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It's Primary Time, and as Usual, Most Eyes Are Looking Elsewhere

May 11, 2006 By:
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For Alan Sandals, Chuck Pennacchio and dozens of other Pennsylvania politicians, this coming Tuesday represents the defining day for their insurgent campaigns. But given the high cost of running a successful election fight and the historically low turnout of primary balloting, most, if not all, of these 2006 warriors will emerge from the May 16 Democratic and Republican primaries defeated candidates with the burden of backing their party's nominee.

To Sandals, though, next week's primary represents a real opportunity.

"I do think it's going to be a low turnout affair, and the conventional wisdom is that low turnout favors the establishment candidate," said the Philadelphia attorney, who along with Pennacchio, a Bucks County professor, is challenging state Treasurer Bob Casey for the chance to face off against Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in November.

"I think the opposite might be true this time. The people who are more upset, who are disgusted with the way things are are more likely to come out and vote," he continued. "And that favors sort of the challenger candidate like me. They're looking for a candidate who stands for change."

To be fair, Casey tows pretty much the same line going into next week's election, as does Pennacchio. But by all publicly-available objective standards, the victory should by precedent go to Casey.

Casey, the son of former Gov. Bob Casey and the only pro-life Democratic candidate, has received the backing of his party, which is eager to front a big-name politician against whom it sees is an increasingly vulnerable Santorum.

He has more money: According to the most recently available federal data, Casey has raised $8,072,678 to Sandal's $724,291 and Pennacchio's $100,846.

And statewide polls of Democratic voters have given Casey an overwhelming advantage time and time again. Just last week, the Keystone Poll predicted 63 percent of the vote going to Casey, with Sandals garnering four percent and Pennacchio receiving three percent.

Sandals faulted the Keystone Poll for not surveying "likely Democratic voters," and contended that his own internal polling showed him the victor. But even taking into account the fact that the Keystone Poll showed a hefty 30 percent of voters unsure of their primary pick, the authors of the poll's analysis termed Casey's standing going into Tuesday a "commanding lead."

For his part, Casey is continuing to keep the focus on Santorum, a strategy he's played most of the year and through last month's Democratic senatorial debates. In an interview, he saw the primary as a test-run of sorts for the Nov. 7 contest.

He also admitted that given the current split within the party - activists on the left have vehemently condemned Casey's views on abortion as out of touch, and the National Organization for Women endorsed Sandals - he has his work cut out for him if he wants to unite a party to defeat Santorum, the well-funded two-term senator who is the chamber's third-ranking Republican.

"I have to say that even in the context of the primary election, we've had tremendous support from across Democrats," said Casey. "I think I've been successful with that. But I don't think the goal is reached."

Soaring Costs of Campaigning
The Senate race, which will appear at the top of Tuesday's ballot, is not the only contest pitting an everything-but-declared front-runner against a lesser political entity from the same party.

In the closely watched 6th Congressional District, for instance, Democrats Lois Murphy and Mike Leibowitz, both from Lower Merion Township, are facing off for the right to challenge Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach. Murphy, who came close to defeating the two-term Gerlach two years ago, has amassed $1,418,998 in campaign donations; Leibowitz's campaign, on the other hand, has received only $19,701.

According to Chris Sheridan, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia elections watchdog group, such lopsided statistics weren't always the rule. But as the costs of campaigning have soared ever higher - the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute found at the close of the 2004 campaign season that the cost of winning a House of Representatives seat soared more than 18 percent to an average of $1,024,354 - the low-budget "shoe leather" campaigns of yesteryear have become all but impossible in jurisdictions larger than statehouse districts.

"The system we have is very pro-incumbent," said Sheridan. "As a challenger, you need to be able to get the seed money to get your campaign off the ground. Very few people are capable right now" of doing that.

And in the highly polarized system currently in place, the party itching to gain back control of a legislature - or a prized seat - will choose its favorite well in advance of a primary in order to conserve resources.

"There's a lot of internal pressure to avoid primary fights," said Sheridan, whose organization monitors elections in Southeastern Pennsylvania and advocates for greater voter participation in elections.

The reality is not lost on primary voters, who have been turning out at the ballot box in ever decreasing numbers. Sheridan predicted more of the same.

He nevertheless offered a twist on things. Things may be quiet now in the Senate and congressional races, but come November, all eyes on a national level will be watching what transpires in Pennsylvania. Given the president's sagging approval ratings, Democrats may be close to wresting control of the Senate and House of Representatives from the Republicans, and will need to win practically every race.

Sheridan's hope is that such attention drives John Q. Citizen to cast his ballot.

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