Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘MAGA’ and warnings of ‘radical extremists’: Trump-era political acrimony makes its way to Philly-area races

Heated rhetoric ahead of elections in Montgomery County and Delaware County shows that the nationalization of local politics, once confined to congressional races, is making its way down the ballot.

The national Citizens Who Have Had Enough PAC mailed this flier to voters in Delaware County.
The national Citizens Who Have Had Enough PAC mailed this flier to voters in Delaware County.Read moreCampaign Flyer

The yellow flier from the Upper Dublin Democratic Committee got straight to the point in a message about next month’s general election, in which voters across the Philadelphia region will choose from candidates for local and state positions.

“To ALL Ds, Independents and moderate Rs: consider being kind to yourself and everyone by voting Straight Democratic Party on the 2019 Ballot," advised the flier, which a committee member created and handed out to neighbors in the Montgomery County township. "Never have the 2 parties had such different outlooks. Having Republican after a candidate’s name means that person accepts advice, $$$, expertise and manpower from those committed to 4 more MAGA years.”

“MAGA,” of course, refers to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Meanwhile, in Delaware County, a new super PAC known as “Citizens Who Have Had Enough” sent mailers to voters mashing up the faces of Democratic County Council candidates with those of leading national liberal figures: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“The faces may be different," the mailer said. "But The Radical Extremists Policies Are the Same.”

The adage, often attributed to the late House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, holds that “all politics is local.” But in today’s polarized political climate, voters can be forgiven for thinking the opposite: all politics is national.

That’s long been the case for congressional races. But the nationalization of local races is increasingly finding its way to the ballot.

“The national back and forth between the parties has certainly created significant engagement at the local level," said Jim Burn, former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and current solicitor for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. “National politics are not the major driving force [in local elections], but they are certainly variables in the equation more so than in the past. And we attribute that to the national rhetoric.”

Burn said he’s heard Democrats saying they can’t allow the president to have support at the local and county levels, and Republicans saying they need to elect people who will let the president continue his work. In attack ads, Republicans tie local Democrats to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats tie local Republicans to Trump.

“Each side is using their respective boogeyman," Burn said.

Even Upper Dublin’s school board race — which in typical fashion centers on property taxes, school district spending, and the quality of students’ education — has also become about Trump and party loyalty.

The yellow flier personally offended Jennifer Kuznits. She’s a registered Democrat, but she’s running for a school board seat with “Republican” under her name because she won the Republican primary. That’s because she and a fellow Democrat ran in both political primaries — known as cross-filing — after they didn’t win the backing of the local Democratic Party.

“I was just like, “Are you kidding me?” Kuznits said of the flier. "They’re trying to scare people into not voting for us.”

In the Upper Dublin School District’s last board election in 2017, the four registered Democrats won both primaries, so they appeared on both the Democratic and the Republican tickets. This time, Kuznits and the other candidates who won the Republican primary are campaigning as Upper Dublin United. They’re running against the Alliance for Upper Dublin Schools, the slate of candidates endorsed by the local Democratic Party.

Kuznits and running mate Ginny Cairo-Vitella, a Republican, decided to run for school board in part because of their fight last fall to keep the district from replacing an athletic field with a bus depot.

“The big-time politics have trickled down from the national to the state, from the state to the county, and the county to the local,” said Kuznits, who has three children enrolled in the district.

Christopher Pastore, co-chair of the Upper Dublin Democratic Committee and parent of two district students, said the flier was "an earnest effort to make sure people who want to vote are given the information their committee person thinks they need to vote.”

“I think the more information people get, the better,” he said.

Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University, said bringing national politics into local elections is about reinforcing a party’s message and fostering in voters a habit of showing up to the polls and voting with the party.

“Both parties are getting into this early, working at the grassroots level, if you will," he said. “If either party has any chance of success in winning the presidency and congressional races or statewide races in Pennsylvania, for example, both parties need to mobilize their base.”

Parties have gotten more sophisticated with using imagery, he said, as with the mailers that combine local candidates’ faces with those of national figures.

“For voters who are consumers of Fox News, for example, or who go to conservative websites, the message being conveyed is going to reinforce what they’ve been hearing and seeing," he said.

And although this is not new, political discourse and messaging have “definitely become coarser,” Baldino said.

Many times, political parties tie local races to national ones in more subtle ways. Greg Stewart, chair of the Centre County Democratic Committee in central Pennsylvania, said his group isn’t trying to nationalize the local races, “but it comes up.”

"Not saying, ‘Look out for Trump,’” but highlighting issues such as climate change and voting security, he said.

“I don’t think we want to nationalize ‘Go vote for this township supervisor just because you don’t like Trump,'" Stewart said.

There’s strategy to that approach, said Randall Miller, a political analyst and a history professor at St. Joseph’s University.

“You do get a lot of things that are implied that could be even more powerful than if they’re explicit,” he said. “You can evoke something without actually pointing the finger and saying this person is just like that person."

Delaware County Council candidate Elaine Schaefer, whose face was combined with Elizabeth Warren’s face, said the flier was a “clear sign” the Republican Party is fearful of losing the power they’ve had for 150 years.

“They’re resorting to this type of fear-mongering and crazy personal attacks,” she said.

In Upper Dublin, Pastore, of the local Democratic Committee, said that although he thinks the candidates on the Republican ballot are "committed members of the community who want to serve,” he said they are misinformed about the current board’s performance and not fully committed to public education. Of the Democrats on the Republican ballot, he said, “I feel like they’re wrongheaded as Democrats.”

“National politics play into all of these local races," Pastore said. “They do color people’s ideological point of view.”