HARRISBURG, Pa. – Democratic Party stalwarts in Pennsylvania heaved a collective sigh of relief as Joe Biden, the choice of many party leaders in the battleground state, emerged from the presidential primary pack as the consensus pick to lead the party's moderate wing.
After all, the former vice president and Delaware senator is viewed as a hometown boy in the Democratic bastion of Scranton, where he grew up. Most members of Pennsylvania's Democratic congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, endorsed Biden early in the primary. And his longstanding relationships with party leaders in Pennsylvania have made him their favorite candidate to beat President Donald Trump in a state Democrats can't afford to lose.
Party insiders in Pennsylvania who support Biden, however, had worried that his campaign wouldn't survive the crowded primary fray before Super Tuesday voters flocked to Biden, who won the most delegates on the presidential primary calendar's biggest night.
“My phone has been buzzing, beeping, texts, all kinds of messages,” John Cordisco, Bucks County's Democratic Party chairman, said this week. “You can feel that sense of, ‘It’s OK now.'”
Polls in Pennsylvania generally favor Biden over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist running to Biden's left, ahead of the state's April 28 primary.
Biden currently has 664 delegates to Sanders' 573, and voters in 10 states cast ballots over the next two weeks. There is no assurance that Biden racks up enough delegates to win the nomination over Sanders before July's convention. And many Democrats still worry about a rift between moderate and progressive voters.
But Biden's resurgence after a slow start seemed to validate the political capital the state's leading Democrats have put into his candidacy.
“We call him the 'scrappy kid from Scranton,'" said Christopher Patrick, Lackawanna County's Democratic Party chair. “He’s our guy.”
The primary aside, Pennsylvania's Democratic Party is under pressure to show it can make the state blue again.
Trump's shocking 2016 victory in Pennsylvania helped pave his way to the White House, and shifted the state's electoral votes to the Republican column for the first time since 1988.
On top of that, no Democrat has won the presidency without winning Pennsylvania since Harry S. Truman in 1948.
While the state party itself has sought to remain neutral, many of its officials have long seen Biden as the best candidate to attract conservative Democrats who drifted to Trump in 2016. They also think he can appeal to moderate Republicans.
“I’ve heard it time and time again: 'You folks, Democrats, have to come up with a candidate we can vote for because at this point, four years later, we just can’t vote for Trump,'” said Kathy Bozinski, Luzerne County's party chairwoman.
Then there's what's known as the “coattails” theory: The better the presidential candidate does, the better that party’s down-ballot candidates will do.
Some party officials worry that Sanders will have a chilling effect on contests in closely divided legislative and congressional districts.
“I do think that the downballots would be hampered by a Sanders candidacy,” said Dick Bingham, Chester County's Democratic Party chair. “I think, on balance, Pennsylvania tends to be pretty moderate. ... There's not a lot of indication that there's a strong preference for those who lean more to the left.”
About 20 state House contests were settled by 5 or fewer percentage points in 2018, and strong performances this year could help Democrats recapture the chamber's majority.
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to protect two U.S. House seats — Matt Cartwright's in northeastern Pennsylvania and Conor Lamb's in suburban Pittsburgh — in districts Trump won in 2016.
Not everyone subscribes to the coattails theory, and Pennsylvania voters have demonstrated a willingness to ticket-split.
Meanwhile, Sanders supporters are showing no signs of surrender on behalf of a candidate they insist will energize throngs of young voters and drive the party to victory in November.
And even as statewide support consolidated around Biden after his South Carolina primary victory, Sanders picked up endorsements from a pair of Pennsylvania state legislators.
Sanders has maintained a network in Pennsylvania — a state he lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 12 percentage points — and party officials acknowledge that they will need to bring his supporters into the fold.
Assuming Biden becomes the nominee, encouraging Sanders supporters to help Biden beat Trump in the fall will require work, perhaps melding Sanders' platform with Biden's, some say.
"That’d be perfect," said Rogette Harris, the party chair in Dauphin County, “if we could put those guys together."
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