Biden Aids Pa. Races

House Democrats Seek Local Boost

Posted September 16, 2008 at 6:53pm

On the heels of the Democratic National Convention, vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Biden’s first stop was Pennsylvania.

A native of the northeastern part of the state, Biden stopped at his childhood home in Scranton for a rally three days after the convention ended in Denver. And if Congressional Democrats have their way, it will be the Delaware Senator’s first of many trips to the area.

Biden’s roots could make a difference in northeastern Pennsylvania, where both the 10th and 11th Congressional districts are in play: Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D) is in a competitive race against Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta (R) in the 11th district, while freshman Rep. Christopher Carney (D) is being challenged by businessman Chris Hackett (R) in the traditionally Republican 10th district.

The northeastern Pennsylvania area voted overwhelmingly for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the April Democratic presidential primary — at times with margins of 50 percent in some counties over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), now the nominee. When Obama announced Biden would be his running mate, political observers thought he would play well with older white voters in that region who initially favored Clinton — and could boost candidates like Kanjorski and Carney further downballot.

That could be one of the reasons why Kanjorski hailed Biden’s nomination moments after it was announced in August and sang his praises at the Sept. 1 rally in Scranton. One of Clinton’s most loyal supporters until the end of the bitter primary campaign, Kanjorski now wholeheartedly supports Obama and Biden.

Matthew Brann, the northeast caucus chairman for the Pennsylvania state GOP, said Biden would likely not help Democrats in the outlying rural counties around Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, but could help in the more urban Lackawanna County.

In particular, Brann said Biden could help Democrats politically among Irish families in the area. Still, Brann was hesitant to say the net effect could be great for Kanjorski and other Democrats on the ballot.

“He is not the Senator from Scranton. We have a Senator from Scranton, unfortunately,” said Brann, referring to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

The state Republican Party has not seen any drop-off in its polling for Republican candidates in the 10th and 11th Congressional districts since Biden was named to the national ticket.

The state party’s polling, however, did show GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), having a positive effect in traditionally conservative central Pennsylvania. In the week following the Republican National Convention, Palin held a rally in Lancaster, which is in the central part of the state.

But for Republicans in the area, linking with the national ticket might not be the preferred route to Washington, D.C. Kanjorski’s opponent, Barletta, earned national attention for enacting strict anti-immigration ordinances in his small town.

Barletta has not endorsed McCain, but his campaign manager Vince Galko nonetheless hailed the publicity bump for Republicans from Palin and the conventions.

“Mayor Barletta has had strong momentum behind his campaign since it started in February,” Galko said. “Our primary results showed that Lou Barletta has a strong following, and that we would run ahead of the generic ballot. Nevertheless, you can certainly sense a change in the political environment, and that will only help Lou Barletta’s run to victory.”

But Barletta isn’t the only candidate in the area — Democrat or Republican — who is hesitant about the national ticket, despite having a local native running for vice president. According to his campaign, Carney has said he supports the Democratic ticket, but has not made an official endorsement of Obama and Biden.

Carney did not campaign in public with Biden on Sept. 1, but his campaign said he met with Biden briefly at the Scranton airport that day. Carney campaign manager Vincent Rongione said the campaign was proud to have “native son” Biden on the national ticket.

“We are running a strong positive campaign with widespread bipartisan support, and Sen. Biden only adds to our momentum,” Rongione said.

Hackett spokesman Mark Harris pointed to Palin as the candidate who is creating excitement in the mostly rural 10th district.

“What we’ve seen is that Sarah Palin is really the one who is getting folks energized,” Harris said. “Joe Biden and Barack Obama are two liberal U.S. Senators who are out of touch with the needs of the 10th Congressional district, just like Chris Carney is.”

One of Carney’s Republican supporters, Montour County Commissioner Jack Gerst, said he is undecided about the presidential contest though is leaning toward voting for the Democratic ticket. Gerst said the vice presidential picks for both sides could be a draw, given their appeal to different voting blocs in the 10th district.

“There’s a lot of different things that work here,” Gerst said. “You have some elderly folk that are, of course, afraid of the Democratic ticket because of race or color, so I think that’s going to be a piece.”

Gerst said that while older voters might not trust Obama, they tend to like Biden because he has been on the political scene for more than three decades. On the other hand, he pointed to gun owners as voters who might be particularly enthralled with the Palin pick.

“Palin is going to do the thing with ‘I shoot a moose with a rifle,’ and she’s going to catch some of the backwoods folks,” Gerst said. “I wish Biden would come out and shoot a deer and say he’s a member of the NRA, too. Maybe that would even them up a little bit.”