Gizzi on Politics: April 28-May 2

Keystone State Capsules

Philadelphia, Pa.—After almost replicating Sylvester Stallone’s celebrated ascent up the 99 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the movie Rocky” (“almost” because I walked up rather than ran the now-famous steps and didn’t jump triumphantly), I was relieved it was April 22 and the Pennsylvania primary was soon to be over. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was growing intense: On 12th Street in the oldest part of the city, a large crowd of Obama supporters implored passing drivers to “Honk for Hope,” while across the street, an equally large and loud crowd of Clinton backers waved a banner reading “Madame President—Get Used to It!” Atop a double-decker bus, a guide pointed to the competing Democratic crowds as if they were tourist sites.

Over breakfast at the Executive Suites Hotel on the morning of the primary, the top aide to a city councilman told me that with Democratic council members split seven for Obama and six for Clinton, “things are getting ugly between the staffs at City Hall.”

But in addition to the testy nature of the race that ended with a larger-than-anticipated victory for Hillary Clinton there were other important nomination battles in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. Among them…

The Road Back for GOP?

Two years ago, Republicans lost four U.S. House districts in Pennsylvania, two through scandal that tainted GOP incumbents. Now, in all but one of those districts, Republicans are waging strong bids to retake the seats.

Perhaps the best chance to reverse the results of ’06 is in the 4th District (Beaver Falls-Aliquippa), where three-term Rep. Melissa Hart was narrowly upset by Democrat Jason Altmire, a lawyer and first-time candidate. Altmire launched last-minute attacks on the conservative incumbent (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%) that even Hart enthusiasts admit she did not respond to.

Now Hart is in a rematch with Altmire. A week before the primary, the former congresswoman told me that months ago, her polls showed her dead even with Altmire “and that’s before he started to compile a record—a liberal record.”

In the 8th District (Bucks County), one-term Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick was unseated in ’06 by Democrat Patrick Murphy, a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq who ran almost exclusively on an antiwar platform. Now Murphy faces Republican Tom Manion, a much-decorated U.S. Marine Corps colonel.

The bizarre ’06 race in the historically Republican 10th District (Scranton) ended with the election of Democrat Chris Carney, a U.S. Navy reserve officer and college professor, over Republican Rep. Don Sherwood, who had admitted an extramarital affair with a 29-year-old woman but denied her charges that he had tried to choke her. (The lawmaker explained to police he was only giving her a backrub.) This year, Carney will face businessman Chris Hackett, who won a hotly contested primary with 54% of the vote.
Many Keystone State GOPers have high hopes in the 11th District (Wilkes-Barre), where Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski is seeking his 13th term. This year, Kanjorski has an unusually strong opponent in Louis J. Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, who gained nationwide attention for leading the fight for tougher local measures to deal with illegal immigration.

If there is any GOP House member in Pennsylvania considered in danger, it is clearly three-termer Tim Murphy in the 18th District (suburban Pittsburgh). Murphy faces Democrat Steve O’Donnell, a rehabilitation counsellor and Vietnam veteran who ran on a platform of opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq and in favor of universal health care. O’Donnell won the Democratic nomination over Beth Hafer, daughter of 1990 Republican gubernatorial nominee Barbara Hafer (who has since switched to the Democratic Party).

Peterson Power

In the only district in Pennsylvania in which a sitting U.S. House member is retiring, Republican Rep. John Peterson showed that he can still flex political muscle even when he is not on the ballot.

On the day of the primary, six-termer and stalwart conservative Peterson (lifetime ACU rating: 91%) issued a strong endorsement of Glenn W. Thompson, health care professional and Centre County GOP chairman. Thompson, considered as conservative as Peterson, topped a nine-candidate primary with 19.5% of the vote to 17.5% for runner-up Derek Walker, a businessman.

Best known as the home of Penn State and Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog who is supposed to predict the arrival of spring every year), the North Central Pennsylvania 5th District is considered the most reliably Republican in the state. By all political yardsticks, Thompson is considered a cinch for November.

Dougherty Down

It’s rare that a primary for state senator gets as much attention as a presidential race, but that was precisely the case in The 1st Senate District (Philadelphia). With Democratic State Sen. Vincent Fumo forced out under a cloud of corruption charges, the Democratic City Committee rallied behind John Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the area electricians unit. Amid increasing attacks on Dougherty because so many of his close associates were under indictment, the union leader raised the most money and won the most endorsements. On the day of the primary, sound trucks implored city voters to back Dougherty. (Philadelphia is one of the last cities left in which sound trucks are deployed to encourage voter turnout.)

But in a major upset, Dougherty went down. The winner of the three-candidate primary with 43.1% of the vote was attorney and self-styled reformer Lawrence M. Farnese, Jr.

Green Sees Red Over Clinton

Even after Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, Democratic activists nationwide refused to speak ill of him and, in many Democratic households, the 42nd President is as revered a figure as Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy.

But that may be changing in the course of the ’08 primaries. During an interview in his office, Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Green surprised me by making no secret of his distaste for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Green, namesake son of a former congressman and onetime Philadelphia mayor and grandson of another congressman, told me that the Clintons have a “kitchen sink strategy to undermine Obama’s campaign in the general election” and thus pave the way for another bid by the New York senator in 2012. He noted that while Bill Clinton was President, “he gave [Hillary] responsibility over the White House Travel Office and health care. So we had ‘Travelgate’ and a failed health care proposal.” Of recent campaign addresses by the former Democratic President in which Bill Clinton spoke “with conviction” of his wife’s being tested, Green said, “I don’t know people who take seriously anything he says even with conviction.”

Almost Lost in Pennsylvania Coverage—A Mississippi Shocker

With all I had to cover in Pennsylvania last week, I almost overlooked the special election to fill the unexpired House term of Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, who was appointed to the Senate late last year. When I finally looked at the results from Mississippi’s 1st District, I was flabbergasted—as, I am certain, were most of my fellow political reporters busy on the Keystone State beat.

In a district that Wicker held for 12 years with little difficulty and that George W. Bush carried with 62% of the vote in ’04, Democrat Travis Childers almost won the special election without a runoff. Childers, the Prentiss County clerk and self-styled conservative Democrat, got 49% of the vote to 47% for Republican Greg Davis. The remainder went to other candidates who had sought nomination for the full term and could not get their names off the ballot for the special election. Since Childers barely missed winning a majority, he and Davis will go one-on-one on May 13.

Magnolia State Republicans were still left speechless over how they almost lost a district in which they were considered invulnerable. Some of the reason may be the bruises left from their nomination battle, in which Southaven Mayor Greg Davis barely (51% to 49%) edged the favorite of party leaders, former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough. Both Davis and McCullough are considered strong conservatives with few issue differences.