PITTSBURGH — It’s the most important race of the cycle thus far.
The 37th Senatorial District in the Pittsburgh suburbs falls under your typical swing district in Pennsylvania. The district was represented by a Democrat and a Republican in this decade alone.
Turning out the base is key in any special election. But what about one in a more moderate swing seat?
Raja, Allegheny County GOP Chair and businessman, and Democrat Pam Iovino, a Navy veteran who served in President George W. Bush’s administration, have used their unique backgrounds to appeal to voters from across the aisle.
The Republican is leaning heavier, in his now second bid for the state Senate, on his immigrant background and creation of his business.
“The one thing that is different this time is sort of embrace the first generation immigrant aspect of it,” Raja said. “Last time that was not part of the messaging at all.”
“Most first generation immigrants don’t run for office,” he said.
He bemoaned going through a “bruising primary” during his previous bid for the 37th district and having to face a popular state representative in Smith.
The Democrat points to her military service in a Republican president’s administration as proof she can gather those from different parties to come to solutions best for the district.
“How could somebody who was appointed by George W. Bush, a Republican, to be his Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs, possibly be anything but a pragmatic, bipartisan Democrat?” Iovino said. “The job is about caring for and serving the electorate.”
The answers from the candidates in various interviews show they want to be the elected official to best serve the whole district.
However, the candidates need to inspire partisan passions to win the special election turnout game.
This could not be more clear in the ongoing ad war.
Both candidates have taken off the gloves.
Raja accuses Iovino’s campaign of “character assassination” and “twisting the facts” over his business record. He also believes his opponent is not detailing policy differences in her ads.
Every Democrat that has run against Raja in the past attempted to paint him as a heartless outsourcer.
“They have a stereotype of what they think of an immigrant from India,” Raja said. “I think they’ve gotten to know the real me. I think that’s important.”
The attack ads from Raja’s campaign may be a preview into the GOP playbook for races this year and into 2020. In one of Raja’s ads, they place Iovino’s face side by side with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in an effort to align her with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Raja’s attempted to pin his opponent as an “extremist” who is in favor of late term abortion and views the endorsements from Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List as proof she is in favor of it.
Iovino said she respects Roe v. Wade, but refuted the claims in Raja’s abortion attack ads as false.
“I support Roe v Wade is what I’ve said,” Iovino said. “I support the law of the land.”
There are no such proposals currently in Pennsylvania and Iovino is very careful not to engage the attacks in a way that adds fuel to the fire. Asked if she is in favor of the proposals in the Raja ads, Iovino said “I am not.”
Iovino says Raja’s attack ads are false and the notion of her being an “extremist is ridiculous.”
Despite biographies that appeal to voters from the opposing party, the campaign has played along clear party lines.
Raja proudly boasts being a pro-business Republican and has earned much support from the business community in this bid.
“The priority for me is jobs,” Raja said. “I know the challenges that it takes you know to grow jobs.” He said high taxes and onerous regulations have kept the Pittsburgh area from reaching its full potential.
“We don’t have a spokesperson, we don’t have somebody painting the vision,” Raja said. “We don’t have somebody pro-business here.”
Raja has largely self-funded his campaign through the money he’s made through his business.
Iovino has locked up union support and thinks being aligned with labor helps all in the area.
“The unions’ role in the economy and the workplace… everybody benefits from it,” Iovino said. “Not just the union member in terms of safe workplaces, workman’s compensation, prevailing wages are protected. Every worker benefits from that.”
Iovino’s campaign is largely funded by two political committees tied to Gov. Tom Wolf, while raking in over $100,000 from unions as well.
During this campaign, Iovino’s knocked doors with Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Allegheny), who used union support to help carry him over the top in the Congressional special election in March 2018 in a GOP friendly district, a seat that Iovino also made a bid for, but dropped out. Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman made an appearance in her district to drum up support as well.
The topic of energy production is a rather important one for the district.
Gov. Tom Wolf has been pushing a severance tax on natural gas for years, while the GOP controlled state Senate and House has balked at his proposal.
Iovino cited that other states in the country are taxing it and believes a “modest” tax would not discourage industry here.
“I do favor a very modest and reasonable severance tax on a resource that is ours,” Iovino said. “It is ours, it is Pennsylvanians.”
“They are not going to go away,” Iovino said of the natural gas industry. “This is not going to discourage this industry here.”
She specifically wants to see the money go towards infrastructure and echoed support for parts of Wolf’s proposal.
Raja is an outspoken critic of Wolf’s proposal as he sees it ruining a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to create jobs in the region.
“We already have an impact fee, and remember this district has a lot of folks who work in the energy industry,” Raja said. “The potential for a hundred thousand plus jobs, this is not only using the natural gas marcellus and Utica, it’s all the downstream stuff.”
Raja thinks the area lacks an elected official who can serve as an ambassador that is pro-business. He said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and other Democrats in the region are holding back the local economy over high taxes and regulations.
“If you’re going to invest billions of dollars, are you going to put a cracker plant that you’re going to make money not in the first year or second year, you’re going to make this over a 10 year period,” Raja said. “Would you ever come here? No.”
“With that uncertainty, no one’s coming,” Raja said.
The topic of the minimum wage entered the fray in Harrisburg in 2019 when GOP Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said he’d be open to discussing a possible raise in the wage, although he sees Wolf’s proposal as a nonstarter.
Iovino is a supporter of Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal for a $12 minimum hour by July, that gradually increases to $15 by 2025.
Raja says he views the minimum wage for those just starting out in life and the key is to provide good paying jobs that make well over that number. He pointed to the minimum wages in Ohio and West Virginia, which are $8.55 and $8.75 an hour, as “something in that range” he could support.
Raja accused his opponent of being in favor of a single-payer healthcare system, which is gaining momentum in the Democratic Party.
Iovino said that she believes “healthcare is a human right,” but touted the benefits from the Affordable Care Act and discussed strengthening that bill.
Another wedge issue is the prospects of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Fetterman is currently leading a statewide listening tour on legalizing recreational marijuana.
Raja didn’t comment on the tour but voiced his opposition.
“Recreational is not something I’m in favor of,” Raja said. “I think we already have an opioid crisis and we need to be addressing that.”
He has two teenage daughters and mentioned them in his answer of opposing recreational marijuana. Raja did voice his support for the medicinal benefits of marijuana, mentioning his wife as a doctor.
Iovino thinks the listening tour that Fetterman is on will benefit the state to understand what the pros and cons are of legalization.
She voiced support for the legalization, but detailed restrictions that she thinks would be needed.
“I am on the record of saying this, is that I could be in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana,” Iovino said. “Barring anything that would be, that could come out of the listening tour, I can be for the legalization and with regulations, minimum age requirements, etc.”
Iovino said that 25 years of age should be the minimum wage because of studies of brain development.
If passed, Iovino said she hasn’t thought of hypotheticals where the tax dollars would go towards yet.
The two candidates also see the local economy in totally different places right now.
Iovino believes the unemployment rate in Allegheny County at 3.7 percent, on par with the national average, is good, although she thinks the region needs to prioritize workforce development.
“We need to be staying on the front edge of developing the workforce that we need today and the one that we need tomorrow,” Iovino said.
Raja believes Pittsburgh is not adequately retaining the talent from the local universities and believes a pro-business agenda will help propel the local economy to new heights.
But maybe there is one topic that doesn’t place the candidates on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum. Education funding.
Raja credits a great deal of his career to graduating from the University of Pittsburgh and believes more education funding is needed.
Iovino lauded Wolf’s education funding plans and also stressed that student loan debt in Pennsylvania needs to be addressed.
Special elections are notorious for having low voter turnout. A number of special elections are set to take place on May 21, but this election will be held on April 2.
In a race that very well may determine what party controls the state Senate after the 2020 elections, both candidates know it comes down to voter turnout.
Raja said he views this “more-so like a primary” and said he expected the race to be on May 21 when he jumped in the race, before former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack declared the date for April.
“Whoever gets their supporters out wins,” Raja said.