If Trump wins GOP nod, what happens in Chester County?

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Party insiders worry Trump could cost state legislative candidates

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

TimesPoliticsUnusualWe’ve survived Super Tuesday (and Thursday night’s PG-13 GOP debate) and the road the Pennsylvania primary elections gives us less than seven weeks to figure out what the heck is going on and what it might mean for November’s elections.

And while both parties have issues with insurgencies, angst and drama — let’s be honest: the Republican Party is ripping itself to shreds. Depending on your point of view (and in Chester County, your geography) local Republicans are either delighted or horrified at the prospect of Donald Trump as your presidential nominee.

While the national Democratic race has been more civil — and with Hillary Clinton all but the likely nominee — most of the anger has been related to the U.S. Senate seat and a couple of local Congressional races, where, as is typical, party leaders have jammed wildly unpopular candidates down the throats of local Democrats with fairly lousy results.

Let us look at the Republicans first.

The presidential race on the GOP side has been something of disaster. A wildly compelling mess, kind of like the movie Showgirls — you know it’s terrible, but every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. One finds one’s self almost forced to watch, just to see how low it can go.

This isn’t a fact lost on the average Republican voter, either.

Polling suggests that GOP voters aren’t thrilled with their options. Exit polls from seven early primary states (cited by FiveThirtyEight.com — the gold standard for polling and analysis of political data) suggest Sen. Marco Rubio is the candidate Republican voters are most satisfied with, at a mere 53%. As a measuring stick: Mitt Romney at about the same point garnered a “satisfied” rating from GOP voters at 63%, while Rick Santorum pulled 55%. As a comparison, Sen. Ted Cruz gets a “satisfied” nod from 51% and Trump gets just 49%.

In fairness, those numbers will improve for whomever the Republican nominee is — although the #stopTrump movement gives one pause — but they seem unlikely to reach the mid to high 70s typical of a major party nominee by the fall.

So what to make of Republican candidates that no one is thrilled with (and a number of party voters activate despise), but at the same time, are generating exceptional voter turnout numbers in the primary and how to project that onto the November election and its impact down ballot in the U.S. Senate and congressional races?

Further complicating the issue: the U.S. Senate Republicans refusal to even hold hearings for any Supreme Court nominee from President Barack Obama — which polling shows is more than slightly unpopular with the average voter.

This should be of particular worry to U.S. Senator Pat Toomey. Despite the fact that the leaders of the state Democratic Party have pretty much done everything that is possible to assure an easy Toomey reelection ride (more on that further on down), the specter of Trump and the Supreme Court mess put his chances of keeping his seat deeply, deeply in doubt.

And while local Congress members have little to worry about (except in their own party, of course) where incumbents Ryan Costello, Pat Meehan and newcomer Lloyd Smucker (running to replace the retiring Joe Pitts) have fairly safe gerrymandered districts (although the latter two have right-wing primary challengers), it could hurt some state legislative races, if GOP voters are either angry or depressed and stay home on election day.

A handful of local Republican officials have told me privately that Trump at the top of the ticket would be a “nightmare” for candidates lower down the ballot and put state house seats that would normally be safe — the 156th and the 158th among others — in doubt and doom State Rep. Harry Lewis’ chances to get reelected in the 74th (already a tough hurdle in a year with large Democratic voter turnout).

Longer term, the already simmering civil war in the local Republican Party (the Tea Partiers versus the more moderate old-school GOP leadership) could explode, either with a Trump campaign that fails miserably or if Trump is kneecapped by the party “establishment” — and somehow he is deprived of the nomination through shenanigans at the GOP Convention in Cleveland.

Maybe the saving grace is that so many Republicans enjoy a deep-seated hatred of Clinton (some of it rational, some of it fed by completely made-up accounts of her conduct peddled as “news” by folks on Facebook) that many would show up to vote against her.

The fly in the ointment: if Trump is the nominee, what will come out about him this summer and fall (and pretty much all of it will be documented, provable and true) will make Hillary seem like Mother Teresa in comparison. Anyone who worked in the New York media market in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and had a couple of media-event brushes with The Donald, as I did) can tick off five or or six quick things off the top of their head that will utterly terrify local Republicans.

It will make great theater and terrible politics.

And while the Democratic race has been calmer — note the lack of discussions of candidate’s sexual organs — nationally, Democrats will have a bit of work to do to cope with anger, especially among the Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

The race for many Democrats has been one of “head versus heart.” Many of the things Sanders has harped on are valid points — money is a corrupting influence in politics and corporations have way more voice than average people (something even Trump is talking about) — so Democrats’ hearts love Sanders’ ability to keep hammering on that point. But…and there’s always a but…the brain says a rumpled, cantankerous Jewish Socialist from Vermont, via Brooklyn, could hand the Democrats a George McGovern-sized wipeout in the fall. For many Democrats, Clinton — who will be undoubtedly subjected to more abuse of the Swift-Boating style — is a safer choice, one who can keep the Obama coalition (which won twice, despite impressive amounts of vilification — and probably should be a lesson to GOP operatives, but won’t be) together and win in November.

If you read Facebook (which itself is kind of like a digital disaster area), you see some of the Sanders’ supporters have the same anger management issues as the GOP Benghazi stormtroopers — irrational invective spewing out like a rabid dog. And while most rational folks tune it out (and by the way, that will make legitimate questions about Clinton’s character and honesty harder to get through the media noise) and get back to their cat pictures, it’s going to take some work to get the Bernie backers off their ledges.

Of course, the specter of Trump as president solves much, in that regard.

* * *

While Toomey is likely and should be losing sleep over his senate race, the one bit of solace he can enjoy is that he’s running against the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Calling that organization a Clown Car is an insult to clowns everywhere.

But you have to give them credit: by forcing the hapless Katie McGinty (a Chester County native and former DEP Secretary) on Democrats, they’ve done the nearly impossible: made Joe Sestak into a sympathetic character.

Sestak — the former Congressman who lost a narrow race to Toomey in 2010 — is about as warm and cuddly as sandpaper and twice as abrasive (especially when it comes to working with local Democratic officials and his constantly shuffling staff). But, without question the man is bright, knows his policy stuff and has no fear of taking on the establishment.

A few years back that might have been seen as detriment, but now Sestak has become the anti-establishment candidate (ruining such a role for the towering and tattooed John Fetterman), Democrats, increasingly frustrated by the state party’s ability to consistently bring the the stupid, are rallying around Sestak and seem poised to again reject McGinty, who seems nice but badly over her head, as she was during her ill-fated Gubernatorial run in 2014. Her role in the state budget stalemate as Gov. Tom Wolf’s Chief of Staff doesn’t much help, either.

Many have placed blame on former Gov. Ed Rendell — who does appear to be pulling the strings here. It’s high time for Rendell to retire to pontificating about the Eagles and quit messing things up for his fellow Democrats.

* * *

Meanwhile in America’s (arguably) most Gerrymandered Congressional district (PA-7), a number of Democrats, especially in the Delaware County portion of the district, are pretty angry with the clueless twits at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC or D-Trip for those in the politics biz).

The D-Trip, in it’s infinite wisdom, is backing Bill Golderer — who apparently doesn’t live in the district (not that its required) — over Delco’s own Mary Ellen Balchunis, who ran for the seat in 2014 and lives in the district, in the race against incumbent Pat Meehan.

I have to be honest — I don’t know Golderer, although I expect to speak with him in the next few weeks. I do know and have known Balchunis for more than a decade, as she has been an active Democrat in the district and county, and strongly supportive of local races and candidates. Also, as a previous candidate, she has better name ID than Golderer, who generally seems to get a “who?” when I ask folks about him.

The DCCC appears to have made matters worse by sending in a campaign manager from out of state, with no connections, relationships or understanding of the district or region. This is a mistake that the D-Trip (and its state cousin, the House Democratic Campiagn Committee) make constantly, sending in young, inexperienced operatives who don’t know the area and rub folks the wrong way.

At minimum, the D-Trip should have stayed out of this primary fight — all they did was make folks angry and solidify support for Balchunis (who was also endorsed by the Chester County Democratic Committee).

At maximum, they should have talked to local leaders and supported Balchunis, instead.

But, you know, I’m sure they know more than the folks actually on the ground or in the district.

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