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Lessons of Pa. primary

Five things that could affect elections in November and beyond.

Kathleen Kane got the Democrats’ nod for state A.G. (Jake Danna Stevens/Scranton Times-Tribune, AP)
Kathleen Kane got the Democrats’ nod for state A.G. (Jake Danna Stevens/Scranton Times-Tribune, AP)Read more

Even if one doesn't drink tea, the well-steeped tea leaves from Pennsylvania's April 24 presidential primary still make for some fascinating reading. Together they portray contemporary currents in state electioneering while portending some dynamic changes in future politics and policy.

Here are five takeaways from the voting. Not all are everyone's cup of tea, but all are likely to influence Pennsylvania politics long after the November election.

What's a party endorsement worth? Not as much as it used to. Gov. Corbett and the Republican Party failed to deliver the U.S. Senate nomination to their endorsed candidate, Steve Welch, showing once again that endorsements often mean little in modern statewide politics. This is a lesson state Democrats, too, have painfully learned over and over. In modern politics, with self-financed candidates, sophisticated media campaigns, and 24-hour news coverage, endorsements only matter if they bring significant financial and organizational resources. Increasingly, state parties lack the heft to back up their candidate choices. In the future, party endorsements will play much less of an important role.

More polarization. The focus this time was on the Democratic Party with two powerful "blue dog" conservative congressmen going down to defeat at the hands of liberal opponents. Tim Holden in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh area's Jason Altmire are only the latest casualties of a seemingly inexorable trend to hard-edged ideological politics in both parties. A parallel trend in 2010 produced similar results for the GOP, adding five strongly conservative Republicans to the state's delegation. When the new Congress meets in January, the state's delegation in Washington will be more polarized along conservative-progressive lines than at any time in modern history. Significantly, so is the state legislature in Harrisburg.

A.G.: Do the Dems finally get it? Since its inception under the amended state constitution, the office of attorney general has been held continuously by Republicans. Voters appear more comfortable with GOP attorneys general. But Democrats have aided and abetted this pattern by often failing to nominate A.G. candidates who appealed to the electorate's preference for a take-no-prisoners, prosecutorial-style candidate. Now, with the nomination of Kathleen Kane, an experienced prosecutor who has financed her own run, the stage may be set for a closely contested fight for attorney general this fall. Certainly, Democrats seem to have a better shot at winning the office than at any time in recent memory. Real two-party competition for this office is more important than ever since future attorneys general are more and more likely to be future gubernatorial candidates.

Incumbents still rule. Marquee races produced defeat for five state House incumbents, as well as some closer-than-expected contests. These isolated races, however, almost all featured unique local conditions. The bigger picture is the huge number of incumbents who ran unopposed, or who face opposition only on the fall ballot. Altogether more than 40 percent of state House members and 20 percent of state senators face no opponents at all this year. Only eight percent of senators and 14 percent of House members were opposed in the primary. We are a long distance from the watershed 2006 anti-incumbency election in which 54 new members were elected. This year neither anger nor antipathy has morphed into a serious anti-incumbency fervor. The 95 percent reelection rate for incumbents past may not be returning yet, but we are far from enjoying truly competitive legislative elections in Pennsylvania. 

Apathy + anger = ? Even as voters continue to fulminate at politicians and their policies, Tuesday's turnout hovered in the low 20-percent range. Part of the problem is the dearth of competition - voters simply don't have enough choices. In the primary only four senators and 28 House members had challengers. Even the two incumbent congressional losses were as much a result of decennial redistricting as of genuine competition.

We face an interesting moment in history - low turnout despite the anger and the angst - how does that work for the fall? Democrats show slightly more enthusiasm than Republicans in national polls, but neither party's voters seem deeply motivated.

Will voters stay home in the fall as they did in the spring? An angry voter with an agenda for change is a positive thing; an angry voter, alienated from participation in the system, is a dangerous thing.