In Swingy PA, Pam Iovino Flips State Senate Seat “Blue”—Congratulations! April 13, 2019
Pennsylvania. It was one of the original Middle Colonies, located between New England and the South. PA, (Latin for “Penn’s Woods”) was founded by Quaker William Penn as a refuge for his persecuted Protestant denomination. Quakers were then seen by many people as a controversial “cult” undermining “peace and order (Woodard, C., “American Nations,” 2011).” From its beginnings, PA had many other “middling” qualities. It was a tolerant colony that welcomed people of all ethnicities and religious beliefs as opposed to then rigid religiously intolerant Anglo-Saxon Puritan New England and the Anglican-dominated South. PA was a colony of mainly small hard-working German immigrant farmers and Quaker businessmen. It also had Scots-Irish Protestants as well as an early Jewish community. PA was far removed from the plantation aristocracy supported by African slave labor in the VA Tidewater and the SC /GA Deep South. According to “American Nations” author Colin Woodard, in 1775, at the start of the American Revolution, PA was the only part of British North America to have a non-British majority. It was always an ethnic mosaic, with Germans comprising the largest group since the 1600’s.
Like Yankee New England, PA Midlanders believed that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people. However, unlike New England, many PA residents were and remain extremely skeptical of top-down governmental intervention (Woodard, “American Nations”). Woodard attributes this attitude to the fact that many Pennsylvanians trace their ancestry to people who fled from overbearing European tyrannies. PA also received immigrant infusions of Irish Catholic, Italian, Slavic, and East European Jewish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. PA, a key part of Woodard’s “Midland” American “nation,” is viewed by many as a “bellwether for national political attitudes.” According to Woodard, other writers, and many political analysts, PA has been among the key “swing vote” states in just about every national debate, from the abolition of slavery through the most recent presidential elections. Hillary’s 2016 PA loss by a .7% margin (nytimes.com/elections/2016, 9/13/17) “bigly” contributed to Demagogue Donald’s win. In 2019, both Democrats and Republicans as well as the national media continually focus microscopically at special elections in bellwether PA to determine if “Team Blue” or “Team Red” will win the White House, Congress, and state houses in Campaign 2020.
Swing State PA itself contains many bellwether congressional and state districts. In a recent blog post, I discussed Democrat Bridget Malloy Kosierowski’s winning a PA state House seat in the northeast Scranton area, on 3/12/2019. That district had flipped from Obama by eighteen points to Trump by eight. Kosierowski handily defeated her GOP rival Frank Scavo by a 24.88% margin (WNEP Web Staff, Lee, P., 3/12/19). This was the type of district that had cost Hillary the presidency (dlcc.org, 3/12/19, theintercept.com, Lacy, A., 3/08/19). As impressive as Kosierowski’s win was, however, it was not that big a “bellwether.” Democrat Kosierowski was replacing another Democrat who had died in office (WBRE-TV, 10/16/18). The ultimate test of a political party’s strength is whether it can flip state or congressional districts from the opposing party to its own. On 4/02/2019, Democratic and Republican activists, as well as political analysts were heavily focused on who would win the PA 37th State Senate District (SD) special election.
The PA 37th SD is located in western PA in the Pittsburgh area. It includes much of Allegheny County’s southern and western suburbs. Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Jefferson Hills, and Sewickley, as well as Peters Township in Washington County are here (triblive.com, Lindstrom, N., 4/02/19). This special election was held to fill the vacancy left by GOPer Guy Reschenthaler who won election to PA’s 14th Congressional District (CD) in 11/2018 (triblive.com, 1/27/19, Balser, E.). Although Democrats have a voter registration edge in the 37th SD, in 2016, Trump carried this area by 6 points (Levy, M., AP, 4/01/19, post-gazette.com/news, Routh, J., 2/02/19, pghcitypaper.com, Deto, R., 4/03/19). The PA 37th SD has largely been controlled by Republicans for the past 50 years. The rural coal regions in this area have swung GOP and this is a culturally conservative area, not like coastal CA or NYC (See AP, Levy, M., 4/01/19). NBC News called this special election “the first major bellwether race” before 2020, one “of utmost importance to Trump.” The GOP treated this election seriously, spending more than $1 million to keep this seat “Red” and to get momentum for Trump in this key swing state (dlcc.org, 4/02/19). This special election pitted Democrat Pam Iovino against GOPer D. Raja. This election was expected to be close and possibly decided by a few hundred votes (Routh, J., post-gazette.com/news, 4/02/19). In the end, Democrat Iovino beat Raja 52%-48% with a margin of about 2,500 votes (wtae.com, Action News, AP 4/03/19). Let’s do our own analysis.
Mt. Lebanon, PA resident Pam Iovino (62) the youngest of three children, came from a lower-middle class family. She graduated from Gettysburg College and pursued a U.S. Navy commission. She graduated with distinction from Officer Candidate School and received a Master’s Degree from the Naval War College. Iovino served 23 years in the Navy and was promoted to Captain. After tours as a Missile Maintenance Officer, Manpower analyst, Network Welfare program manager, and congressional liaison, Iovino retired from the Navy to assume the job of Assistant Secretary to the Department of Veterans Affairs congressional and legislative office. President W Bush nominated her to this post and in 2004, and the Senate unanimously confirmed her. Iovino’s naval background influenced her to pursue a public service career (pamforpa.com, Routh, post-gazette.com, 4/02/19). Democrat Iovino stands for “Team Blue” bread-and-butter/kitchen table issues. She advocates bolstering pre-K education, paying teachers adequately, and reducing student educational debt. She supports the Affordable Care (Obamacare) law and calls health care a human right. She wants unimpeded access to women’s health care in PA. She is for increasing PA’s minimum wage to $15 and growing small businesses. She strongly supports labor unions, a key group in southwestern PA. Iovino opposes anti-union “right-to-work” laws and attempts to slash workers’ pensions. She wants to make it easier for people to join unions. She wants businesses to pay their fair share of taxes and for property tax relief to aid hard-pressed seniors. Iovino, trained in the safe and lethal use of weapons, supports universal background checks and sensible gun safety policies. She is for funding PA’s environmental departments to protect air and water quality. She stands for campaign finance reform, and for aiding veterans. She favors PA’s GI Bill to help returning veterans get the training they need for civilian life (pamforpa.com/issues, Martin, D., shareblue.com, 4/03/19).
D. Raja (53), Iovino’s GOP opponent, also resides in Mt. Lebanon. Raja is the chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee (triblive.com, Lindstrom, 4/02/19). Raja co-founded the software company CEI, Computer Enterprises Inc., in Robinson, PA (triblive.com, Balser, 1/27/19). He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University. He served as a Mt. Lebanon commissioner and as commission president in 2010 (ballotpedia.org, AP, Levy, 4/01/19). In 2012, Raja ran for the PA 37th SD and was defeated by his Democratic rival by a 5.2% margin (PA State Senate Dist. 37, 2012 General Election).
Raja made opposition to a severance tax his key campaign issue, ridiculously arguing that such a tax cut could increase PA GDP (gross domestic product) growth by billions and grow thousands of jobs (Routh, post-gazette.com, 4/02/19). He opposes legislation that infringes on the “right to bear arms.” Translation: he is against gun control laws. He has stood for reduced government spending and is for passing strong pro-life, read, anti-choice legislation (ballotpedia.org). In short, Raja’s your typical slash and cut laissez-faire, cultural right-wing GOPer.
In this closely divided district in one “bigly” swing state, how did Iovino manage to win an easy victory? According to University of Pittsburgh election analyst Lara Putnam, Iovino won with strong backing by organized labor and grassroots progressives, the combination PA Dem. Cong. Conor Lamb used to win a special election in Trump country in 2018 (pghcitypaper.com, Deto, 4/03/19). Lamb, in fact, had campaigned in this area in 2018 during his special election campaign and personally stumped for Iovino. Iovino had the backing of PA Dem. Gov. Tom Wolf and Dem. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (facebook.com). Again, Democratic turnout among traditional union families and progressive anti-Trump grassroots voters was key. Turnout in Mt. Lebanon, the district’s most liberal area, was about 40%, high for a special election. In one Mt. Lebanon precinct, Howe, organizers hoped Iovino would get 64% of the vote. She received 69%. Iovino turned out votes in union families throughout the district. Union voters in Moon and Upper St. Clair were critical in stemming the conservative wave that backed Trump in 2016. Iovino carried Bethel Park. In 2016, that town had supported Donald and then State Senator Reschenthaler. According to analyst Putnam, towns near the Allegheny-Washington County border that have historically supported GOPers and did that heavily in 2016 went “Blue.” Why? When a kitchen-table Democratic Navy veteran like Iovino was on the ballot, these voters found her to be someone they could comfortably vote for (See Deto, pghcitypaper.com, 4/03/19). Get it? As Putnam stated, there must be a strong turnout of traditional and progressive Democrats for “Team Blue” to win key swing areas. The candidate must also be one emphasizing economic bread-and-butter matters, not social identity issues.
How did Raja run his campaign? He had Donald Trump Jr. make a robocall for him (Action News, wtae.com, AP, 4/02/19). Raja also ran a TV attack ad against Iovino. In it, he ridiculously tried to tie Iovino to left-leaning Sen./ presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and NY Dem. Cong. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) as an anti-growth environmental extremist. Raja tied himself closely to Demagogue Donald. In a mailer he sent out, Raja showed a smiling Donald with the message, “a vote for Raja is a vote for President Trump’s agenda (AP Levy, 4/01/19).” His campaign tried to emphasize special counsel Robert Mueller’s “overreach.” Iovino tapped into the anti-Trump energy of the unions and grass roots progressives that Conor Lamb had done in his previous election campaigns. The PA Democratic Party sent out anti-Trump mailers to voters (See AP Levy, wtae.com, AP). In the end, Trump-loving Raja “y uu gely” crashed and burned.
Besides giving Democrats a political adrenaline jolt going into Campaign 2020, Iovino’s victory cuts the advantage GOPers hold in the PA Senate to a slim 26-22 edge. In 2020, with half that state’s Senate seats up for grabs, “Team Blue” needs only to flip three Senate seats to gain control of that chamber (Martin, D., shareblue.com, 4/03/19). Again, although Iovino’s victory was impressive, Democrats on the state and national level must take nothing for granted. We must turn out progressives and traditional Democrats in droves to beat Demagogue Donald’s fanatical base. We can’t stay home or “eat our own” presidential, congressional, and state candidates. We must stand behind all our nominees and not force them to take ideological “litmus tests.” When we vote, there are more of us than them. Once again, congratulations Pam Iovino and the PA Democratic voters who made her victory possible.