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The Women of the Pennsylvania Purple State Primaries

For those who were watching early on, Allyson Schwartz appeared to be a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination governor in the Pennsylvania primary.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz waits for the start of a Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Debate, May 8, 2014, in Philadelphia, Pa.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz waits for the start of a Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Debate, May 8, 2014, in Philadelphia, Pa.

The Pennsylvania primary hasn’t gotten attention this cycle like those in red states, including Kentucky and Georgia. But for those who were watching early on, Allyson Schwartz appeared to be a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The other congressional race that has garnered national attention is an effort by Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law to win back a seat she held two decades ago.

Both Allyson Schwartz and Marjorie Margolies are experienced and well-known.  But neither woman may emerge victorious Tuesday after tough challenges from strong female and progressive opponents who have garnered support from a trifecta of unions, women’s groups and donors. 

For Democrats, strong leadership in a state like Pennsylvania will be key for keeping that state blue in a presidential election year. And the party has run a strong slate.

A year ago, Allyson Schwartz, who co-founded The Elizabeth Blackwell Center, served in the Pennsylvania Senate and in Congress, and is best known for her work in health care policy, was the early front runner, with name recognition among primary voters. Many regarded her as the presumptive nominee. But as more candidates jumped in, and she faced real competition, potential primary voters began to question whether she was the best choice.

A year later, Tom Wolf has surged ahead in the polls, having run a nearly flawless, well-financed campaign. And Rob McCord, also competing with her in their home base of Montgomery County, made it impossible for her to solidify her base with his hard charging progressive candidacy.

What happened? In December of last year, Philadelphia Magazine did a profile of Schwartz, pointing out that there were many people who just don’t like her; don’t believe she cares about issues as much as she cares about burnishing her reputation, and advancing herself on the work of others. A glaring quote from an unnamed source seemed to redefine Schwartz’s run: “She has rubbed me and many people the wrong way because of her ego and sense of entitlement.”

Further, Schwartz’s toughest challenger had been a political mentor. And many Democrats began to talk quietly about their discomfort watching Schwartz attack a life-long political supporter such as Wolf.

A long-shot candidate, Katie McGinty, fashioned herself as the “happy warrior” candidate with none of Schwartz’s baggage, and with nearly as much prestige. Even if McGinty loses Tuesday, she will be likely continue to be a formidable Democratic presence. She is a former Clinton/Gore appointee and former Gov. Ed Rendell’s Secretary of Environmental Protection. Her blue collar background as one of 10 kids and the daughter of a cop enhance those “I care about you” credentials. McGinty’s compelling, articulate and energetic performances in gatherings of Democrats across the Commonwealth and multiple debates, especially compared to Schwartz, have people talking about what’s next for her.

In the 13th Congressional District, Margolies faces three challengers, and either Valerie Arkoosh or Brendan Boyle are expected to be chosen as the Democratic nominee for a critically important swing Congressional seat at a time when few are still a real knife fight between the parties. 

Margolies has experience serving in Congress and a proven record that she can be fearless on the House floor. In 1992, she cast the deciding vote that permitted then President Bill Clinton to unleash a new economic model in his budget, setting the stage for unparalleled economic growth and the first federal surplus in recent U.S. history. For her courageous vote, Marjorie got the boot in a swing district that was not amenable to a tax increase, regardless of national benefit.

Eighteen years later, her son Marc married the Clintons’ daughter. That gave her access to the party’s two greatest stars when it comes to raising money and bringing out the base. When Hillary, who was born in Scranton, PA, ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008, she won Pennsylvania voters by 10 percentage points over then Sen. Barak Obama. Bill Clinton, a beloved figure in Pennsylvania, is an ongoing presence in the Margolies ad campaign.

Incredibly, all of that may not be enough for Margolies, now 71. 

Boyle is a brainy blue collar state legislator with geographical advantage, solid, committed support from Local 98, the most powerful union around, and a strong ground game. The 13th CD includes Northeast Philadelphia, his stronghold. The rest of the district is liberal, Democratic Montgomery County, and all three of the other candidates vying for those votes.

Arkoosh, a politically active physician, garnered the much sought after endorsement by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Notable, in their endorsement,they commented on the Margolies candidacy, saying, “…she has run a weak campaign that at times suggested a sense of entitlement to her old office”. The Inquirer endorsement of Arkoosh highlighted her ability to work with others, the heavy lifting she did as a physician on The Affordable care Act, her energy, her enthusiasm, and her extensive grasp of other issues. That gives her important traction in Democratic voter rich Montgomery County.

When the post-mortems on the losing campaigns begin after Tuesday’s election results are in, the women candidates will and should do some soul searching: What could I have done better, or sooner? What matters now, not then? Was there a critical juncture in the campaign where I could have made a different decision that could have changed an important outcome? Should I have passed this one by, regardless of how much I wanted it?

Maybe that soul search conversation begins with the words of the Bard: It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.

Donna Gentile O’Donnell is a Democratic strategist and an advisor to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania on health care policy.