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Philly incumbents mostly beat out challengers in state legislative races, with a few surprises

Anthony Hardy Williams’ victory over Paul Prescod echoed a theme of the night: In the battle between progressives and the Democratic establishment, the winner was incumbency.

State House and Capitol Building in Harrisburg.
State House and Capitol Building in Harrisburg.Read moreDave Newman/Dreamstime / MCT

Facing his first serious reelection battle in 25 years, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams fended off a robust primary challenge from Paul Prescod and secured the Democratic nomination in the Pennsylvania Senate’s 8th District.

It was one of the most closely watched state legislative matchups, pitting a veteran Democrat against an upstart candidate backed by the city’s progressive movement in the district representing South and Southwest Philadelphia as well as parts of Delaware County.

Williams’ victory echoed a theme of the night: In the battle between progressives and the Democratic establishment, the winner was incumbency. Across a dozen contested down-ballot races in the Pennsylvania legislature, Philadelphia’s progressive incumbents bested their centrist challengers with the same ease as party-backed incumbents who took care of challengers to their left.

All but two incumbents in contested Democratic primaries for Philadelphia’s delegation in Harrisburg appeared poised to win.

State Rep. Pam DeLissio lost to Tarik Khan, former president of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association who garnered attention for delivering vaccines during the pandemic, in the 194th District, which includes parts of Northwest Philly and Montgomery County. The Associated Press called the race Wednesday afternoon.

» READ MORE: Against the clock: A Philadelphia nurse practitioner spends his nights rushing across the city to bring COVID-19 vaccines that would otherwise expire to homebound residents

And in a battle between incumbents in Northwest Philadelphia, State Rep. Chris Rabb — who is part of a progressive coterie in the city’s Harrisburg delegation — held nearly 62% of the expected vote over State Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald. (Rabb has represented the 200th House District since 2017, but redistricting this year drew him and his colleague Fitzgerald into the same district.)

Anthony Hardy Williams holds on to family throne

Williams won the seat in 1998 after his father, Hardy Williams, vacated the position. The junior Williams has lodged unsuccessful bids for governor and Philadelphia mayor in the years since.

Prescod, an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America, left his job as a Philadelphia public school teacher to challenge Williams, pitting his public education advocacy against the incumbent’s ties to charter schools.

The Prescod campaign raised more than $300,000 and won endorsements from numerous labor unions as well as progressive groups. But, that coalition of support failed to put the 31-year-old within striking distance of the veteran rep.

His loss deals a blow to the local progressive insurgency that in recent years has won numerous seats over establishment Democrats in the Pennsylvania legislature. Still, the challenge was the most significant threat Williams has faced in his district to date.

Incumbency also beat out ideology in U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans’ victory over Alexandra Hunt, a 29-year-old public health researcher who ran on a progressive agenda, including the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

With no endorsements from local groups — progressive or otherwise — Hunt nonetheless raised more than $627,000 from thousands of mostly out-of-state donors. Her campaign drew a nod from former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and gained considerable traction on social media, juggling an OnlyFans account alongside discussions of hot-button policy issues like reparations.

Evans, who raised less money and ran a less visible reelection campaign, won by a 4-1 ratio.

It’s a mixed bag down ballot

Other legislative matchups played out overwhelmingly in favor of incumbent lawmakers, while some vacated seats saw new Democratic nominees who are all but guaranteed to win this fall.

With nearly 77% of the expected vote, State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler easily brushed off a challenge from South Philadelphia Realtor Michael Giangiordano II in a race that drew numerous attack ads against the two-term incumbent.

Fiedler, who is part of the progressive wing, was not the only one to shuffle off a more centrist challenger. In West Philadelphia, freshman Rep. Rick Krajewski toppled his Democratic opponent, James Wright.

Other ideologically moderate Democrats in the House ended up batting away their challengers. State Rep. Amen Brown, who has weathered controversies and policy clashes with his colleagues, was 4 percentage points ahead of progressive challenger Cass Green in the 190th House District as of Wednesday morning, though no victor has been declared.

In Northeast Philadelphia, State Rep. Kevin Boyle — who said he had struggled with mental health issues after he was arrested for violating a protection-from-abuse order against his estranged wife last year — fended off a challenge from journalist Bob Stewart.

A few seats with departing incumbents will also feature new nominees.

In the 173rd District, State Rep. Mike Driscoll declined to run again and instead won a special election for the City Council seat vacated by Bobby Henon, who resigned in January after he was convicted on federal corruption charges. Driscoll’s chief of staff, Pat Gallagher, beat ward leader Pete McDermott in the Democratic primary.

With a double-digit lead, Anthony Bellman appeared poised to win a three-way Democratic contest in the 203rd District, where a seat was vacated by Fitzgerald after redistricting.

Ben Waxman, a political consultant and former spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner, secured the Democratic nomination in the 182nd House District vacated by Brian Sims, securing about 39% of the vote over Deja Lynn Alvaraz and Jonathan Lovitz.

In parts of Kensington and Juniata, residents will see a new state representative in the 180th House District for the first time in more than two decades.

Elected in 2001, veteran State Rep. Angel Cruz declined to seek reelection and passed the torch to his aide Jose A. Giral, who ran unopposed Tuesday and faces no challenger in November.