BY: ADAM SMELTZ
After more than $2 million in commercials and months of campaigning, the race for Allegheny County’s top elected office is a toss-up one week before the finish line.
That’s the consensus drawn from a cross-section of private and public polling data, and interviews with Democratic Party insiders and other political observers watching the primary contest for county executive.
State Rep. Sara Innamorato, a Lawrenceville progressive, led by a dozen percentage points in one poll released last week. But the race remains in flux, with plenty of room and time for a more centrist Democrat to catch up before the May 16 primary election. Eighteen percent of likely Democratic voters were still undecided, according to the poll from Pittsburgh Works Together, a coalition representing business and labor interests (it had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points)
“There’s still enough votes out there that this could change,” one Democratic organizer said. “With this polling coming out, you can expect to see some campaigns directing the fire on Sara.”
Indeed, fundraising text messages sent late Wednesday by County Treasurer John Weinstein’s campaign seemed to reflect fears that, despite Mr. Weinstein’s early and initially overpowering spending on the airwaves, the momentum is with Ms. Innamorato. The fundraising texts, sent just hours after the poll made waves in the race, cast Ms. Innamorato as “divisive,” “inadequate,” “extreme,” and “bankrolled by radical progressives.”
He and Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb were tied at 20% in the new poll, both down from a survey by the same group a couple months earlier.
Former PNC executive Joe Rockey is the only Republican running to succeed outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a term-limited Democrat.
It remains to be seen if there will be a sustained last-minute campaign to bring down Ms. Innamorato, who is following the same kind of political playbook that elevated progressives such as Mayor Ed Gainey and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee to victory in recent years. Those campaigns also helped build the progressive infrastructure supporting her campaign.
The Democratic organizer — who like others interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity because of a pressure campaign not to engage with the Post-Gazette during an ongoing strike by some PG employees — framed it as Ms. Innamorato’s race to lose in the homestretch.
“Honestly, I don’t know who has the money to do it — to make any dent, or enough of a dent,” the organizer said of efforts to stop her.
But a senior Democratic leader was more skeptical about Ms. Innamorato’s durability. While a six-candidate race almost surely means none will capture 50% of the vote, it’s tough to predict whether voters will swing strategically to consolidate momentum behind one candidate and block another, this top Democrat said.
It’s also unclear how much mail voting will shape the makeup of the electorate — there hasn’t been a race for executive since Pennsylvania vastly expanded mail voting — and how outside money could still influence the race.
As of Friday, the progressive Working Families Party had spent about $300,000 on commercials to support Ms. Innamorato and attack her main rivals as unreliable Democrats, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising. That’s about three-quarters of what her own campaign has put up for TV ads.
Headquartered in Brooklyn, the minor political party has a Pennsylvania chapter and counts labor groups such as the Service Employees International Union among its biggest donors. SEIU entities have also provided substantial support for Mr. Gainey and Ms. Lee, D-Swissvale.
Ms. Innamorato’s campaign is testing whether progressives can duplicate those victories in countywide contests, where Democrats trend further right than they do in city races. Her approach also echoes those that led to progressive victories across the state and the country, including wins by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the liberal Vermont firebrand, endorsed Ms. Innamorato on Wednesday. That and the ideological bent of typical primary voters probably bode well for her prospects, said Dan Mallinson, a professor of public policy and administration at Penn State Harrisburg who specializes in local politics.
“In politics, it ain’t over till it’s over. But as you get closer to the election, it’s harder for events to swing things,” Mr. Mallinson said. “As long as they’re doing the work of getting people out to vote — not just the ads for name recognition, but knocking on doors to get people to come out — she’s on a good trajectory.”
At the same time, an Innamorato victory wouldn’t necessarily portend “a big progressive renaissance in Western Pennsylvania,” since Mr. Lamb and Mr. Weinstein are effectively splitting her opposition, he said.
“If there was only one of them, presumably they would be at 40%,” Mr. Mallinson said.
And that’s not counting trial lawyer Dave Fawcett, a former county council member running as a centrist who had 8% support in the latest Pittsburgh Works poll. His campaign had spent the second-most on ads as of Friday — about $772,000 to almost $1.1 million for Mr. Weinstein, according to AdImpact.
Now seen as a potential threat after spending significant sums on TV, Mr. Fawcett has come under pressure from some Lamb allies to suspend his campaign and avoid splitting the non-progressive vote, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Fawcett has given no indication that he will do so.
“We are well positioned to win this race,” Fawcett campaign adviser Mike Butler said in a statement after this story first appeared. “Dave is a good option for someone looking for a person who can actually make change and move our region forward. Dave is gaining ground every day while John [Weinstein] and Michael [Lamb] are stuck in gear. We are moving full steam ahead.”
Two other Democrats, former Pittsburgh school board member Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi and mobile app developer Will Parker, have barely registered in any polling or spent money on TV.
One Democratic strategist watching the race said most voters could end up splitting their support between Ms. Innamorato and Mr. Lamb. While Mr. Lamb has lagged in spending on TV commercials, he’s been endorsed by Mr. Fitzgerald. And Mr. Weinstein’s big spending — even when he was the only candidate on the air — “wasn’t able to move the needle,” the strategist said.
“He’s had so many different ads focusing on different topics and different messages, I don’t think anything has really sunk in with voters,” the strategist added, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the campaigns.
Mr. Weinstein’s support dropped eight percentage points in the two months between the two Pittsburgh Works polls, while Mr. Lamb dropped four points. Party insiders had widely seen Mr. Weinstein as an early front-runner after he gained key party and labor union support, including endorsements and campaign contributions. Initial fundraising reports showed him with a six-figure lead in the money race. (Citing a “technological error,” his campaign was the only one that didn’t meet a deadline Friday to file campaign finance reports with the county, so it remains unclear how much money he has going into the homestretch.)
His labor backing includes the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council, Steamfitters Local Union 449 and Iron Workers Local Union No. 3. Ms. Innamorato’s union support includes the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the SEIU, whose political committees are among her biggest contributors.
That split follows long-standing political differences between the more conservative building trades unions and other, more liberal segments of organized labor, said John Delaney, an expert in labor-management relations.
How different labor groups coalesce around the Democratic nominee against Mr. Rockey could signal whether that divide is deepening, said Mr. Delaney, a vice president at St. Vincent College. Organized labor’s value to candidates may be greater in the “ground game” — organizing voter turnout — than in big contributions, he said.
“In a lot of elections in the past, there’s been this type of split early on, with the bulk of people coming together once the candidate has been chosen in the primary,” Mr. Delaney said.
For Republicans, running against Ms. Innamorato in the November general election “would be a target-rich environment” because of her liberal policy positions, special-interest and outside support and relative inexperience as a three-term state lawmaker with a thin record, said Sam DeMarco, the county GOP chairman. Either Mr. Lamb or Mr. Weinstein likely would be a more formidable opponent for Mr. Rockey given their long government experience and more moderate positions, he said.
“We know it’s a high climb for any Republican to win countywide office in Allegheny County due to the registration disparity,” Mr. DeMarco said (roughly 57% of voters are registered Democrats).
But November could evoke Republican Jim Roddey’s election as executive in 1999, Mr. DeMarco said: “You could have labor, corporate [interests] and reasonable concerned citizens getting behind the Republican.”