked is how it happened.
Did one of Central Pennsylvania’s last remaining Democratic Representatives play spoiler?
H. Scott Conklin. That is not a name that many outside of the most dedicated Pennsylvania politicos would know. He is one of the last legislative Democrats remaining in Central Pennsylvania, mainly because he gets the nice position of representing Penn State University in Centre County. Conklin is known for a failed run as the Lieutenant Governor nominee for Democrats in 2010, when he and Governor nominee Dan Oranato lost to Tom Corbett by nine points. Nine points is just under the total percentage of the vote Conklin got running in the Auditor General primary this year.
Being the only Democrat from the central part of the state, Conklin took the vast majority of the vote from counties in those areas. Counties like Jefferson, Clearfield, Elk and many more of similar make-up all went for Conklin. They make up a small percentage of the vote. However, so many of those votes would have gone to Lamb without Conklin in the race. Those counties align much more with the Western part of the state compared to any other part. It’s reasonable to say that without Conklin in the race, Lamb could be the nominee today.
Was name recognition an issue?
Possibly the biggest issue for Lamb came down to his name recognition. While he shares a name and relation with Congressman Connor Lamb (Connor is Michael’s nephew), he doesn’t have much outside of his general area. To Ahmad’s credit, she was able to boost her statewide recognition through a strong, yet failed campaign for the Lieutenant Governor nomination in 2018. What she did there set the baselines for her success in 2020 and this primary. Ahmad connected to the people not just in Philadelphia, but in Montgomery, in Delaware, in Chester, in Bucks counties.
These counties were crucial in her victory this year, especially Delaware where she got a higher percentage of the vote there than in her home county of Philadelphia. Name recognition matters when there are multiple candidates from similar areas in your primary. This is especially true when regionalism matters so much in primaries in Pennsylvania. Ahmad made herself stand out to Democratic primary voters much more so than Lamb did to their respective bases. In the end, it paid off for Ahmad.
Why I think it’s such a mistake.
I will not lie. I personally would not have ended up voting for any of the Democratic candidates in this race. Consider this my personal endorsement of the Republican candidate Tom DeFoor, who has the experience for the job and is someone who I truly believe will serve the office of the Auditor General well. I realize the endorsement from a 19 year old hot takes writer doesn’t matter much, but I think it matters in transparency. That does not take away from the concerns that I believe Democrats should have about Ahmad as a statewide candidate.
Now I don’t doubt that Ahmad has a fantastic backstory. I said as much in my preview of this primary almost two months ago. The fact she was an immigrant who was able to get a PHD in Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania is an extraordinary accomplishment. That does not mean that she is prepared for the tasks that come with the Auditor General job. Her proposals that she wants to have enacted match that clear inexperience with the job. Ahmad’s issues part of her website promotes Medicare for All, Raising the Minimum Wage and support of the “Green New Deal”.
These aren’t policies that really fall under the office of the Auditor General, nor are they necessarily popular policies with the swing voters that Ahmad will need to win to succeed in this campaign. None of the successful statewide campaigns in Pennsylvania have run on any of these measures. It may seem good for a congressional campaign in some of Philadelphia’s collar counties, they certainly won’t play well in a statewide race against a GOP candidate who has styled himself as a moderate.
The GOP candidate doesn’t help matters either
As I mentioned perviously, the Republican Party nominated Tim DeFoor. DeFoor is an elected controller from Dauphin County, a county that slightly tilts blue but can definitely still go for the right Republican candidates. DeFoor is one of those candidates. He has drawn a moderate brand in his five years as a controller in Dauphin County and has connected with voters in the area. His main issues are to make sure wasteful spending is eliminated and keeping the state government transparent. That is what the Auditor General’s office is meant to do.
DeFoor is likely to be the strongest statewide GOP candidate on the ballot in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvanians are willing to split their tickets too; see all three Democrats outperforming in these row office seats in 2016 while President Trump and Pat Toomey were winning statewide. Don’t think it can’t happen the other way too. If there is a candidate who can do that for the GOP, Tim DeFoor is definitely it.
Where can the Auditor General race go?
At the moment I have the Auditor General race as a toss-up. Ahmad’s personal campaign to nationalize the race and its issues will backfire. It never goes well for any row office campaign when that happens. Now, certainly things can change. We still have just about four and a half months until Election Day 2020 and something against either one of these candidates could come out and damage their campaign. But this isn’t a race that should be a toss-up and yet it seems set up to be one. The Democrats messed up in their candidate choice for the first time in ages in Pennsylvania. Republicans can’t look this gift horse in the mouth and should take advantage of this situation. It may end up giving them this office for the first time since the late 90s.