The vote came in a packed Hotel Hershey ballroom amid some tension between campaigns and party members. Democrats view Gov. Tom Corbett as the nation's least popular Republican governor and have made him a top target in this year's election.
But with a big field seeking the party's nomination, the 300-plus party committee members were hopelessly split. Some county party committee members, including Allegheny and Northampton counties, cast votes for each of the five candidates.
Before the vote, party chairman Jim Burn warned that the voting could be contentious, but he said it was like Republicans, not Democrats, to all fall in line with one way of thinking.
"We're diverse," Burn told the crowd. "That's why we're Democrats."
The primary election is May 20.
State Treasurer Rob McCord, who pushed for a vote after his campaign spent weeks trying to round up committee members' support, came away with the most votes. He called it a "good market signal" for his campaign that he had won the vote among people who pay close attention to the race and are veteran campaign volunteers.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz's campaign chairman, Jonathan Saidel, said it was "childish" of McCord to pursue a vote when an endorsement was out of the question.
The tension spilled over into the morning Philadelphia caucus meeting and a Friday night closed-door meeting attended by several candidates. McCord said that he had not expected to actually win an endorsement, because it requires the high bar of a two-thirds majority vote in a field of six candidates who had sought the endorsement.
But for him, it still signaled a victory.
"For me, this is about nominating the person who is most likely to defeat Corbett and most likely to get stuff done," McCord told reporters.
If pushing for a vote made conflicted party members uncomfortable, McCord was unapologetic and said he was standing up for people who wanted to vote and for party rules that called for one.
"We're in the last 100 days of a primary in a serious-as-a-heart attack general election against a bad, incompetent governor who's hurting people," McCord said. "We can't make this about insider politics."
The state Republican Party tried to take advantage of the split loyalties, and suggested that it reflected a weak field of candidates "whose views are way out of line with voters." The Corbett campaign called the field "unimpressive candidates running on an agenda that's too extreme for Pennsylvania."
In both votes, McCord won nearly half the votes cast and about twice as many as Schwartz, most of whose votes came from the Philadelphia caucus. York businessman Tom Wolf came in third, followed by two former state environmental protection secretaries, John Hanger and Katie McGinty.
The party also was unable to endorse a candidate for lieutenant governor in a field of six seeking the endorsement. Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski led the group, taking took home about half the votes.