Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan beat longtime incumbent District Attorney Stephen Zappala on Tuesday — but he may have to face him again.
Zappala, who lost the Democratic nomination to Dugan 44.3% to 55.5% according to unofficial vote tallies, may show up on the Republican ballot in November.
A pitch late in the spring primary season by some GOP leaders in Allegheny County urged Republican voters — apparently without Zappala’s input — to write in his name on their ballots. If Zappala has at least 500 eligible write-in votes, and the tally is more than any other Republican write-in candidate, he would be eligible to appear on the ballot in the general election.
The latest unofficial tallies from the county elections site shows more than 11,000 Republicans cast write-in ballots for district attorney on Tuesday, but it’s not yet clear how many of those votes Zappala received.
Zappala’s campaign did not reply to a request for comment from the Capital-Star. On Tuesday, he told supporters the primary was merely “halftime,” but did not confirm whether he would accept a potential Republican nomination.
Dugan told the Capital-Star that if he does have to run against Zappala again in the general election, he plans to stick with what worked in the primary: maintaining a consistent message about what he views as a broken criminal justice system in Allegheny County.
“We’re not going to change our strategy at all,” Dugan told the Capital-Star. “Our message will be exactly the same. Our effort will be exactly the same, and we’re going to outwork him. Again.”
Dugan expressed skepticism about Zappala’s ability to win if he’s on the GOP ticket. “What his campaign strategy is going to be … I couldn’t tell you what it was in the primary,” he said. “His recent history, and going further back in time suggests that no, he will not put in the effort necessary to win.”
Switching parties is not an unheard-of practice for Pennsylvania politicians; the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter famously changed parties twice – from Democrat to Republican in 1965, then back to Democrat in 2009.
It’s also not unprecedented for a write-in to prevail in the Commonwealth; in March 2014, Republican Scott Wagner became the first write-in candidate to ever win election to the Pennsylvania state Senate, taking almost 48% of the vote in a special election, and more than 80% of Republican votes in the May primary that same year.
He resigned in 2018 to run for governor, winning the Republican nomination, but ultimately losing to incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in the general election in November of that year.
Dugan said he and his team will dig into the primary data to further prepare for the general election, but he expects Zappala — or whomever might be on the Republican ballot —will try to attack him for some of the groups outside of Pennsylvania who provided support to his campaign.
Campaign finance reports showed Dugan received in-kind donations from the Pa. Justice and Public Safety political action committee, part of the Justice and Safety PAC, which receives funding from billionaire George Soros. The PAC provided more than $700,000 worth of TV ads. He also received support from the Color of Change PAC.
“Without a doubt, the money that we received from Justice and Safety [PAC] increased our profile,” Dugan said. “Steve had long-standing relationships with labor and other folks and a lot of folks were afraid to donate to us for fear of retribution.”
But Dugan said the PACs did not dictate how to run his campaign, and his stances on issues did not change after he received their support. “They knew that the electorate had an appetite for change and that our policies and reform issues were going to resonate,” he said.
Dugan said he wasn’t sure what to expect in the months leading up to the general election, regardless of what Zappala might or might not do. But he said one thing that did surprise him about the primary was how much he liked campaigning.
“This is all new to me, it was a weird winter,” he said. “But you know, I’ve really enjoyed it, far more than I ever thought I would.”
Kim Lyons is a contributor for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.