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EDITORIAL: Primaries highlight parties' challenges
There were surprises a’plenty in last week’s Pennsylvania primaries, but none more unexpected – or potentially dispiriting – than the apparent lack of voter interest.
In the first statewide races since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory turned politics on its ear, with scores of candidates vying for ballot space in state and federal contests, and with newly drawn congressional districts to break in, registered voters responded by staying away from the polls in droves Tuesday.
Only 18 percent of registered voters hit the ballot box. While that’s up a tick from the last midterm election in 2014, it is below average for such races.
That’s especially astounding — and for party leaders, no doubt, demoralizing — in York County, where hometown candidate state Sen. Scott Wagner was on the ballot for the Republican nomination for governor. In addition, that new political map has created not one but two congressional districts in the county and there were 10 races on the ballot — three Republican and seven Democratic — countywide.
The lackluster turnout belied the voter enthusiasm President Trump had been purported to generate among defenders and opponents alike.
Still, those voters that did cast ballots offered something for everyone:
- Trump backers saw two of his biggest supporters position themselves to take on Democratic incumbents in statewide races. Not only will Wagner face off against Gov. Tom Wolf in a battle of York County millionaires, but Trump champion and friend Rep. Lou Barletta captured the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and will take aim at Sen. Bob Casey. Both races could well serve as bellwethers this fall, particularly the Senate contest, in which Casey defends one of 10 incumbent Democratic seats in states won by Trump.
- Democrats elected a slate of candidates for the 18 House races that range from centrist (Scott Wallace in District 1) to progressive (EMILY's List-endorsed Susan Wild in District 7). The party is hoping to take advantage of the new, more fairly drawn political map and the retirement of several Republican incumbents to pick up as many as five seats this fall.
- Women will see their interests represented by one of their own again in the U.S. House next year. While the state’s current contingent of 18 lawmakers is all male, Democrats elected seven women Tuesday, including Jess King in York County’s District 11. King will face an uphill battle in a district including parts of the county that single-handedly gave the state to Trump, but it’s a sure bet that a woman will win in District 5, where Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon takes on Republican Pearl Kim.
- Record-keepers had one for the books: Lt. Gov. Mike Stack became Pennsylvania’s first second-in-command to lose a primary. (And not just lose; he came in fourth in a five-way race.) Iconoclastic Braddock Mayor John Fetterman will bring his progressive agenda, his straight talk and a likely dash of color to what is normally a lowkey a race. Philadelphia-area businessman Jeff Bartos will run alongside Wagner on the GOP line.
The rash of candidates both familiar and new, the redrawn political lines, the stakes in terms of the balance of power in Washington — all of these would seem to be major motivators when it comes to voter turnout. Add to them the many state-level races, and one would think the polling stations will be flooded come Nov. 6.
But if Tuesday’s surprisingly light turnout is any indication, the candidates and their parties may have work to do. They may not be able to merely rely on the Trump effect, which drove voter turnout in 2016. They may need to make the case that politics is more than an endless, tiresome argument; that elective office must be filled with those who can do good for society; that every vote counts.
If they don’t, then Democratic dreams of a blue wave may end up dashed upon a rocky shore. Or Republican hopes of holding back that tide may find themselves washed away.