A key race in defining Democrats

In Pennsylvania, a clash of two visions in gubernatorial primary race shows party split.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Crawling up the narrow cobblestone streets of Philadelphia's historic Germantown neighborhood, the red-white-and-blue bus, plastered with a giant likeness of gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell, looks jarringly out of place.

But as it pulls up in front of Cliveden Manor – site of one of the fiercest battles of the Revolutionary War – the symbolism is neatly fitting.

With less than a week to go before Pennsylvania's primary election, former Philadelphia Mayor Rendell and state Auditor Bob Casey Jr., are locked in an intense struggle for the Democratic nomination for governor. The matchup, which pits a culturally conservative populist against a pro-business liberal, has sharply split the state's Democrats – and in the process laid bare a fundamental clash over the heart and soul of the party here.

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Mr. Casey, son of the late Gov. Bob Casey, has drawn much of his support from the party's blue-collar base. Pro-gun and antiabortion, he is campaigning primarily on traditional Democratic issues like expanding access to healthcare and raising the minimum wage. He has won the endorsement of most of the state's unions, as well as the state party leadership.

By contrast, Rendell, the former mayor who also headed the Democratic National Committee from 1999-2000, is running strongest among urban and suburban voters, many of whom credit him with engineering Philadelphia's revival in the 1990s. Culturally liberal – he supports abortion rights – he touts creative economic plans, such as cutting local property taxes while raising revenue for education through slot machines and higher cigarette taxes.

The campaign has revealed deep economic, cultural, and geographic divisions among Democrats in a state that political strategist James Carville famously described as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between." Rendell's supporters are mostly from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions – areas that benefitted from the high-tech boom of the '90s – while Casey appeals more to the struggling mining and rural communities that have been left behind.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore each managed to hold these two groups together in one shaky coalition to win the state in recent national elections. Yet analysts say the bitter dynamics of the current race underscores the increasing difficulty of that task, which may pose a stark challenge to any Democrat hoping to win at the state or national level.

"Clinton and Gore put both pieces together," says Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa. "They had the cultural liberals, the pro-business Democrats in the suburbs, as well as the typical blue-collar, working-class people. In the case of Casey and Rendell, they divide them."

As part of a campaign to maximize voter turnout in the Philadelphia area, the Rendell camp has persuaded 17,000 Republicans to switch party registration in order to vote in the Democratic primary. While these "Rendellicrats" may not be statistically all that significant, on a symbolic level they hint at a long-term realignment that's occurring between the parties as more conservative working-class Democrats switch to the GOP, while Republican urban moderates move to the Democratic column.

Of course, Pennsylvania's Democratic Party has long been more conservative than the national party as a whole, in part because of its demographics – the state party has a far greater percentage of whites, Catholics, and seniors. The Keystone State has also had an unusually hard time economically – it ranks 48th in economic development, and 49th in population growth.

Asked to explain the state's poor track record in job creation in a live debate, Rendell says, "We've been afraid to invest in growth – we're afraid to take chances."

Taking chances is a theme of Rendell's campaign. He alludes repeatedly to his own "risk-taking" as mayor, when he stood up to the unions and cut costs to beat back the city's budget deficit – an approach that won him the admiration of many city residents (though not of many union leaders).

Shaking hands and posing for pictures at the Mt. Airy Day fair in Germantown, the burly, gravelly-voiced former mayor is clearly regarded as a local celebrity. People constantly walk up and tell him they shook his hand five years ago and ask if he remembers them (he usually responds with a phrase like, "Who could forget that face?")

"I love Ed Rendell," says Philadelphia chef Crystal Floyd, noting that he came into her restaurant once. "He ate my chili. I almost died," she says.

Over and over again, Philadelphians point to the change in their city, often with a sense of wonderment.

"You felt full of pride saying I'm from Philly," explains Ms. Floyd.

But Casey has challenged Rendell's Philadelphia Story, pointing out that not everything in the city has changed for the better. Most notably, the city's schools have performed at such poor levels that the state has stepped in and taken over.

He attributes the steady loss of young people to the fact that they "don't think that they can get a high-paying job" in the state, something he believes he can change by raising the minimum wage.

Earnest and serious, Casey presents a contrast not only in ideology, but also in style to the backslapping Rendell.

The two men have also employed strikingly different campaign strategies. While Rendell has interacted with voters nonstop, Casey has spent far less time on the stump, relying more on ad campaigns and direct mailings.

Pollsters say either man could win – though Rendell has taken a lead in recent weeks. As of now, polls show both Democrats beating the Republican nominee, Attorney General Mike Fisher, in the fall. But analysts warn that the costliness of the Democratic campaign, as well as its increasingly nasty tone, could take a toll.

Although it has been known for decades as a swing state, in recent years, that label has become somewhat misleading, as the Republican Party has dominated in most major offices. True, Pennsylvanians went for Clinton and Gore, but the state's two US senators are Republicans, as are a majority of their US representatives, and both houses of the state legislature.

For Democrats, this gubernatorial race could be their last chance to maintain a foothold in the state. "This is an absolute, critical threshold election for Democrats in this state," says Mr. Madonna. "If a Democrat doesn't win, they're in the wilderness for a decade."

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