Call it what you will: a cynical ploy, an act of self-preservation or plain old resourcefulness.
What we’re specifically referencing here is state Rep. Dom Costa’s courting of Republican voters in Pittsburgh’s 21st state House district ahead of the Tuesday primary. A mailer was sent out soliciting Republican write-in votes and touting Costa’s law enforcement credentials and work on issues like the opioid epidemic.
“This tactic says more about Costa’s perception of the demise of voters’ party loyalties,” said Sandi DiMola, an associate professor of political science at Carlow University, “and that the old school/old boy Dem party in Allegheny County may be running scared.”
Costa is facing a strong primary challenge from a hard-left candidate in Sara Innamorato, whose campaign and backers stress the need to oust Costa, a 10-year incumbent, and whose message has clearly resonated with Democratic voters in the 21st. Innamorato also has almost as much money on hand as Costa — $55,050 and $51,600, according to the Post-Gazette.
Costa’s courtship of Republican voters confirms he knows this and is eyeing a backup, and as you might expect, Innamorato was quick to seize on the optics.
“On one hand, it is deeply troubling for a 10-year Democratic incumbent to court Republicans in a last ditch effort to hold onto power,” Innamorato said in a statement. “On the other hand, Rep. Dom Costa must be worried if his back-up plan is abandoning the Democratic Party. As a Democrat who is currently his constituent, I find it shocking.”
Rep. Costa did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Incline, but his campaign told the Post-Gazette, “Rep. Costa’s decision to mount a Republican write-in campaign is not some underhanded political maneuver. He desires to win both nominations, unite the people of the 21st District and continue advancing policies that help everyday Pennsylvanians.”
This approach is atypical but not unheard of. The current mayor of York, a Democrat, lost the Democratic primary but won the Republican primary on a write in and then went on to win the general election.
“If Costa loses the Democratic primary and gets the write in, he can in the general, obviously, get many of his Democratic supporters to vote for him and also Republican voters because he’s on that ballot,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “That’s how the current mayor of York pulled off his victory.”
This same type of bet hedging also happened in the race for Harrisburg mayor in 2017, where cross-party write-ins were again looked to as an extra life, a failsafe if you will, in a closely contested Democratic primary.
In the 2017 race for Mayor of Bellevue outside Pittsburgh, Tom Fodi ran as a Democrat in the primary and, after securing enough write-in votes, a Republican in the general. His bid was ultimately unsuccessful.
Becoming a Republican candidate
Here’s how it works. Costa is running against Innamorato in the May 15 Democratic primary. If he beats her, then he’s all but guaranteed another term — it would be his sixth. There is no Republican running for the office.
If he doesn’t but is successful in getting enough Republican voters in District 21 to write him in, the race continues with Costa appearing on the general election ballot as the Republican nominee to face Innamorato again.
“Costa would have to get at least 300 votes from Republican voters to be on the November ballot,” said Wanda Murren, communications director with the Pennsylvania Department of State.
“That is the same number as the signature requirement on nominating petitions for state House seats. He would, of course, also have to get more write-in votes than any other write-in.”
The makeup of the 21st is such that him winning as a Republican seems unlikely, but Madonna told The Incline today that it could work if Costa is able to tap a mix of Democratic and Republican voters in November.
In gauging Costa’s crossover appeal, it’s important to remember his law enforcement credentials — he’s a former police chief — and his support for measures like making English Pennsylvania’s official language and banning sanctuary cities.
Costa also voted in favor of a Republican-sponsored bill banning abortions in Pennsylvania after 20 weeks. That bill was ultimately vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and Costa voted against the ban when it was eventually re-introduced. He also softened his stance on immigration issues amid a public backlash from constituents but told City Paper he refused to buckle to protesters’ demands on “illegal and undocumented immigration.”
According to state data, the 21st is home to 27,981 registered Democrats, 11,393 Republicans, and 6,862 others.
The district includes Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, Etna, Millvale, a portion of O’Hara Township, portions of Pittsburgh including Morningside and Lawrenceville, Reserve Township, and portions of Ross and Shaler townships.