The story of the 2018 midterms in Pennsylvania could be told many ways.
It was also a year that saw General Assembly wins by three women backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, a leftist organization that’s risen to new prominence since Sen. Bernie Sanders ran for president on democratic socialist ideals.
The emergence of the DSA in Pennsylvania politics comes as more young Americans are embracing the concept of socialism. In their public comments, leaders of Pa.’s Democratic party have welcomed their left-leaning comrades.
“We’re growing,” state party chair Nancy Mills told The Incline in May, when she was still head of the Allegheny County party. “We have no identity crisis.” In August, Mills told the Inquirer she didn’t see how DSA-backed candidates “are any different than any other of our candidates. The connotation that they are somehow radical isn’t right.”
Republican state chair Val DiGiorgio seized on that comment in an op-ed (Dems “espouse a radical and, frankly, frightening direction for our nation”) and invoked the perceived evils of socialism in a number of emails in the lead-up to Nov. 6.
Those warnings didn’t stop three of the four DSA-backed candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot from winning. And it’s unlikely in the near-term to dampen part of the electorate’s enthusiasm for progressive policies.
“The DSA has a set of views that are very popular right now,” University of Pittsburgh political science associate professor Kristin Kanthak said, “and they have managed to put them together in a way that has a lot of meaning to voters who are angry with the status quo.”
Pittsburgh DSA doubles down
In Pittsburgh and its suburbs, Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee easily beat longtime state representatives Dom and Paul Costa on a people-first platform that included support for single-payer healthcare and a higher minimum wage.
Their races became national news as the young women embraced the democratic socialist label and openly rejected capitalist systems they say have failed poor and working people.
“We’re looking at an economic system and a government system that doesn’t work,” Lee said recently on the “Drinking Partners” podcast. “Unfettered capitalism — that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Ten candidates sought the Pittsburgh DSA’s endorsement in 2018, and three got it (state House candidate Kareem Kandi lost his primary). Endorsements reflect the values of the chapter’s members and their votes, communications coordinator Becca Tasker said.
The Western Pa. chapter is currently 900-plus strong, a number that’s more than doubled since the beginning of the year. Tasker said DSA members offer support like canvassing and data entry to endorsed candidates — wherever the “people power” is needed.
During the primary, neither Costa cousin seized on their opponents’ DSA affiliation. The same couldn’t be said during the general election.
While neither woman had an opponent on the Nov. 6 ballot, a handful of people launched a late write-in campaign for Dom Costa after Innamorato described her district as “white working class, poor folk who are racist” during a podcast conversation about politics. Innamorato said in a statement to KDKA-TV, “In no way did I seek to imply that all of my neighbors are racist.”
The write-in campaign for Costa had a website, Americans Against Socialism, which called on members of both major parties to write-in the Democrat and “DEFEAT SOCIALISM TOGETHER!” Organizers solicited donations through a PayPal account associated with an anti-abortion-access Republican and sent text messages to constituents of District 21, which includes Etna, Lawrenceville, and Millvale.
“Write in DOM COSTA for General Assembly,” the text read. “Vote Against Socialism! Hear what Socialist Sara thinks of you.”
While Gary Britcher, a Republican from Aspinwall who helped organize the write-in campaign, called the effort bipartisan, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa urged people via Twitter to vote straight-ticket. Costa, who is related to Dom, also name-checked Innamorato as a great candidate.
The midterms were even more contentious for a Pittsburgh candidate who sought the DSA chapter’s backing but didn’t get it. Lindsey Williams won a closely contested state Senate seat in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs after being the target of ads featuring an actor in Soviet garb and signs connected with her opponent Jeremy Shaffer that labeled her a socialist.
Using “socialist” as a dirty word or slur is an old tactic in politics, but one that appears to be losing some of its effectiveness, Kanthak said. “The word has lost its negative connotation, especially for younger voters.”
Tasker called the Shaffer campaign’s ads a “blatant example of what’s wrong with politics today.” The outcome of the race, she said, shows “the message of socialism speaks clearly” to many. “His red scare tactics weren’t enough.”