Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pennsylvania attorney general's race is off to a crowded start

Candidates are already out working the campaign trail, schmoozing party leaders, making the rounds at fund-raisers, and gathering endorsements. A snapshot from the Republican presidential campaign?

Democrat Patrick Murphy, a former U.S. representative, said he was "running hard. I will not be outworked."
Democrat Patrick Murphy, a former U.S. representative, said he was "running hard. I will not be outworked."Read moreBIZUAYEHU TESFAYE / AP

Candidates are already out working the campaign trail, schmoozing party leaders, making the rounds at fund-raisers, and gathering endorsements.

A snapshot from the Republican presidential campaign?

No. It's what the Pennsylvania attorney general's race looks like 17 months out, when campaigning has leaped to an early start, well ahead of other of that for state row offices and even the U.S. Senate seat.

The job is open because the interim attorney general, former federal prosecutor Linda Kelly, agreed, as is the custom for interim appointees, not to run for a full term. She replaced Tom Corbett, who stepped down shortly before taking office as governor in January.

The job can be a gateway to greater things. Just ask Corbett.

Two Democrats have entered the race: former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Bucks County and former Lackawanna County prosecutor Kathleen Granahan Kane.

Philadelphia lawyer Dan McCaffery, who is expected to join them, has said he will announce his intentions within the month.

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who has said she was "considering" such a run, did not return a call seeking comment for this article.

No Republicans have announced. But there is chatter in GOP circles about several possible Philadelphia-area candidates: Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, former interim Attorney General Jerry Pappert, and State Sen. John Rafferty, who represents parts of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties.

Last month, Ferman reported $237,000 in campaign contributions for her reelection race, suggesting she might be positioning herself for a statewide run. But she has said she would not announce any such plans until after November's district attorney vote.

"You would expect a Republican to have emerged at this point, particularly for someone looking to make a statewide name in an office incredibly friendly to Republicans," said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

Then again, Borick said, Republicans may be reluctant to run in a presidential election year with a Democrat in the White House. Would-be GOP attorneys general might have handicapped 2012 as "a more hostile environment electorally," he said.

Nevertheless, candidates - announced and otherwise - were hobnobbing with their parties' movers and shakers during the weekend in Hershey, where the state GOP was holding its summer meeting, and in Seven Springs, where the Democrats were gathering.

Murphy, who lost his congressional seat to Republican Mike Fitzpatrick in the fall, has positioned himself as the Democrat to beat, raising $500,000 in six weeks and racking up endorsements from unions, local party leaders, and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

"I'm running hard," said Murphy, 37, an Iraq war veteran. "I will not be outworked."

One expert said he was unsure if sprinting ahead of the pack would pay off in the end.

"I don't know if it helps to be that far out in front when we're focused on presidential candidates right now," said Berwood Yost, director of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy at Franklin and Marshall College. "Perhaps he is trying to clear the field and become front-runner."

Murphy's only declared rival is Kane, who spent 12 years as an assistant Lackawanna County district attorney before leaving in 2007 to raise her two young children. Kane, 44, said she was taking her time and was unconcerned about Murphy's early start.

"As a prosecutor . . . I'm used to putting my case forward," said Kane, en route to Seven Springs. "I haven't sought any endorsements yet. The race will be won by voters, not in boardrooms."

Although he has not declared, McCaffery, who ran in 2009 for the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney, made his plans known in letters sent in March to party chiefs in all 67 counties.

He, too, professes to be unfazed by Murphy's early efforts, predicting that differences between the two men "will become stark" to voters in the next year.

If that sounds like someone who intends to buy lots of campaign advertising, McCaffery, 46, may fit the bill. He is likely to get financial help from one of the most active political donors in the state: Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a top giver to his district attorney campaign. Another big donor in that race was McCaffery himself. He put up $250,000.

The younger brother of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, he is a former prosecutor who handles commercial and municipal litigation at a Jenkintown law firm.

To be sure, the Democrats are swimming against a historical tide. Since attorney general became an elected post in 1980, no Democrat has won it.

Why not? Yost said Republicans might be perceived as tougher on crime, but it could also be that they run smarter campaigns, have better credentials, or (like Corbett) hail from Western Pennsylvania and thus stand to gain from some upstate voters' anti-southeast sentiments.

McCaffery said he believed there was another reason: His party "continues to put up left-of-center politicians and trial lawyers." He called himself a moderate.

The attorney general oversees 750 state employees and has a salary of $145,000.

Being elected attorney general does not necessarily position someone to run for higher office. But it did become a launching pad for two gubernatorial candidates: Mike Fisher, who lost to Ed Rendell in 2002, and Corbett, who, as attorney general, led the Bonusgate investigation into illegal use of state legislative staff and resources for politicking.