There’s Exactly One Democrat Running for Governor of Pennsylvania
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In U.S. politics, all eyes will be on Pennsylvania this year: Democrats hope to pick up retiring Republican Pat Toomey’s Senate seat so they can hold on to their slim majority in the chamber. And as term-limited Democrat Tom Wolf retires, Republicans have a shot at the governor’s mansion in a state where they firmly control the legislature.
These and other races have attracted a swarm of candidates. In almost every statewide primary field, there are more than enough aspirants to suit up a football team—with one exception.
The Democratic candidate for governor, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, doesn’t face a single primary opponent.
“It is striking that the marquee Democrats in the state have all lined up to run in the Senate race,” says Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Prominent Democrats contending to replace Toomey include Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and Representative Conor Lamb. That race “is almost overcrowded at the same time that Josh Shapiro has the gubernatorial primary on the Democratic side all to himself,” Hopkins says. On the Republican side, there are more than a dozen candidates vying for the nomination.
Shapiro, 48, made his name with lawsuits against the Catholic Church for sexual abuse cover-ups and against drug companies and doctors for fueling the opioid crisis. His pitch to voters in the swing state—which Joe Biden won with a 1-percentage-point margin over Donald Trump—is that he’ll protect abortion rights and elections from the Republicans in the Harrisburg statehouse while hewing close to the political center.
As attorney general, Shapiro embraced some traditional rituals of the office. He held press conferences framed by tables laden with ill-gotten firearms and drugs confiscated by the pound. But he also prosecuted businesses for wage theft and sued one of the state’s leading health-care providers to preserve insurance coverage for western Pennsylvania residents, efforts supported by progressives.
“We see attacks every single year in the legislature, and right now both chambers are controlled by anti-abortion legislators,” says Signe Espinoza, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania, which endorsed Shapiro as soon as he announced his run for the governorship.
Even with Republicans in charge of the statehouse, Democrats believe it’s the GOP that’s out of sync with Pennsylvania opinion on abortion access and political norms. Some of the Republican candidates in the gubernatorial primary have refused to disavow Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. A few are fully embracing the falsehood.
Shapiro argues that a vote for him will be a vote for the integrity of future elections. After some legislators supported Trump’s attempts to overturn the state’s Electoral College results, and as some Republicans have maneuvered to restrict ballot access in Pennsylvania, he says it will be essential to have a Democrat in charge. And the only Democratic option is him.
Being the governor of Pennsylvania is “a position where you can help protect our democracy from the very significant threats we’re facing,” Shapiro says. Some governors “are going to find themselves in a position—if Washington fails to deliver meaningful election reform—where they’re going to be the brick wall that has to stand to defend our democracy.”
Shapiro hails from a Philadelphia suburb in Montgomery County, and he’s been involved in politics for most of his adult life. After working on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer in his early 20s, he was elected to the state legislature in 2006, where he helped then-Governor Ed Rendell engineer a political sweep that briefly gave Democrats complete control of Harrisburg.
As Republicans came to power at the state level in 2010, Shapiro got elected to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, taking the helm as Democrats won a majority there for the first time since the Civil War. In 2016 he became AG even as Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania. In 2020 he won reelection with more votes than Biden.
It is partly this track record that has so far cleared the field for Shapiro, along with his strong name recognition from winning two statewide races. Without a primary foe, he won’t have to tack left in coming months and can conserve his campaign war chest, which stood at more than $10 million in late October.
At a time when some Democratic politicians have sought to distance themselves from police unions, Shapiro embraces more conventional law-and-order policies. He’s clashed with Pennsylvania Democrats to his left, such as Fetterman and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, on criminal justice issues. As progressive politicians struggle to hone their messaging around violence, Shapiro’s middle-of-the-road approach may appeal amid a surge in homicides.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been supported by local police, and I think we need more policing in our communities,” Shapiro says. He argues that it’s Republicans, with their austerity-minded budget priorities, who seek to defund the police. Republicans in Harrisburg “love to proclaim their support of law enforcement in their press releases, but when it comes time to match that with action, they fail miserably,” he says. “We have a real crisis brewing, not just in places like Philly, but in Lancaster and other communities where we can’t recruit and retain enough police.”
Mark Harris, a GOP consultant working for the gubernatorial campaign of state Senate President Jake Corman, says being the state’s lead law enforcement official during a crime wave is hardly grounds for bragging rights. He says Shapiro coming from the Philadelphia area, which has more in common culturally with New Jersey than the rest of Pennsylvania, is a point of vulnerability, as is his long career in politics.
“His negatives have never really been litigated,” Harris says. “He’s going to have to defend his actual record against a well-funded, well-resourced opponent,” whoever GOP voters choose.
In what’s predicted to be a brutal year for Democrats, Shapiro says he likes his chances. “I’ve won tough races before in tough environments,” he says. “In 2020, I earned more votes than anyone in the history of Pennsylvania running for any office at any time. And it was largely on the strength of winning Republican and independent voters in rural parts of our state.”
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