Onorato reeling from 'unique' loss to Corbett in home county

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After a more than a year of nonstop campaigning, fundraising and crisscrossing state travel, Dan Onorato can console himself that he was just one of many Democrats swept under in a national Republican wave year. It is what happened at home that must concern him.

The Allegheny County executive lost his home county in the governor's race to Republican Tom Corbett, an indignity in a county where his party has 2.3 times as many votes. That has to be on his mind -- and those of possible GOP or Democratic rivals -- as he considers running for an unprecedented third term as county executive next year.

Mr. Corbett beat the Democrat by 649 votes in Allegheny County, the first time a GOP gubernatorial candidate had taken Pittsburgh's home county since Tom Ridge won re-election over Squirrel Hill's Ivan Itkin in 1998. In an open contest like this year, a Republican had apparently not won since the city's Democratic ascendancy began in the 1930s.

"It's a blow to the executive of this county not to win his own county," said Moe Coleman of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. "It's very unique."

Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak won Allegheny County, tallying 230,934 votes in his unsuccessful race against Pat Toomey. Mr. Onorato earned 211,466 votes countywide.

Almost 20,000 voters "split their ballot and did not vote for Dan. That does not bode well for him," said Jim Roddey, the chair of the county's Republican committee who lost to Mr. Onorato in the 2003 executive race.

Mr. Corbett cleaned up across the county's northern suburbs, including his home base of Shaler, where he won every last voting district, despite the municipality's Democratic registration edge. The votes even bled into the northern neighborhoods of Democratic-dominated Pittsburgh, such as Mr. Onorato's neighborhood of Brighton Heights. There, in city's 27th Ward, the executive took just 65 percent of the votes.

State Democratic chair Jim Burn and other Democrats sought to absolve Mr. Onorato's campaign for the loss, saying he was the victim of national factors, Mr. Corbett's fundraising edge and local negativity about Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. (It didn't help that at the same time that the Corbett camp was hammering Mr. Onorato for his ties to Mr. Rendell, the incumbent governor was all over national television, making 35 appearances since Labor Day alone.)

Republicans did their best to keep those factors -- and the still-simmering angst over the alcohol tax the executive introduced in 2007 -- percolating, with hopes of wooing Democratic voters countywide. According to Mr. Corbett's Allegheny County co-chair, county Councilman Vince Gastgeb, the Corbett camp employed a worker tasked with peeling off Democratic committee people, union officials and county government workers and bringing them to the GOP side.

The outreach worked in some parts of the historically Democratic Mon Valley, with towns such as Glassport voting for Mr. Corbett and others (including West Homestead and Munhall) nearly giving him victories. Mr. Onorato's selling points statewide -- on reforming county government, laying off workers, or working with corporate Pittsburgh -- turned off voters there, Mr. Gastgeb said.

"The faithful Democrat is saying, 'Why did you consolidate services in my town? Why did you tax my drink? Why is UPMC Braddock closing, and are you going to do something to put up a fight?' " he said.

Onorato supporter and Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald noticed similar grumbling about Mr. Onorato's consolidation efforts and corporate ties among old-school Democrats.

"Some people in our party aren't happy about that, that he took on the party. Some of them got to say a-ha-ha [on Tuesday]," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Mr. Onorato would not talk Tuesday night about his future plans, which have already turned into a major parlor game on Grant Street. Certainly Republicans -- who did not run a candidate against him in 2007 -- will be emboldened now. But Mr. Fitzgerald and others said Mr. Onorato remains well-liked and would be a good candidate again, once the sting of Tuesday's loss begins to wear off.

The very selling points he used in the gubernatorial race -- and turned off some local Democrats -- could be what takes him back into the corner office in the courthouse a third time.

"To win an Allegheny County executive race, any Republican would have to have 100 percent of the business community, the Chamber of Commerce, the Allegheny Conference," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Dan has been a great friend to the business community, to banking, medical services, the convention business -- a very, very good friend. I'd be very surprised if anybody was able to beat Dan Onorato."


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com.


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