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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More of the same, please: PA primary wrap-up

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 7:03 AM

Well, the results of the primary are in … and at least one thing is certain: People really are sick of Len Bodack.

The big story last night, of course, is that Hillary Clinton took Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points. That's no surprise: This space, for example, predicted nearly a month ago that Clinton would win by 7 to 10 points -- half the margin most polls were calling for. But the airwaves this morning are full of talk about how the outcome proves Obama is "not a closer." Clinton's 10-point win meets -- just barely -- the "double-digit margin of victory" standard that, somehow or other, was set as the bar she had to reach in order to remain viable.

So as this campaign limps out of Pennsylvania, then, the picture is every bit as muddled as it was coming in. Both candidates are claiming victory (Obama because Clinton had been up by 20 points, and Clinton because Pennsylvania is a big swing state, which are the only kind her campaign wants to count). After six long weeks, all Pennsylvania accomplished was prolonging the agony for everyone else.

Good work, voters!

The county-by-county results are what you'd expect. Obama won by two-to-one margins in Philly, and took some of the surrounding area as well. But Clinton narrowly won in the key battleground of Montgomery County, and trounced Obama throughout most of the western and rural central areas of the state. Earlier in the campaign, Gov. Ed Rendell made waves for suggesting that some rural Pennsylvanians wouldn't support a black candidate … I have a feeling some Obama supporters who denounced that assertion will strike a similar note today. Those supporters might also wish to revisit their hope that Sen. Bob Casey's support of Obama would help in the northeast part of the state. Clinton won every county in that corner of Pennsylvania, by margins of two- and three-to-one.

Identity politics and name recognition only went so far last night. In the closely watched 18th congressional district, Monroeville businessman Steve O'Donnell beat Beth Hafer, daughter of Barbara Hafer, a well-known former state official. If Hafer was hoping this would be the year of the woman, she was disappointed. In Allegheny County, voters in the 18th district went for Clinton by a 63-37 margin. But O'Donnell, who like Clinton had the county Democratic endorsement, beat Hafer by roughly 4,000 votes -- enough to deliver the district, which stretches over several southwestern counties.

I'm tempted to chalk Hafer's loss up to a generally lacklustre presentation and the party endorsement. Like her mother, Hafer had a reputation for party-swapping, and O'Donnell used her stint as a Republican committeewoman to good effect in campaign literature. While a moderate face might have helped Hafer in the general election, area Democrats were apparently not forgiving.

Then again, party endorsements also only went so far. Last night's biggest surprise was in state House district 21, where Len Bodack's loss to Dom Costa in a three-person race also featured Brenda Frazier. The conventional wisdom was that the race was Bodack's to lose, since he had the Democratic endorsement and some $60,000 to campaign with at the beginning of the year. If you bought that premise, it seemed likely that Costa and Frazier would split the anti-Bodack vote and send him to Harrisburg.

Instead, Bodack nearly finished last. Costa won with 4,940 votes, whereas Bodack's total of 4,703 edged out Frazier by just over 100 votes. Costa is an affable candidate, but the temptation is to chalk this up to name recognition -- he was one of three Costas with winning positions on the ballot last night -- and perhaps to an anti-Frazier campaign launched by restaurant owners upset about her support of the drink tax. In any case Bodack's loss offers conclusive proof, if any were still needed after he lost his city council seat last year, that he is an indifferent campaigner for anything other than the party's endorsement. You might want to retake that career aptitude test, Len.

What makes Bodack's loss all the more damning is that nearby state House races went as expected. The winners were incumbents or endorsed Democrats: Jake Wheatley trounced Deidra Washington in District 19. Joe Preston beat his nearest challenger, Lucille Prater-Holliday, by three-to-one margins in District 24. (Keep your eye on Prater-Holliday, though. This was only her first run for office, but she has a certain presence, and her background includes work for the community activist group ACORN. I'm guessing we hearing from her again.) And Bodack's former council colleague, Dan Deasy, won a three-way contest down in district 27.

So what does it all mean? What overarching message can we take from the races up and down the ballot? I'm willing to say just this: In a year where candidates have been campaigning on promises of change, area voters responded largely by asking for more of the same.

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