If you’re a liberal Democrat and want cause to hope, take a look at the Pennsylvania Senate race right now. Even as the Democratic Party establishment frustrates progressives with its tendency to support bland moderates over inspiring idealists (see: the Clinton-Sanders presidential primary), my home state is giving Americans a sign that local leaders can actually listen to their voters.
Some background: Right now Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is up for reelection. Three candidates are competing on the Democratic side to oppose him – Admiral and former congressman Joe Sestak, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, and former Secretary of Environmental Protection Kathleen McGinty. Because McGinty is widely regarded as the “smart” choice, she’s been heavily pushed by former governor Ed Rendell and endorsed by President Obama and Vice President Biden. This is in spite of the fact that McGinty has a very problematic history of being linked to fracking interests, which if nothing else calls into question her credentials as a legitimate advocate for environmental protection.
If Pennsylvania Democrats were following the precedent of the party, this would be the part where I’d discuss how the leaders are lining up behind McGinty despite this spotty record. After all, Sestak is widely disliked by the establishment for bucking their will and running against Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Senate election, while Fetterman… Well, Fetterman is something altogether different. Sporting a shaved head, long goatee, and prominent tattoos, Fetterman looks more like a biker or barroom brawler than a future Senator. Because he is smart and has a consistently progressive record, though, he connects with ordinary voters. If the Sanders campaign has taught us anything, though, it’s that grassroots popularity is by no means guaranteed to result in electoral victory… especially when the establishment has clearly expressed its preference for a different candidate.
Instead of the predictable approach, however, Pennsylvania Democrats are thinking for themselves. In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Party Chairman Marcel Groen refused to support any one candidate, even acknowledging that Fetterman is probably the most electable of the three. The Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee refused to endorse any of the three candidates when it met last month (a two-thirds majority from members was required to qualify for official endorsement, a barrier that Specter had no problem surmounting in 2010), and partially as a result, right now Sestak has a commanding lead over McGinty in the polls (although Fetterman is, lamentably, running a distant third).
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a local party leader. He told me about how, while attending a Democratic event, an activist surprised at his presence remarked, “You are supporting McGinty.” When my friend responded that he wasn’t specifically in favor of her candidacy, the activist replied that “by you I mean the Democratic establishment.” He’s only sort of right. In the end, although the Democratic Party as a proper institution remains in the thrall of establishmentarians like McGinty (and a certain national counterpart, not to be named), its individual leaders are hearing the people and becoming more responsive to their wishes. If either Sestak or Fetterman wins during the primary on April 26th, it will be a sign that there is cause for hope at least in Pennsylvania… and quite, possibly, beyond the boundaries of the Keystone State.