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Pa. House race previews Dems' 2016

| Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Sometimes the smallest races tell the biggest stories.

Take Pennsylvania Democrats' primary race to replace Allyson Schwartz in suburban Philadelphia's 13th Congressional District. (Schwartz is campaigning for the Democrats' nomination to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett in November.)

Unless the bad election year projected for Democrats has been vastly underestimated, this House seat was designed to be held comfortably by a Democrat — which means the battle for it essentially occurs in the party's primary.

Those vying for the seat include political newcomer Dr. Val Arkoosh, state lawmakers Daylin Leach and Brandon Boyle, and Marjorie Margolies, who held the seat from 1993 to 1995. She is considered the frontrunner because of her name recognition and her unique connection to the Clinton family. (She is Chelsea's mother-in-law.)

At its core, this race is for the soul of the party in a post-Obama political landscape. In a year in which Democrats have had a hard time attracting quality candidates for House races — a common occurrence for both parties when they know their chances are slim to win a majority — this race has attracted four qualified candidates.

All of them have a legitimate political argument and a path to victory.

All of them are very different types of Democrats, too.

Boyle is a young state representative, popular with big labor and very much the old-fashioned Catholic Democrat; he comes from a hardworking neighborhood and is proud of his working-class roots. In fact, he's the only candidate who isn't a millionaire or married to one.

Leach is the classic Netroots fighting progressive. If he can make this race about ideology, he can win.

Arkoosh is a doctor, the classic outsider, running as a mainstream liberal; she has some implicit support from the incumbent, although it is doubtful that Schwartz will outwardly support her in the primary. She also has raised a lot of money.

Then there's Margolies, an establishment Democrat. She has a perceived edge, not because of previously holding the seat — retreading alone wouldn't put her in that position — but because the Clintons' influence in Pennsylvania Democrat primaries should never be underestimated.

Their support in 2012 helped to lift Kathleen Kane, an unknown assistant prosecutor from Scranton, over well-liked, union-backed Congressman Patrick Murphy in the state attorney general's race. They also helped former Congressman Mark Critz to defeat fellow Congressman Jason Altmire for a House seat that was combined in redistricting.

If Margolies flubs her frontrunner status by deliberately missing debates and burning her campaign money, it's not difficult to imagine Bill Clinton coming into town to hold a glitzy fundraiser for her, then chasing it with an ad full of nostalgia about how her decisive vote on his budget cost her seat in 1993 but saved his presidency — and how he is ready to return the favor.

That stuff works, folks. All of the Democrats in this race, or watching it, realize that.

But Margolies' campaign style is tying Philadelphia-area Democrats in knots, especially her decision not to debate. For many Democrats still sitting on the political fence, her decision helps to perpetuate a feeling that she is running out of validation and vindication; they would rather hear her robustly debate with her competitors about the Affordable Care Act, the NSA's surveillance of Americans, and other pressing issues that drive “super-D” primary voters to the polls.

This race is the country's first glimpse of what a post-Obama Democratic Party could become. Despite all of its post-2012 proclamations, Organizing for America — Obama's campaign machine — probably will not run the world, let alone a very twitchy party that is ready to break away from the Obama years and stretch out on its own.

Obama has disappointed many progressive Democrats; he's lost the connection with many blue-collar Democrats; he's done no favors for many establishment Democrats on a host of issues, including helping to lose their House majority. As for Democrat outsiders, his presidency only emboldens their chances to be authentic change-agents.

Keep your eye on this race: It's a small but telling glimpse of what 2016 will look like for the party.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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