In Primary Endorsements, PAGOP Reigns Supreme

Elephant Donkey boxingWhen Philadelphia municipal court Judge Joe Waters won the backing of Democratic state committee earlier this year, he probably thought it improved his chances at becoming a Pa. Superior Court judge.

Instead, Waters joined Bob Casey (for Governor), Arlen Specter and more on the long list of endorsed Democratic candidates who went on to lose their primaries.

Pittsburgh Judge Jack McVay beat Waters 56% to 44%. Neither candidate spent a significant amount of money to campaign.

Over the past 20 years more than half of the candidates endorsed by the Democratic state party – 55% – failed to make it through contested primaries.

“Our endorsed candidates don’t win,” said Mary Isenhour. She served as executive director of the party during Gov. Ed Rendell’s tenure.

“I believe that endorsed candidates, along with our stakeholders, along with the party structure should all be working together instead of having these independent campaigns out there,” she added.

Republican state committee is nearly twice as effective. Endorsed GOP candidates who faced competitive primaries since 1994 won 88% of the time.

Chris Nicholas is the Political and Grassroots Director for the PA Business Council. He worked as a consultant for the PAGOP and individual candidates for decades.

“The psychology among Republican voters, and even more importantly among party elders and wannabe candidates is, ‘Boy, this is really important. If I don’t get it, it’s not worth continuing down the line,’” Nicholas said.

The numbers

PoliticsPA analyzed endorsements and results in all statewide elections from 1994 to 2013.

Out of the 33 candidates endorsed by the Republican party who faced a primary challenge, 29 won.

Of the 29 candidates endorsed by the Democratic party who faced a primary challenge, just 13 won.

The results are nearly identical when considering only on-year contests like those for Governor and U.S. Senate. With off-year judicial contests removed from the mix, the success rate was 92% for Republicans and 44% for Democrats.

General election outcomes

The endorsement numbers translated into general election success for the GOP.

Republicans won 61% of statewide contests over the past two decades. A vast majority of the GOP’s 42 wins – 93% – came from its 39 endorsed candidates.

Democrats won 27 statewide contests in the same time period. Endorsed candidates accounted for a little over half of them: 59%, a total of 16. Candidates who ran against the party’s endorsement won 6 general elections, and candidates in races where the party made no endorsement won 5.

Here is the full table, compiled by Keegan Gibson and Bryan Magee, Contributing Writer.

Why is the Democratic endorsement ineffective?

Why do Republican primary voters tend to fall in line with their state party while Democratic voters ignore theirs?

Many pros chalk it up to mindset.

TJ Rooney served as chairman of the state party under Rendell.

“The old adage is, ‘Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.’ Those statistics bear out the fact that there’s truth to it,” he said. “Using a broad brush, Republicans tend to be more homogeneous.”

“It has more to do with the psychology of the average Republican primary voter, notwithstanding the significant resources that the party often brings to the table,” Nicholas suggested.

But in many ways, the Democratic endorsement is designed to fail.

First, it’s not enforceable.

The Republican state committee requires its constituent parts, county parties, to fall in line. It’s not codified, but with few exceptions county leaders normally do. Non-endorsed candidates are not to speak at official functions. Their petitions are not circulated by party regulars. Their literature is not present at the party’s booth at the county fair.

“The Republican side does a better job of keeping their county affiliates in line. Democrats don’t even pretend to want to try,” said Nicholas.

Democratic state committee makes no such requirement. Sen. Arlen Specter’s 2010 campaign, for example, won the statewide endorsement with 77%. The Republicans on his staff were shocked to learn that vote had been just the beginning. What followed was a county-by-county battle for each and every local party in the state, battles Specter often lost. Nicholas was Specter’s campaign manager.*

“It’s as much of a burden on the candidate to work with the party and the party infrastructure,” Isenhour agreed. As a consequence, “Candidates generally don’t do that. They go off and run their own campaigns.”

Second, a Democratic endorsement carries little logistical support.

The Republican party sends glossy mailers to its super voters introducing them to the candidates party leaders have chosen. They often run a full mail program, including absentee ballot applications.

Endorsed Democratic candidates can use the party’s bulk permit to save money on direct mail, but that’s the extent of it.

Third, it brings in little money.

Republicans, whose coffers are more likely to be filled directly or indirectly by wealthy individuals, channel that money through the party.

Republican donors also tend to follow party leadership.

“It’s really hard for a Republican un-endorsed candidate to get meetings with the funders, let alone get money from them,” Nicholas noted.

Democratic donors, including the labor unions and attorneys who comprise a large part of their contributions, prefer to give to the candidates themselves.

“I think most people believe that giving to candidates and helping candidates directly is a lot more beneficial,” Isenhour said.

Finally, there’s geography. Republicans are fairly evenly spread in the different regions in the state and relatively few of the party’s candidates reside in the city of Philadelphia.

Democrats by contrast have two major centers of gravity in the state: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It’s easier for insurgent candidates to reach out to party regulars because they are more condensed.

It’s more common for the state’s east-west rivalry to manifest itself. Even when state committee tries to balance the two, voters and donors don’t care: Philly Dems support a SEPA candidate; Pittsburgh Dems want a western Pa. candidate.

All that, to say nothing of the wide cultural difference between the pro-life, NRA members who comprise western Pa. Democratic voters. And as Judge Waters learned in May, voters outside of the Philadelphia media market don’t exactly have a warm impression of the city.

In Pennsylvania primary elections, a candidate’s county of residence is included under his or her name on the ballot.

The rules

Each state party at its core is directed by hundreds of locally elected leaders.

State committee members vote to decide which candidates are endorsed. They are elected by primary voters in each county.**

Each county is allotted at least two members of state committee, with additional ones allocated proportionally by voter registration numbers. Both parties have between 300 and 400 committee members total.

The state parties meet three times a year. The winter meeting, where endorsements are decided, is a weekend-long schmooze-fest as candidates press to win the support of committee members.

The process can be messy, and often gets divisive and personal. Some committee members bristled when Gov. Tom Corbett personally pressured some members to vote for his candidate in the 2012 U.S. Senate contest.

It’s ironic given how well they hold up, but Republican endorsements require a lower bar than Democratic endorsements.

A candidate needs a supermajority two-thirds vote of state committee members to get Democratic backing.

Republicans need only 50% plus one.

Democrats changed the rules in 2004, switching to the two-thirds requirement from their former 50% threshold.

“It sends a different kind of message if you’re able to garner two-thirds,” Rooney said. “That says a whole lot more about who you are as a candidate than fifty plus one.”

Anti-endorsement movements

The endorsement process frequently is challenged by elements within each party.

In the past few elections, the most vocal endorsement critics hail from the right. The grassroots activists who animated the Tea Party movement take as an article of faith their distrust of the party establishment. Few practices draw their ire more than endorsements. Conservatives even staged a protest at the 2012 state committee meeting.

“Instead the Republican state committee using its money to beat up other Republicans, we should be using it in general elections,” charged Ryan Shafik, a political consultant who specializes in working for anti-establishment Republicans.

“In recent years, it’s changed because there’s a serious backlash against endorsements from the base. Grassroots people don’t like it. Endorsements are only done in three states: New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.”

Some conservative activists turned their efforts toward working within the system. Voices of protest against GOP endorsements now come from state committee members themselves.

Dwight Weidman is chair of the Franklin County Republican Committee. He voted against endorsing for Senate, Attorney General, Auditor General or Treasurer in 2012.

“I’m a firm believer in an open primary,” he said. “We have primaries for a purpose. The best method of endorsement is from the Republican voters.”

Weidman thinks some of the endorsed candidates’ success rate stems from the fact that the party tends to endorse the front runner anyway.

“I’m dead set against the endorsement process,” Weidman reiterated.

John Morgan publishes the website The Pennsylvania Progressive where he has covered Democratic state committee meetings for years.

“When you endorse in a party primary, you’re creating divisions. And sometimes they don’t heal before the general election,” he said.

Morgan changed his registration to independent in the aftermath of a bruising primary dispute in his home County of Berks.

“Democrats tend more to think for themselves and go their own way, and don’t necessarily like being told by the party who they should support,” he added. “Especially among liberals and progressives.”

Changing tide

How long will the GOP be able to use electoral supremacy as the justification for its firm stance on endorsements? If trends continue, not long.

The winds are shifting. While a strong endorsement process kept statewide offices firmly in GOP hands from 1994 to 2003, Democrats gained the upper hand in the past decade.

Republicans won 71% of general elections from 1994 to 2003 and their endorsement success rate was 94% in contested primaries. But from 2004 to 2013 they won just 48% of general election contests and their endorsed candidates won 81% of contested primaries.

Meanwhile, Democrats raised their win percentage from 29% (1994-2003) to 52% (2004-2012) in general elections. Their endorsement success rate in contested primaries increased from 40% to 50%.

The result of this year’s low-profile Superior Court race will determine which party can boast electoral supremacy. If Republican attorney Vic Stabile is able to secure a win, the party will bring its electoral total for this decade to a 50%-50% tie. If McVay wins, his party pulls ahead to a 53%-47% win.

McVay proved the party endorsement meaningless with an effortless win in a contested primary. After Stabile was endorsed by the GOP, his opponent dropped out and he cruised to the nomination unopposed. It’s a perfect test of the two paradigms.

Bryan Magee contributed to this report.

*Full disclosure: Gibson worked on Specter’s campaign as Director of New Media. 

**Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that state committee members are selected by members of county committees. In fact they are elected directly by primary voters. 


Sometimes, after the party makes an endorsement, an unendorsed candidate elects to drop out of a race. To account for the possibility of the deterrent factor, PoliticsPA looked at every race, not just contested primaries. By that measure, both parties improve. Republican endorsees won 94% of all races, contested and uncontested. Democrats won 71%.

PoliticsPA did not include presidential endorsements or outcomes in our calculations because Pennsylvania plays only a minor role in the nomination process.

We included Lieutenant Governor as a distinct election in our figures regarding the overall electoral success of each party and the correlation between primary endorsements and general election wins.

Statewide elections include U.S. Senate, Governor, LG, Attorney General, Auditor General, Treasurer, Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court.

6 Responses

  1. As JFK said half a century ago, Republicans (actually he was speaking of Republican politicians and not voters) are like the symbol of their party, the elephant: They have a long memory of the past, a shortsighted view of the future, and like the elephants you see in the circus, they just hold on to the tail of the elephant in front of them. 😉

  2. Dem State Committee members are elected by primary voters every 4 years. Dem State Committee also includes County Chairs, which, for the most part, are elected by committee members.

  3. Republican State Committee Members are elected during the primary elections by the public. They’re not elected by the county committees.

  4. Denny, I disagree. They would have never had the influx of money that the endorsement provides.

  5. Aww, phooey. The GOP-endorsed candidates usually would have won without the endorsement.

Comments are closed.

  • Best Cheesesteak in Philly

    • They Ain't Listed Here (33%)
    • Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies (29%)
    • Pat's King of Steaks (9%)
    • John's Roast Pork (9%)
    • Steve's Prince of Steaks (9%)
    • Tony Luke's (6%)
    • Geno's Steaks (4%)

    Total Voters: 232

    Loading ... Loading ...
Continue to Browser


To install tap and choose
Add to Home Screen