‘It’s going to be close’: The race for Allegheny County executive enters the homestretch

By Hallie Lauer

The race for Allegheny County executive is shaping up to be more of a nail-biter than expected.

With a two-to-one voter registration advantage, Democratic candidates have cruised into the county’s top office over the last 20 years, never winning less than 60% of the vote. In Dan Onorato’s first reelection campaign in 2007, Republicans didn’t even field a candidate. The outgoing, term-limited Democratic incumbent Rich Fitzgerald won his first race in 2011 with 62% — easily the closest of his three races.

But this year just might be different. 

“If this were a previous election with Rich Fitzgerald running against a candidate in the Republican Party, most people would say that’s a foregone conclusion,” said Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. “I think this time it’s a different story.”

If it is a different story, it will be because of a combination of the candidates and the moment. Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato, a staunchly progressive former state representative, faces Republican Joe Rockey, a former PNC executive campaigning as a centrist. And the election comes as growing concerns about crime — a poll from Pittsburgh Works Together last month found it to be the top issue for Allegheny County voters — threaten to put Democrats on their heels. 

Ms. Innamorato, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America during her first campaign, won elected office in 2018 as a progressive challenger who unseated a longtime, establishment-backed incumbent from the politically prominent Costa family in a primary. With progressives increasingly on the rise in Democratic politics across Allegheny County in recent years, she emerged from a crowded primary field for executive this spring with less than 38% of the vote. 

“[Progressive Democrats] are so far left of what the party typically used to represent in Allegheny County, because there are a lot of conservative people outside the city of Pittsburgh,” Mr. Shuster said. “And she has to remember that.”

In a region where some Democratic voters have historically been more conservative than in deeper blue enclaves across the country, most primary voters cast ballots for one of her more centrist rivals.

“How is Sara going to get people from Upper St. Clair … and Fox Chapel to vote for her?” asked Ed Meena, a longtime observer of Pittsburgh politics, referring to largely white, wealthy neighborhoods that voted for other Democrats in May.

“Maybe she doesn’t care if they vote for her or not, but when you only take 38%, that means there’s still 62% [of the Democratic votes] out there,” said Mr. Meena, a Point Park University history professor.

But it’s still Allegheny County — and she still starts with an advantage.  

“It’s not necessarily that she has to meet Joe Rockey in the middle and battle over there,” said longtime Democratic political analyst Mike Butler, who helped run businessman Dave Fawcett’s primary campaign for executive. “She has to be the center of the Democratic Party. … As long as she gets enough Democrats to stick with her — and in our very partisan times that’s almost assuredly going to happen — she’ll be OK.”

Ms. Innamorato’s 2018 victory in a Pittsburgh-based state House seat was part of the first wave of progressive wins in Allegheny County. The movement has only gained momentum since then, including with Ed Gainey’s election as Pittsburgh mayor in 2021 and Summer Lee’s victory in a U.S. House seat last year. A win by Ms. Innamorato in the Nov. 7 general election would represent a high-water mark for local progressives — who would control both city and county government.

The expectations are lower for Mr. Rockey.

“Rockey’s got nothing to lose,” Mr. Shuster said. “She’s got everything to lose.”

In campaign appearances and in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of TV ads, Mr. Rockey has continued to pitch himself as a moderate — a “common-sense alternative” to Ms. Innamorato. While he benefited from running unopposed in the GOP primary, he has still walked a fine line between solidifying support from Republican voters, many of whom still back Donald Trump, and appealing to independents and moderate Democrats. 

During the candidates’ first debate of the general election last month, Mr. Rockey tried to distance himself from the polarizing former president, calling Mr. Trump the “definition of divisiveness.”

“He’s not running this race on partisanship,” said Mark Harris, a Rockey campaign adviser. “I think voters, including Republicans, respond to that. We’re talking about the issues that matter to voters in a way that connect with where they’re living.” 

Mr. Rockey started pushing that message early, declaring the day after the primary that he is “a centrist who is focused on the middle.” 

And as Mr. Rockey’s campaign, and a new political group supporting him, have swamped the Democrats’ TV spending by a margin of almost 9 to 1, Ms. Innamorato has increasingly tried to link Mr. Rockey to the GOP — particularly on the potent political issue of abortion. 

“Mr. Rockey is a Republican even after January 6, even after overturning Roe v. Wade,” she said during the first debate, referring to the deadly 2021 Capitol riot and last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning a constitutional right to abortion. “He’s still committed to a party that [is] trying to disrupt our election cycle and trying to take away reproductive health care.”

Clearly aware of how the backlash to overturning Roe v. Wade has repeatedly boosted Democrats up and down the ballot, Mr. Rockey has been careful to not publicly take a position on the issue.

“My personal opinion on abortion is not relevant because the Allegheny County executive does not set policy for abortion,” Mr. Rockey said during a second debate last Tuesday. (A third and final debate will air Oct. 15 on WPXI.)

In debates and in a series of TV ads, Mr. Rockey has avoided national topics and focused on kitchen-table issues. Those include a pledge not to allow a county-wide property tax reassessment like the kind that helped get the county’s first chief executive Jim Roddey — the only Republican to ever hold the office — voted out in 2003.

Ms. Innamorato has also addressed those issues — often in more general terms, with a focus on improving quality of life for Allegheny County residents by getting at the “root cause” of problems like crime and homelessness with more mental health care and addiction resources. 

As Ms. Innamorato has sought to nationalize the race with issues that favor her party, Mr. Rockey has responded by painting Ms. Innamorato as too liberal for Allegheny County. He said Tuesday that the election isn’t about issues like abortion, but about “choosing between a centrist in the middle… and the far-left ideology that my opponent has offered.” 

Mr. Meena, the Point Park professor, said voters in local elections tend to care more about local issues, and that Ms. Innamorato “needs to focus” on those topics. 

There has yet to be any public polling in the contest. And a fuller financial picture of the race won’t emerge until later this month, when candidates are required to disclose their fundraising and spending activity.

But at least on the airwaves, the campaign has been hugely lopsided. As of Friday, Republicans had spent almost $1.2 million on TV ads, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising. About $704,000 of that came from Mr. Rockey’s campaign, with another $480,000 from Save Allegheny County, a group formed last month to back his candidacy.

Ms. Innamorato’s campaign, which spent about $550,000 on ads during the primary, had spent only $141,000 for the general election as of Friday, according to AdImpact. It remains to be seen if the Working Families Party, a union-backed progressive group that spent about $512,000 supporting her in the primary, will air ads before Election Day.

Mr. Rockey’s weeks-long head start on the airwaves gave him time to pitch himself to voters as different from the Washington Republicans whose far-right members just ousted their own House Speaker. Emphasizing Mr. Rockey’s North Side roots, the ads promise more jobs, no tax increases, and “a sensible road because extremism doesn’t work.”

“He almost sounds like a conservative Democrat more than a Republican,” Mr. Shuster said of Mr. Rockey’s ads. 

“He’s giving her a hell of a race,” Mr. Shuster added.

When Ms. Innamorato did hit the airwaves on Oct. 1, her first 30-second spot split time between promoting “shared values” such as safety and healthcare access, and tying Mr. Rockey to national Republicans like Mr. Trump. 

The Rockey campaign blasted it as an “attack ad” — but also pointed to it as clear evidence that Ms. Innamorato’s campaign sees the GOP nominee as a legitimate threat.

“Anytime a Democrat in Allegheny County has to start their campaign out negatively, you gotta love being in that position,” Mr. Harris said. “We’re still the slight underdog, but we’re very encouraged by what our data shows.”

“Sara’s been invisible,” Mr. Meena said of Ms. Innamorato’s late start on the airwaves. “I don’t know if she’s waiting for a bunch of money to come in, but I do know that Rockey started out pretty good in a kind of ad that would play well in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.” 

Ms. Innamorato, whose campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment, says she’s taking a grassroots approach.

“We’re meeting Allegheny County voters where they’re at — in parks, parking lots, and playgrounds — to share our vision about building a County for All!” she wrote late last month on social media. The post was accompanied by photos of Ms. Innamorato gathered with groups of people outside. 

In an email to supporters last week, Ms. Innamorato said she had taken her campaign to “every municipality in Allegheny County.” In that same email, she asked supporters to help reach a fundraising goal of $15,000 to “keep our message on air until Election Day.”

Save Allegheny County, the pro-Rockey group, received $100,000 from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, one of the top conservative political groups in the state, according to financial filings. Commonwealth is largely funded by Jeffrey Yass, a GOP mega donor and Pennsylvania’s richest man. 

Ms. Innamorato has criticized the outside funding — while also bracing for more mud being slung her way. 

“You’re going to see a lot of negative ads about me,” she said during last week’s debate. “Those ads are funded by an out-of-touch billionaire who supports MAGA Republicans and has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting those folks.”

Both Mr. Shuster, the Pitt professor, and Mr. Meena forecast a close race to the finish line.

“Six months ago, it may have been automatic. But not now,” Mr. Shuster said. “This is by no means an automatic [win for] her. And anyone who thinks it is is pretty naive.”

“It’s going to be close,” Mr. Meena said. “Closer than it was in May.”

-Mike Wereschagin contributed to this article.