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Primary losses raise a debate on gender

A glass ceiling, or missteps by Schwartz and Margolies?

Marjorie Margolies, the woman trying to succeed Allison Schwartz in the U.S. House, said Pennsylvania women would suffer because her loss likely means the state's congressional delegation will be all-male.
Marjorie Margolies, the woman trying to succeed Allison Schwartz in the U.S. House, said Pennsylvania women would suffer because her loss likely means the state's congressional delegation will be all-male.Read moreSteven M. Falk

Rep. Allyson Schwartz blamed sexism when she bumped against the glass ceiling of Pennsylvania politics last week, finishing a distant second in the Democratic primary for governor.

"The Harrisburg establishment . . . couldn't imagine even a woman with my experience and accomplishments could actually be the governor," she said in her concession speech Tuesday.

And Marjorie Margolies, the woman trying to succeed Schwartz in the U.S. House, said Pennsylvania women would suffer because her loss likely means the state's congressional delegation will be all-male.

"If you're not at the table, you're on the menu," Margolies said in her primary-night rally.

Both began their races anointed as favorites, with wide name recognition, impressive resumés, and powerful backers. Their failures have led some to wonder, once again, if the nation's sixth-most populous state is hopelessly retrograde.

Pennsylvania has never elected a woman to the Senate, has one of the lowest percentages of women in its legislature, and is one of 23 states that has never elected a woman chief executive. New Jersey elected Christie Whitman and Texas elected Ann Richards. The Keystone State? All men.

Nobody doubts that women face barriers to success in politics, but pollsters, political strategists, and participants in the two campaigns say Schwartz and Margolies fell to earth for reasons more complicated than gender bias.

Each faced foes with deep pockets and aggressive TV campaigns.

And each made mistakes of strategy and management, using messages that contained internal contradictions or did not jibe with the mood of the electorate.

" 'We've got to have a woman governor' or 'We need to replace a woman with a woman' are '80s messages," said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic consultant. "Most women voters are interested in solutions, not symbolism."

In its earliest planning stages, Schwartz's campaign was predicated on catching the electoral magic that propelled Kathleen Kane in 2012, when she became the first woman elected state attorney general - winning more votes in Pennsylvania than President Obama did. Kane used gender in campaign, pounding away at Harrisburg's "old boys' club."

Yet unlike Schwartz, Kane was a political outsider, and she had $2 million of family money to spend polishing that image. In short, she was more like the self-funding Tom Wolf, winner of the gubernatorial nomination - a businessman with no electoral experience who put up $10 million of his own money.

Schwartz is a veteran of the system, with nine years in Congress and 14 in the state Senate. Experience typically tests well in Democratic primary polling, her advisers said. But the 2014 climate was tricky, with both Washington and Harrisburg unpopular, and Wolf's "different kind of governor" theme resonating.

And something about Schwartz's delivery made it trickier: In contrast with the folksiness Wolf projects, she can come across as scripted and remote.

She finished 40 percentage points behind Wolf.

Throughout the campaign, her critics say, Schwartz's message vacillated between insider and outsider themes. She was a warrior who would shake up Harrisburg and take on the "old boys' network" - but also a smart legislative technician who would get things done.

"It seems like they didn't know whether to embrace or walk away from her record of experience," said Democratic consultant Dan Fee.

Her backers ranged from Rep. Bob Brady, Philadelphia's Democratic chairman, and John Dougherty, the powerful leader of the electricians union, to Emily's List, the national group that supports Democratic women candidates and heavily funded Schwartz's campaign.

She spent $1.9 million last year, in the race's early stage. But when Wolf grabbed an early lead with saturation-level TV advertising that began Jan. 30, the Schwartz campaign decided to conserve cash rather than try to match him and risk running out of money - and being off the air in the crucial final weeks.

Schwartz launched her first ad April 7.

Often, early advertising brings a bump for a candidate that shrinks when opponents go on the air later. That didn't happen in this case: Wolf's wire-to-wire lead was unprecedented.

"The campaign never really got off the ground," pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College said. "I don't know what she could have done."

Schwartz aides have come to the same reluctant conclusion.

"This election is a testament to the power of money," her spokesman, Mark Bergman, said. "I think that once we were able to begin communicating, a lot of voters had already made up their minds."

Margolies, 71, lost by 14 percentage points to State Rep. Brendan Boyle in the primary for the 13th District, which straddles Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties.

Boyle's labor support, along with a late influx of cash from that direction, trumped the help Bill and Hillary Clinton gave Margolies, whose son is married to Chelsea Clinton.

Critics - and even some supporters - say Margolies ran a lackluster race with few public appearances, and spent too much on consultants (more than she raised in the last six months). She faced attacks by her rivals, including allegations that she broke campaign-finance laws.

Some also say her message was too focused on the deciding vote she cast for President Clinton's first budget, which raised taxes - and cost her a reelection.

The other prong of her pitch was the need to make Schwartz's successor in Congress a woman.

In debates, Margolies repeatedly referenced her election in 1992, the "Year of the Woman," and her later work for an international women's charity.

While canvassing, she connected with voters by asking about family. "I met your mother outside." "How are your kids?" "Did you see my grandbaby?" she said, shaking hands Tuesday at a Northeast Philadelphia polling place.

Boyle, by contrast, had a sharp-edged populist message stressing his background as the son of a SEPTA maintenance worker and a school crossing guard.

Boyle's win was partly geography: He was the only candidate from Philadelphia, leaving Margolies, physician Val Arkoosh, and State Sen. Daylin Leach to split Montgomery County's votes. More voters turned out in Philadelphia, and 70 percent of them picked Boyle.

Both Margolies and Arkoosh believe they would have won if they had been the only woman in the race.

"Men have been running against men forever. Because women are still a bit of a novelty in politics, when you do have two women in a race, one will suffer," Margolies said Thursday.

If all of Arkoosh's votes had gone to Margolies, she would have edged Boyle by 1,329 votes.

But Arkoosh doesn't believe all, or even most, of her votes would have gone to Margolies.

Some voters "will vote for the female candidate almost always. But for most voters, that isn't sufficient," she said. "They want to make sure that candidate is also a good candidate for other reasons."

And her campaign, Arkoosh said, found that its targeted voters were choosing not between the two women, but between the progressives - her and Leach.

"Their perception of Marjorie's campaign was that it was looking to the past," Arkoosh said. "They never got a clear sense of what her priorities were, what she would have done when she got to Congress this time."

Many voters, it seems, agreed.

"I've always said I'd vote for any woman over any man, but now that it comes to reality, I'm all over the place," said a Montgomery County Democratic committeewoman, Marge Sexton, 71.

She decided Margolies didn't have "the fire in the belly," and "Val had no shot."

So she voted for Boyle.

"I'm taking some heat from my women friends," Sexton said. "But ultimately I felt Boyle was the best overall, the most qualified . . . someone who would hold on to the seat for years to come. It couldn't be just a woman."