HERSHEY, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s state Democratic committee members expressed strong preferences in two contested primaries Saturday afternoon, but in races for both the Senate and attorney general the front-runner failed to get the two-thirds margin necessary to claim the party’s endorsement.
Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala Jr., a candidate for attorney general, came close. He finished with the votes of 209 committee members over Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro’s 121, according to the party’s count. Mr. Zappala’s total represented 63 percent of the votes cast.
A third Democrat for attorney general, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, did not seek the party’s endorsement.
Mr. Zappala won all 39 of Allegheny County’s delegates and all but one of the 28 committee members representing the rest of the southwestern part of the state, while Mr. Shapiro was strong in southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania. The difference-maker may have been Philadelphia, where Mr. Zappala took 50 of 56 votes, though the city is in Mr. Shapiro’s backyard.
“I’ve been in Philadelphia a lot,” said Mr. Zappala, whose family has political ties to influential Philadelphia figures such as union official John Dougherty. The race, he said, “has been a chance to become reacquainted with some old friends.”
Mr. Shapiro’s campaign issued a statement calling attention to the fact that he has previously won four of five county-level endorsements. “The people of Pennsylvania will have their say on April 26th,” it said.
Democrats also did not reach the two-thirds threshold to endorse a candidate for the U.S. Senate, though Katie McGinty, the former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, led throughout the process. On a first round of voting, she garnered 163 votes to former Congressman Joe Sestak’s 137 and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman’s 34. Mr. Fetterman was dropped from the the second and final ballot, where Ms. McGinty beat Mr. Sestak, 173-149.
Ms. McGinty’s victory was driven largely by support from Allegheny County and Philadelphia, which between them accounted for 44 percent of her vote. Mr. Sestak was stronger in rural areas that have fewer committee members.
While her total was still beneath the two-thirds threshold to secure the party’s endorsement, Ms. McGinty’s outright majority does give her bragging rights, and she wasted little time taking advantage of them. In a statement issued by her campaign within moments of the vote total, Ms. McGinty said the result “demonstrates we have strong grassroots support across Pennsylvania.”
Democrats also endorsed Joe Torsella, who is running for state treasurer, and state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who is running for re-election. Neither man faces a primary opponent.
Before weighing the candidates’ merits, the committee debated whether to endorse anyone at all. State chairman Marcel Groen has opposed making a state committee endorsement because he worried the endorsements were divisive and rarely had an impact on the primary results.
But Mr. Groen’s predecessor as state chair, Jim Burn, urged the committee not to set aside its power to endorse. With the Democratic National Convention taking place in Philadelphia this summer, he said, “This is not the time to sit the most powerful group of activists in Pennsylvania ... on the bench.”
Skipping an endorsement vote would have required a two-thirds vote of committee members, many of whom had traveled to Hershey precisely to support their champion.
After the endorsement, Mr. Groen said: “We could have saved an hour” since the party ultimately did not make endorsements in the contested races. Mr. Groen said he would “keep trying to make the party more inclusive.”
Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.