Primary Night

05.20.14

What Democratic Revolt? Moderate Cruises in PA-13 Primary

It was to have been a victorious night for progressives—but the voters had other ideas, handing a congressional primary win to proudly moderate Brendan Boyle over a Clinton favorite.

The so-called Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, with its emphasis on income inequality and clamping down on Wall Street, was supposed to be ascendant.

Someone forgot to tell Philadelphia on Tuesday.

In one of the year’s most closely watched Democratic primaries, Brendan Boyle, a proudly moderate 37-year-old state lawmaker, cruised to victory in a congressional district serving northern Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs.

In a bitter four-way primary, Boyle was attacked as both pro-life and anti-public education. He denied both accusations, but pro-charter school and pro-voucher entities have donated heavily to him, and during the heat of the campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice America said Boyle’s “track record” made him “clearly the wrong choice in this race.”

The primary attracted unusual attention in part because it was seen as a microcosm of some of the forces playing out in the Democratic Party at large as the 2016 elections approach. The early front-runner was Marjorie Margolies, who served in Congress from 1993 to 1995 and cast a deciding vote on Bill Clinton’s first budget as president. That vote cost her the election the following year. In the intervening decades, her now ex-husband has gone to prison for fraud, and her son married Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

Margolies has spent most of the last 20 years as a political commentator and activist, and spent the early part of the campaign season running a sort of Rose Garden strategy, barely showing up at debates, for which she was pilloried by her opponents.

“Marjorie didn’t hustle, and the other candidates accused her of taking it for granted. She campaigned as if she owned the district.”

Eventually, Bill Clinton cut an ad for her and Hillary Clinton headlined a New York fundraiser for her, which Margolies did not attend, in part because the event was hosted by Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a major critic of President Obama, and in part because the candidate needed to make up lost ground in the district.

Daylin Leach, a third candidate in the race, ran as the anti-Boyle, a proudly progressive Democrat who called himself the “Liberal Lion of Pennsylvania” and who as a state lawmaker arranged a sit-in in Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s office to protest state marijuana laws.

Leach ran an ad teasing Margolies about her Clinton connection, dismissing the first family of Democratic politics as old news. But in a state where Hillary Clinton leads all comers by a 50-point margin in a potential 2016 primary, the ads backfired, and despite a push by the netroots, Leach was at press time running a distant fourth place.

The 13th Congressional District once was considered one of the nation’s pre-eminent swing districts, featuring the union-heavy, socially conservative row houses of northern Philadelphia’s white ethnic neighborhoods and the wealthy, socially liberal suburbs just outside the city’s borders. But after Rep. Allyson Schwartz  took the seat from a Republican in 2004, it has trended steadily Democratic. Schwartz gave up the seat this year to run for governor of Pennsylvania but lost badly in a primary Tuesday night at well.

A fourth candidate in the race, physician Val Arkoosh, tried to position herself as most closely aligned to Schwartz, borrowing much of her fundraising apparatus, but came in third place.

The low-turnout election was marred by ugly mudslinging in its final days, with Margolies fighting off accusations that a nonprofit she ran overpaid her and Boyle insisting that he favored a women’s right to choose.

“It turned into an ugly affair,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall University. “Marjorie didn’t hustle, and the other candidates accused her of taking it for granted. She campaigned as if she owned the district.”

The 13th Congressional District remains one of the most Democratic in the state, and Boyle is likely to win easily in November. But some Democrats remain queasy at the prospect of Schwartz, who early in her career ran women’s health clinics that performed abortions, handing the reins to Boyle, whose repudiation of his past votes on issues of choice sounded hollow to some women’s groups.

“Brendan Boyle spent much of this campaign tap dancing around votes he took that would throw roadblocks in front of women seeking reproductive health care, for one reason only: He knows those positions are losing ones,” said NARAL president Ilyse Hogue. “We’re proud of the work that we did to expose his true record to voters in his district, and we expect him to abide by his newfound commitment to these issues. He made promises to voters, and you can be sure we’ll be watching closely to see that he keeps them.”