Less than one year ago, Margolies’ commanding lead in the polls , familiarity with voters thanks to her one term in Congress in the early 1990s, and her ties to the Clinton dynasty as Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law made her a seemingly untouchable foe . Yet Democratic operatives say Margolies has run an astonishingly poor campaign in the 13th District, an open seat thanks to Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz's gubernatorial bid in the Keystone State.
That has shifted the focus from Margolies, 71, to state Rep. Brendan Boyle, 37. As he gains traction , the other Democrats in the race have stepped up to paint him as anti-abortion because he voted for a state law that required stricter regulations and inspections of abortion clinics. But Boyle, who supports abortion rights, says his record has been twisted.
"I’ve been a supporter of Planned Parenthood," Boyle told CQ Roll Call on May 9. "On 14 votes that I’ve cast related to women’s health, I’ve voted with Planned Parenthood on 12 of the 14. Unfortunately ... when you have a record, opponents can misleadingly point to one or two votes, completely mischaracterize it and paint a picture that’s false."
Those were the arguments on display at an informal meet-and-greet last Friday night, where the four candidates — Margolies, Boyle, state Sen. Daylin Leach and physician Val Arkoosh — made their final pitch to Democratic voters over chili and jazz. The few dozen interested people crowded into a dusty recreation room at the local Knights of Columbus' building.
They will vote on May 20 and will likely determine the next member of Congress from the heavily Democratic district, which begins in the working-class segment of northeast Philadelphia and fans out into the wealthy Montgomery County suburbs.
“With regards to the polls, it’s between me and Brendan Boyle,” Margolies told the Democrats gathered on May 9 to hear about the race. “There’s one woman in this delegation: Allyson Schwartz. And she obviously is pro-choice. There are 18 members of Congress in Pennsylvania. We have one woman." She added she finds it "scary" that voters could send "an anti-choice man to Congress."
EMILY’s List, a group that supports Democratic women who back abortion rights, and NARAL Pro-Choice America, teamed up to unleash a six-figure mail campaign attacking Boyle’s record on women’s issues in a last-ditch effort to alter the trajectory of the primary.
“This past week, all three of my opponents have taken a shot at me, in all likelihood because they see the same thing going on that we do — that we now have a lead and we’ve become a target,” Boyle told CQ Roll Call on May 9.
Margolies is also facing attacks over her record in Congress in 1993 — when she introduced bills that would have raised the retirement age and amended cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security.
“So much of it is just not true,” Margolies said in an interview. “I don’t want to raise the retirement age. I don’t want to cut benefits. Twenty years ago we had to put everything on the table; we did and we saved [Social Security] and we really did a good job. But they’re using old information.”
Margolies is also facing allegations over a potential breach of campaign finance laws. Leach filed two complaints with the Federal Election Commission that alleges Margolies used funds designated for the general election in the primary — which breaks FEC rules.
At the start of the race, the former congresswoman's Democratic rivals were painting her as a relic of the last era. Margolies bore the brunt of the negativity in the contest, thanks to her high name recognition. She lost in 1993, after casting the last needed vote to pass President Bill Clinton's budget, a vote that ultimately cost Margolies her seat that year and which she still talks about in her stump speech.
On May 9, as Margolies leaned against a wall at the back of the room, Leach tossed overt jabs in her direction.
“We’re not running on nostalgia,” Leach told the mostly older, Democratic crowd.
Yet nostalgia can be a powerful thing, and it might convince voters like retired public school teacher Craig Browne, who told CQ Roll Call he is undecided and unfamiliar with the candidates ahead of the primary.
“I know her, I know her name from years ago,” Browne said of Margolies. “It may help me.”
But the former congresswoman has shown lackluster fundraising and she has been absent from the trail, political operatives charge.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is hosting a New York fundraiser for Margolies on Thursday, but that might be too late to have a serious impact on her chances next week.
Over the past few months, as attention was focused on Margolies and her comeback attempt, Boyle, a Philadelphia native, locked up support from unions and many of Philadelphia's ward leaders. As the last vestige of the political machine in the city, that backing could be crucial to turn out working-class Philadelphia voters who make up about half of this district in the primary. The ward leaders were credited with helping Schwartz win the district in 2004, the last time the seat was open.
Democratic operatives warned that female voters voting against Boyle thanks to the abortion attacks could split among the three other candidates, and ultimately help Boyle gain the nod.
Still, the operatives say anything can happen in the final days of the race.
Arkoosh, who has been aided by medical association PACs and who has injected $700,000 of her own personal fortune in the contest, could gain speed. She's running an ad that touts her medical background and ability to work together, even with people she disagrees with, as something she'd bring to a bitterly divided Congress.
And Leach, whose outspoken and boisterous persona makes him a popular figure with progressives in the district, is running an ad attacking all of his opponents . Ads like that could cut through the clutter of the high-profile Democratic gubernatorial primary largely overshadowing this down-ballot contest.
Margolies hinted the Clintons could make some kind of grand gesture in the final week, though her campaign declined to comment on what that might be.
CQ Roll Call asked her about potential Clinton involvement in the race. Margolies turned to campaign aide Dylan McGarry and asked, "Have we locked and loaded the — " before McGarry cut her off.
Margolies winked and said, "Call me."