Three explanations for Allyson Schwartz’ primary election nightmare

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

The autopsy of U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz’ gubernatorial hopes is complete.

Post-election reporting laws require us to tell you that Schwartz was, at one time, considered the frontrunner in a Democratic field that did not feature many top tier candidates. On Tuesday night, she picked up just 17 percent of the vote to finish 40 points behind Tom Wolf, the York County businessman and political rookie who took the race by storm (and with lots of television ads).

SCHWARTZ: After getting soundly beaten by Tom Wolf in Tuesday’s primary, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz suggested sexism may have played a role in the outcome.

That Schwartz lost was not all that stunning — surely even the candidate must have known that was coming before the polls opened on Tuesday — but the size and scope of it were.

Wolf won all 67 counties in the state on Tuesday night, which, of course, means he won in Schwartz’ stomping grounds of Montgomery County and Philadelphia. In fact, those were the only two counties where he got less than 50 percent of the total vote, a remarkable accomplishment in a four-way race.

How did Schwartz, who had been elected 10 times to state Senate and five times to the U.S. House, lose so badly to a guy who had never held an elected office before?

Schwartz seems to have her own explanation for the loss.

In an email to supporters on Wednesday, Schwartz suggested that sexism may have played a role. That message echoed similar sentiments in her concession speech on Tuesday night.

Even though Pennsylvania’s has a well-established history of glass ceilings for female politicos, it seems unlikely that was the main reason behind a 40-point drubbing. The last polls before the election all showed both men and women favored Wolf over Schwartz — though Wolf had a wider lead with men than with women.

Here are some other, better, explanations for Schwartz’ defeat.

1. She was too much of an insider when voters wanted an outsider

Thanks to those 10 terms in the state Senate and five terms in Congress, Schwartz had been in public office since 1991 without interruption. She never broke out of that mold during the campaign, and many of her ads reinforced her experience in Washington.

If you read one analysis of the outcome of Tuesday’s primary, make it the excellent piece by the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz, who breaks down the desperate final days of a campaign that never found its footing after Wolf zoomed into the lead a few months ago.

Many voters consider her experience in dysfunctional Washington to be a potential flaw rather than a plus. And the state Democratic establishment, eager for a candidate perceived as a stronger challenger to Gov. Tom Corbett (R) in November, has all but cast Schwartz aside

Schwartz repeatedly told voters that, indeed, they do (or should) know her. But it sounded like she was also reaffirming that to herself.

“I know how to get things done, but you know me,” she told a man sitting at a table, as he sucked the bone of a baby-back rib.

Maybe the voters don’t know Schwartz as well as she thinks they do, or should. Maybe they do know her, and that’s the problem.

If Schwartz thought being a woman would be enough to catch the kind of electoral wave Kathleen Kane enjoyed last year when she became the first woman elected as the state’s attorney general (collecting more votes in Pennsylvania than President Obama in the process), Schwartz missed an important part of the equation: Kane, like Wolf, was a political outsider with lots of money to spend in support of that outsider persona.

2. Voters who should have been her base were alienated by her connections to The Third Way

It was hardly the kind of scandal that will rock a campaign, but Schwartz hit her first major stumbling block in December when the leaders of a nonprofit called The Third Way wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal bashing progressive Democrats for creating a “fantasy blue-state populism” that would hurt the party.

The Third Way is a Clinton-era, pro-business, centrist group of Democrats. Schwartz was an honorary co-chair of the organization. At a point in the primary race where each candidate was trying to out-flank the others to the left, it was a blow to her progressive credentials.

David Freedlander at The Daily Beast examines the issue more fully:

Progressive groups and bloggers were outraged, and Schwartz’s rivals, seizing on the dust-up, hammered the congresswoman for her association with the group. The campaign, her advisers acknowledge, was rattled. Schwartz eventually dropped her association with Third Way, but the polls have been trending downward ever since…

…. And so even as Schwartz talks about the need to increase education funding and protect the environment, it is a testament to how much the ground has shifted among Democratic partisans that unless you are willing to talk about taking a pound of flesh from Wall Street and proclaim the game rigged, it is hard to get many votes.

3. She spent too much money early and didn’t get on the airwaves in time to compete with Wolf

Tom Wolf blitzed the voters of Pennsylvania with television ads starting in mid-January. It wasn’t until two months later that Schwartz got on the air. Even with her perceived advantage in name recognition and her early lead in the race, that’s a lot of uncontested time for an opponent to introduce himself to voters.

Taking nothing away from Wolf’s advertising campaign, which has been called the best in Pennsylvania political history, but Schwartz never effectively countered it.

And when her ads did make it to the airwaves, they reinforced the first two items on our list: she talked a lot about her experience in Washington and never made herself look like a progressive firebrand.

An anonymous analysis from PoliticsPA offers more:

In (Kathleen) Kane’s most memorable 2012 ad, she pledged to stand up to “the good ol’ boys in Harrisburg.” When Schwartz mimicked that language last month by criticizing the “old boys club” in Harrisburg, it fell flat because she simultaneously sent cues that she was part of that establishment.

Schwartz also made a series of tactical blunders. Her campaign spent an astounding $1.9 million in 2013 with little to show for it … money that could’ve been better spent when Wolf surged from the back of the pack to the lead.

Bottom line: There’s more to it than sexism. Schwartz’ campaign was less effective than Wolf’s, never got over some initial speed bumps and never found its footing after she was no longer the frontrunner and presumptive nominee.

Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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