The Stupid Kabuki of the statewide political races

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By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

My daughter is an aspiring musician/singer and as such, she often considers possible future band names — it’s a bit of a running joke between us these days.

Which is, of course, why I nominate Stupid Kabuki as both a possible addition to her list and a perfect description of Pennsylvania’s two statewide races this fall.

To be clear, Republican Scott Wagner trails Gov. Tom Wolf and GOP U.S. Senate Candidate Lou Barletta trails Sen. Bob Casey Jr. Badly. Yet both challengers — and their supporters — have to pretend the races are neck and neck and that every vote (and dollar of donations) counts.

In truth, not really, hence Stupid Kabuki — the art of pretending a non-viable race is viable.

While some polls have put both races in the upper teens — at minimum, it’s safe to say that both GOP candidates trail by more than 10 points, a number that doesn’t properly reflect likely voter projections (energized Democrats are way more likely to vote than usual, while moderate Republicans may just skip voting this year). At this point, the only question is how down far each will drag other candidates further down the ballot.

The guess here: a lot.

If both candidates were running old school, Pennsylvania Republican races, the damage would be minimal (maybe even a plus). Heck, I think both Gov. Wolf and Sen. Casey could be well challenged on a number of issues by more mainstream candidates.

But they’re not.

It’s more a “who can out Trump, Trump” approach, one really likely to turn off millions of voters in the southeast, where Trump is slightly less popular than malaria, while exciting hundreds of voters in the “T.” In other words, both candidates seem to be embracing a strategy to lose Chester County by more votes than the entire vote total for Greene County (where they’re likely to win).

Why? Panic? Brain injury? Uber loyality to the President?

Honestly, I have no idea, except both Wagner and Barletta’s campaigns seem to think that Pennsylvania magically turned into Oklahoma overnight, in terms of political demographics. Yes, a lot of blue-collar voters who often vote Democratic voted for Trump in 2016, but it’s really, really unclear whether they will show up this November at all, or, if they do, vote Republican.

Wagner has tried to move to the middle on school funding, taking on Wolf over the revised school funding formula (and somewhat disingenuously claiming Wolf wants to use it to cut funds from wealthy schools to give to poorer ones). But he also voted against pretty much every increase in school funding that he could while in the state Senate, so his argument seems to be falling flat.

Barletta’s long and notorious anti-immigrant stances haven’t earned him many friends here in the southeast, where crackdowns on immigrant farm workers have left many farms understaffed and struggling to harvest crops.

While I can’t see ardent Republican voters — the GOP still holds a majority in Chester County — coming out to vote for Democrats, I can imagine many of them staying home to send their party a message: enough with the crazy.

I think Republican voters may see an additional reason to stay home if they feel like the local 6th District Congressional race, with underdog Republican Greg McCauley trailing Democrat Chrissy Houlahan both in polling and fundraising, is equally futile.

Obviously, things could tighten in all three races — 90 days is an eternity in politics.

But right now, things look rough for Republicans in Chester County right now. Keep in mind, I said much the same thing a year ago — suggesting that Democrats might win one row office, something that hadn’t happened in more than 150 years.

They ended up winning all four. So, if you think I’m alarmist, consider that.

***

That environment has a lot of local State Representatives worried. And it should, based on some of the early polling I’ve seen.

As an example, in the 158th District in the Unionville area, State Rep. Eric Roe, a freshman, appears to have his hands full with Democratic challenger Christina Sappey. The first numbers I’ve seen show a very close race — within the the margin of error. Spoiler alert: Roe isn’t ahead.

Yes, you have to take early polling with a grain of salt — especially when you haven’t seen the likely voter model built into it. But even if Roe has a lead, it appears to be tight and vulnerable to a Democratic surge.

As such, it appears a flurry of polling is going on — some of it trying to see how closely tied local legislators are tied to Trump. I know of at least one being run this past week in the 160th District, trying to discover how popular/unpopular Trump is in the district (shocker: he lost the district in 2016) and whether State Rep. Stephen Barrar, an early and vocal supporter, is closely tied to him in voters’ minds.

While I don’t know it, I think the poll is being put out there by Republican or Republican supported groups, only because I know the Democrats are using a different format for their polling. If that’s the case, expect to see similar efforts elsewhere in the county as legislators look to see how many districts are vulnerable and how big an anchor Trump is going to be in the southeast.

***

I wanted to note some pushback I got from the column of two weeks ago, where I suggested that the 13th and 26th district state house seats were likely “safe” for Republicans.

There were no shortage of people in the 13th who wanted to argue that State Rep. John Lawrence faces a tough challenge on the issues from Democrat Sue Walker. Undoubtedly, that’s true, but that wasn’t the point I was making.

Because most folks know little about their state legislators, atmospherics and demographics tend to drive these races — which way the political winds are blowing and the ratio of Republican and Democratic voters in a given district.

Because of the way the 13th and 26th were redrawn in 2011-12, both districts are much, much tougher for Democrats to win. Note that Tom Houghton, a Democrat, held the the 13th seat until 2010 while Fern Kaufman came within a whisker of knocking of State Rep. Tim Hennessey in 2008. Both districts were redrawn — which created the 74th in the Coatesville area, and made the 158th and 160th both much more Democrat friendly.

At this point, let’s assume that the 158th is about R+5 — that Republicans have about a five-point advantage in a neutral voting environment. the 160th is somewhere around R+7 (it used to be higher, but western Delaware County is trending blue, rapidly, to the extent that Hillary Clinton won Chadds Ford in 2016 and southeastern Chesco is all but navy blue these days). That means in a blue wave scenario of 7-8 points — which seems to be the consensus — both seats should be in play (keep in mind, long-time incumbents enjoy a 5 to 10 point bump, so even with the wave, 160 is an uphill climb for Democrats).

Which brings us to 13 and 26. Both are R+midteens. 15-17, roughly. That means it may well take a tsunami, not just a wave, to knock off Hennessey and Lawrence. It’s not a reflection of the relative merits of the candidates, but rather the demographics of the district.

I’ll stipulate this: there isn’t a seat in the county unwinnable by either party this cycle. But, I would rate 74 as a tough race for Republicans and 13 and 26 as tough races for Democrats. The rest of the seats are either toss ups (167, 158 and 157), close but with some margin, (156, strong lean D, and 155, strong lean R).

160 is an odd race with a well-liked incumbent, Barrar, who opted to go all in with Trump — who is not well liked in the district. With a reasonably well-funded and energetic Democratic challenger in Anton Andrew, the race could prove interesting as a local referendum on Trump, which may override some of the demographics of the district.

***

Nice to see Pennsylvania Republican Chair Val DiGiorgio able to vent his righteous indignation after an incident in Philadelphia when protestors — allegedly AntiFa, the current GOP boogeyman — disrupted the breakfast Monday morning of conservative commentators Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk in Philadelphia. The protestors were verbally and physically abusive, as noted in the group’s Instagram postings.

“The physical and verbal harassment of two law-abiding, private citizens over their political views is outrageous and beyond the pale of reasonable political discourse,” DiGiorgio said in a statement. “I would like to thank the Philadelphia Police Department for intervening to protect Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk during what must have been a dangerous and unsettling situation.”

Apparently lacking any sense of irony, DiGiorgio continued:

“Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘History will record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’”

He then called on Democrats to condemn such actions.

“As divisive political rhetoric from the radical left turns into violence, I call on Pennsylvania Democratic Party and all Democrats of character to denounce this—and any—activity that seeks to replace reasoned debate with violence and intimidation,” he said. “Should they remain silent, they remain complicit with a group that seeks to obstruct, destruct, and tear this country apart.”

Undoubtedly, AntiFa is over the top — especially with apparent claims that all police are fascists and so on — and there is no room for stupidity such as harassing people quietly eating breakfast. But, let’s point out that they oppose Fascist, White Nationalists — your garden variety Nazis — which I think we all can agree (unless you happen to be President Donald Trump and a few GOP elected officials) are pretty bad.

Setting aside the extreme irony of DiGiorgio quoting Dr. King on staying silent when bad people run amuck, I don’t see DiGiorgio ginning up the same outrage over equally inappropriate protests that go on daily outside of Planned Parenthood clinics all around the commonwealth. I don’t see him expressing outrage over the harassment of a scared, confused 18-year-old girl trying to get in the door to see what her birth control options are; I don’t see him rushing to the defense of a married mother of three seeking a pap smear because Planned Parenthood is the only place she can get affordable health care.

Save me your righteous indignation. The left, sadly, is finally using the same stupid, thuggish tactics we’ve seen from the right for years now and suddenly, the right is all upset about it.

To be clear: neither is acceptable. Violence and threats are never the answer.

But the hypocrisy here is so over the top so as to be stunning.

***

You may have seen media reports about Chester County Controller Margaret Reif issuing a subpoena to get records of the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit.

While Reif has made it clear that no deficiencies have been found in the Sheriff Department’s books, the K-9 Unit, supported by donations, has not been open to public scrutiny.

While allies of Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh have argued that Reif’s efforts amount to politics — and frankly, nastier characterizations than that — it’s hard to argue that any effort that uses county personnel, as the K-9 Unit does, shouldn’t be open to public fiscal scrutiny. Yes, the dogs’ housing, supplies and training are paid for by private money, but the program is overseen by Lt. Harry McKinney — and staffed by county deputies, paid for by all of us.

There is a clear public interest in having all records available — and frankly, it seems inappropriate for any county agency to be running a freelance, privately funded operation. All operations of the sheriff’s office should be paid for, managed and supervised by the county.

Which does bring me to another, lesser-known issue: the abundance of media releases about the sheriff’s office. The county is currently paying for releases about the office — at a rate in excess of pretty much the rest of the entire county government.

A fair volume of news releases — especially in light of how understaffed we in the media are — is not only appropriate, but welcomed. I do think there is a fair concern that the imbalance, favoring one department, in releases is driven by politics: having the county and its taxpayers pay to increase the profile of Welsh and her office in the lead-up to the 2019 elections.

We need to see a fair balance of releases from the row officers: 20 releases about the sheriff’s office and none about the prothonotary seems wildly unfair and politically biased.

In light of this, we have limited the number of sheriff’s releases we have been willing to run. While we have no problem with the quality of the content (some of which is excellent) — we wish the independent contractor being used were writing about the Health Department, Emergency Services and the Register of Deeds with equal passion and frequency. It is inappropriate for us to aid and abet what we see as a political use of taxpayer funds.

*** 

And now, something that should give the old-school Republicans of Chester County a pause.

Racial and ethnic discrimination are rapidly being woven into the DNA of the new post-Trump Republican Party.

I don’t want to seem like I’m an alarmist, but the idea of the party that for more than a century supported legal immigration is turning to White Anger to drive voter turnout is well, alarming.

I regularly get right-wing troll messages from an anonymous writer (who sends this to most of the Pennsylvania political press corps) which typically feature talking points from Fox News or some similar outlet with the point of the day.

Last week, I got this from them:

“Successful immigration depends on culture.  Contra to liberals’ assurances, it is an extremely difficult challenge. Immigrants, by and large, fail to throw themselves into an established culture.  Most do not become like us and are a huge drag on our health care system, our schools and our courts.  We are headed for a catastrophe.”

A week later, Fox News Channel commentator Laura Ingraham echoed the same thoughts, arguing that “the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” because of illegal and legal immigration. In other words, America is no longer white enough. This prompted kudos from former KKK leader David Duke.

This talking point — openly racist — is now making its way through the mainstream of Republican thought. While it has been rejected by many, that it continues to represent the views of a sizable segment of the Republican Party is deeply disturbing. After Charlottesville, a year ago, the white nationalist, white grievance segment of the party seems to have been given the green light to come out and be openly racist.

The recent treatment of those seeking asylum — children in cages, separation of families, basic mean spirited stuff — embarrassing to most of us regardless of party, further emboldened those with a White Nationalist bent to take center stage. I’ll note also Trump’s attacks on African-American football players — again — for taking part in peaceful protest, while maintaining silence at White Nationalists planning yet another protest march.

I think here in Chester County, the home of the Underground Railroad, we have a deep sense of the moral failing in such thinking — this is not the Republican Party of Lincoln — or Reagan or Bush. Without the universal condemnation of such things (somehow, I missed DiGiorgio’s condemnation of this behavior — all the more shameful as he is descendent of immigrants himself and is married to one) this fervent, twisted minority feels it can speak for the party on race.

It cannot and should not.

Whatever your personal political belief, we need two strong and functioning political parties, both to provide a check on excess and a better exchange of ideas. This cancer is going to kill the Republican Party if it is not exercised from the body politic.

Like it or not, white folks will be a minority in the U.S. within a couple of decades — and are already in states such as California and Texas. So aside from being morally reprehensible, it is also incredibly stupid politics.

There was a time when virtually all Republicans embraced the words on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

There was a time when we valued those with the gumption to leave behind their lives, those with the smarts, the ambition to fight for a better life and come to America. That strength, that drive built this country.

And the numbers don’t lie — even if some people talking about it do — immigrants are typically more productive, less likely to commit crime while bringing diversity, new ideas and new cultures to keep refreshing and strengthening our society. They come and take jobs we don’t want, such as agriculture, and work themselves up to the middle class.

Yes, there are reasons for many — regardless of race or creed — to have grievances. We do not live in a fair society, working hard and playing by the rules no longer means an opportunity for advancement. The few, the powerful and the wealthy have cornered the market on that, so to speak, and hope you don’t notice or find someone else to blame.

History shows us this pattern over and over again. In the 1850s, it was the Irish — my ancestors — demonized by the Know Nothings. By the 1880s, it was Italians, ethnic Jewish immigrants and Asians who came under attack. In the 1920s, it was pretty much all outsiders.

What do all of those times have in common? Putting it simply, the rich had too much and the poor, too little and immigrants became a scapegoat for the evil of monopolists and robber barons. I’ll note also, massive economic crashes came from the imbalance of wealth.

We sit at such a precipice again.

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