Name-calling. Personal attacks. Allegations of illegal campaign activity.
The candidates in the race to be the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District have pulled out the entire negative campaigning playbook to try to win votes.
At stake is a shot at an open seat that is one of a handful of this election cycle that both parties think they can win.
Winning enough of these competitive districts can tip the partisan balance in Congress, with far reaching effects on policy and how smoothly the weeks of government grind.
Tuesday, voters in Bucks and some Montgomery County will cast ballots for both party’s primaries and set the stage for a general election battle. This is the story of the Democrats vying for a chance to win the seat back. [You can find NewsWorks’ story about the three Republican candidates here.]
The way to a voter’s heart is through their stomach
In the last few weeks, Democratic primary opponents Steve Santarsiero and Shaughnessy Naughton have been on a breakfast offensive, wooing voters with free food and folksy origin stories, one plate of eggs at a time.
On a recent Saturday morning, Naughton, a scientist by training, dished out her talking points over dwindling coffee and pastries at Pat’s Bistro in Levittown.
“I think we all benefit from diversity of experience…our delegation from Pennsylvania does not have one woman in it. In 2016, I don’t think that’s acceptable.” Naughton, who quit working in the pharmaceutical industry to take over her family’s struggling publishing business in 2003.
While she doesn’t have any experience as an elected official, Naughton says her diverse background taught her solid leadership and collaboration skills. Some of the planks in her platform, like investing in STEM education, speak to that background.
A couple of days later, Steve Santarsiero was at Golden Dawn Diner on New Falls Road, treating a couple dozen district residents who responded to robocalls.
He likes to start his pitch with the day he says put him on the path to public service: Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was one of those events that made me really made me stop and think about what I was doing,” he said. “I decided I wanted to have something to do that would really give back more to the community.
He quit a lucrative job at a law firm in Newark, New Jersey to become a high school teacher, and eventually ran for public office.
“I was a township supervisor in Lower Makefield before I got elected to the statehouse,” he told voters over plates of hash browns and eggs. “In both capacities I’ve fought for the people I represented.”
Santarsiero, who is in his fourth term at the statehouse, points to an ethics bill he wrote which, while it was not passed, did become part of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives own ethics rules, as one of his biggest accomplishments in a majority Republican legislature.
While these small, soft sell events mostly stick to positive messaging — what Naughton and Santarsiero have been putting run over TV airwaves is another matter.
TV ad onslaught
A couple of weeks before the April 26th Pennsylvania Primary, Naughton’s campaign amplified a critique of Santarsiero’s record with a big TV ad buy.
“His campaign brags about his accomplishments, but in fact he’s failed in 54 attempts to get any legislation on the books,” the 30-second spot called “Say Anything” intones, over dramatic music.
That “brag” relates to messaging from Santarsiero’s own campaign literature, in which he describes getting 54 bills passed while in Harrisburg. The ad calls out that claim as intentionally misleading voters about his record.
The thing is, Santarsiero did co-sponsor 54 bills which did pass, but just as many pieces of legislation that he spearheaded languished in committees in a Republican majority house.
While he said he’s never overstated his accomplishments, Santarsiero makes a point to frame them carefully in person.
“I’ve had two pieces of legislation that, one became law as an amendment to another bill,” he said. “The other was an ethics bill that was designed to create bright line rules in the wake of the Bonusgate scandal. That became part of our ethics rules in the house.”
For its part, the state representative’s camp highlights allegations that Naughton is illegally coordinating with a political action committee (PAC) that she started in its own television ads.
On April 10th, a former advisory board member for the PAC and Santarsiero supporter Det Ansinn filed a complaint with the federal election commission, asking it to investigate an expenditure 314 PAC made on mail ads attacking Santarsiero.
While the complaint points out that Naughton’s campaign manager and fiance, Josh Morrow, has worked for a PAC that she started at the same time as running her campaign, that’s not illegal in its own right, according Larry Noble, counsel with the Washington, D.C. think tank, Campaign Legal Center.
He said that holding the two positions Morrow did — campaign manager for Shaughnessy Naughton and strategic consultant for 314 PAC — is “bold,” but it would take a lot more to prove coordination.
“If you could show he discussed with them what her campaign was going to do and then he stops working for them and they use that information, then you could very well have coordination,” he said. “How would you prove it? That’s always the difficulty in coordination cases.”
Allegations related to creative license in ads and personal conduct have only ramped up in the days leading up to the primary, with both sides exchanging jabs at a debate at Bucks County Community College on April 21.
With all of this squabbling over personal conduct, it’s easy to overlook the similarities between these candidates.
Both Naughton and Santarsiero are progressive candidates who’ve received big checks and endorsements from national interest groups, she from women’s group Emily’s List and he from labor groups like the AFSCME and the United Steel Workers. Both have endorsements from Democratic governors, Naughton from former Gov. Ed Rendell and Santarsiero from Gov. Tom Wolf.
On the issues, they both support expanding early childhood education, protecting the environment, lowering the cost of college and tougher gun control. The area in which they seem to differ most is foreign policy and in particular the Iran nuclear deal, which is aimed at slowing or preventing that country from building nuclear weapons.
Last year, Santarsiero came out against the deal, although in last week’s debate he said if elected he would have to work with the 10-year pact. Naughton said she supports the deal as buying the United States time and putting Iran on a “path to peace.”
While their negative campaigns may try to sway voters, 8th District residents are free to choose a candidate based on nearly anything.
83-year-old Ruth Custer, one of the people at Naughton’s breakfast, said her mind is already made up.
“Women think past their asses, as I say. Men have tunnel vision,” she said.
Another attendee, veteran Boy Scout leader Lew Mohr did his thinking with his stomach and went to both candidates’ breakfasts.
“I live by myself, so anytime I get a free breakfast I’m there,” he said, standing amid the din of the Golden Dawn Diner. “But this is better than Shaughnessy’s breakfast.”
That’s one vote for hash browns. As for the Congressional race, Mohr said he’s undecided.