In the following edited exchange, former Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Alan Novak and former state Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney looked ahead to the fall elections and considered political lessons learned this spring.
Alan Novak: Last month's Pennsylvania primary was not the potboiler that was anticipated. That said, we saw some interesting races that pose challenges for each party this fall.
T.J. Rooney: There was a high level of intensity, especially on the Republican side. While overall turnout was low, the turnout among social conservatives in the Republican primaries was very high. When you look at the number of votes conservative U.S. Senate candidates Sam Rohrer and Tom Smith wrapped up, that was an impressive total. When you look at the Republican establishment, it went the other way.
Democrats saw a strong showing of organized-labor voters. A good example was the loss in Western Pennsylvania of Congressman Jason Altmire. Labor, which opposed Altmire, was a huge, determining factor in that race.
Novak:It is easy for Republicans to look at the low turnout and miss the point you just made about intensity among conservatives. If I were the Republican Party leader, I would look at unifying and fortifying the party and getting focused on the fall. Conservative Republicans had a significant impact, but the party has to bring everybody together. The fall election will hinge on swing voters, and the real question is whether the desire to change presidents will be a unifying force.
On the Democratic side, I see a very strong candidate for attorney general in former prosecutor Kathleen Kane. Typically, it's Republican candidates who have those prosecutor and law enforcement credentials that voters trust for this position.
Dave Freed has to get out there to fire up his Republican support. With Kane carrying her momentum into the fall, he has to get his Republican allies to mobilize. If he does, he can win this race.
Rooney: You are right about the attorney general's race. It was a surprising outcome.
Leading figures in our party were involved. While former President Clinton endorsed Kane, Ed Rendell and Mike Nutter endorsed former Congressman Patrick Murphy. Murphy had been an ardent supporter of Senator Barack Obama, and David Axelrod came from Philadelphia.
One unusual aspect of that race was the way personal popularity transcended the usual boundaries. I was struck by how personal popularity made the difference.
Congressman Tim Holden's primary in northeastern Pennsylvania saw a lot of big names and establishment votes lined up for Holden, while a different part of the party lined up for his successful challenger, Matt Cartwright. Sometimes you spend a lot of time going after the big endorsement and it doesn't amount to a hill of beans.
Novak:True. Just look at the U.S. Senate race. Tom Smith grabbed the momentum early, like a horse in the Kentucky Derby. He fell into a couple lengths' lead and never looked back. From the first commercial he aired, he made the race about him, and no one — not even Steve Welch, who had all the right endorsements — could catch up.
Sam Rohrer finished a distant second. That shows the limitations of grassroots groups. They can get you 20 to 25 percent of the vote, but money is still important, and defining yourself and defining the race is crucial.
People ask me whether Smith can beat Senator Bob Casey. I think he has a chance. He'll need to match or exceed what his opponent does financially. But with this win, the Smith campaign is knocking on the door of the second tier of potentially competitive national races that the Senate Republican Campaign Committee will be looking at.
Rooney: That said, Senator Casey is still in a strong position. But this race is going to be like all others — built brick by brick, block by block.
Notice how establishment politics really took it on the chin in both parties this spring. Governor Corbett went out of his way with a strong-arm endorsement of Welch, who was defeated resoundingly. In the Holden race, the Democratic establishment lined up to support the candidate who lost.
Pennsylvania reflects the national sentiment. Establishment politicians need to pay attention to what is really going on here.
Novak: That's true at the state level, too. Representative Sam Smith, the state House speaker, was a near miss. He won his primary by only 500 votes. It raises the question: At what point have you overstayed your welcome?
Rooney: Democrats also need to understand where our challenges lie and make sure we don't cede any ground. Once Democrats sharpen the message, independents will begin to move.
Novak: Based on what I saw in the primary, I don't envision shifting majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. Because some incumbents lost or were seriously challenged, both parties have some opportunities. But I don't see the whole Pennsylvania congressional delegation shifting.
Rooney: We'll see. The key question for both parties will be: What does the independent voter think? The primary results show each party was driven to philosophical boundaries. How do they get back to the middle? Whoever does that wins.