It's hard to remember now, but in 2006 and 2008, Democrats were caught up in an election-year-frenzy. The chance to defeat Rick Santorum, and then to put a Democrat in the White House, generated unprecedented excitement.
But in 2010, we're seeing unprecedented levels of apathy -- even though two critical statewide races are at stake in the May 18 primary. (Not to mention the race for Lieutenant Governor, as well as for seats in District 19 and District 20 of the state House of Representatives.)
Congressman Joe Sestak is taking on Arlen Specter, and there are four candidates vying to be the party's nominee for governor.
They're good candidates, too, even if Democrats have a hard time telling them apart. (For help doing so, see this handy side-by-side comparison.) "I dunno" dominates the Democratic field: In a March poll by Franklin & Marshall College, seven out of 10 Democrats said they still didn't know who they'd vote for.
"The pool of undecided voters is monstrous," says pollster Terry Madonna, who conducted the F&M survey.
There's even a lack of enthusiasm in Allegheny County, which is home to two candidates: Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and state Auditor General Jack Wagner. "From talking to committeepeople, no one is all that excited about any of the candidates," says Jeanne Clark, a veteran activist on women's and environmental issues, and a longtime Democratic committee member.
Part of the problem is that both history and current trends favor the GOP heavily. For more than a half-century, Pennsylvania has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors every eight years -- and when Ed Rendell steps down, the Dems' turn will be up.
But Clark has found her candidate: Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel. An unabashed liberal from the Philadelphia suburbs, Hoeffel is little known to voters here. But more than anyone else in the race, he represents the promise and peril for Democrats now that the Obama honeymoon is over.
"The polling doesn't matter," Clark says. "It's all going to be about turnout of the faithful."
Ask Terri Davin why she supports Hoeffel, and the answer is simple: "He's the only one that supports clean water for our future," she said at an April 30 press conference. "He speaks for our water, and for our children."
Davin is a resident of Mount Morris, Pa., which lies along Dunkard Creek. The 38-mile creek's fish population was wiped out last year by an algae bloom -- which federal officials have linked to runoff from coal mines. Now Davin and others worry that similar catastrophes could follow plans to exploit natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.
That geological formation may hold $1 trillion worth of natural gas a mile beneath our feet. But already there are signs that drilling for the gas can foul area waterways and cause other environmental damage. And while all the Democrats support taxing natural-gas extraction -- and using the money for environmental initiatives -- Hoeffel has taken the strongest position. He supports a moratorium on issuing any new drilling permits until the state passes more stringent wastewater regulations.
"I'm the only candidate in favor of that, because it challenges the energy companies," Hoeffel says. Range Resources -- which is doing much of the Marcellus drilling -- has contributed $5,000 to Onorato and $4,000 to Wagner in recent months.
For Hoeffel, Dunkard Creek represents the challenge government was meant to solve. People in Mount Morris "were turning to government for help, and they weren't getting it."
But his tough stance on the issue has drawn little notice: Only City Paper and one other reporter attended the April 30 event. Hoeffel had similarly poor coverage the day before, when he unveiled a plan to change state contracting to give advantages to local banks and vendors.
But he's always put himself out on the edge. During a six-year term in Congress that ended in 2004, Hoeffel racked up an almost perfect voting record on labor and abortion-rights issues. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime rating of 7 -- the second-lowest in the state.
No surprise, then, that the love affair with the left has continued, thanks to Hoeffel's strong support for gay marriage and expanded access to family-planning services.
At a January candidates' forum hosted by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, he got a warm welcome -- and, later, the club endorsement. (About the only issue he didn't connect with progressives on is the Mon-Fayette Expressway: Like the other Dems, Hoeffel supports building the long-delayed toll road. "From an economic-development standpoint, the road's advocates in the Mon Valley are very convincing," he says.)
A centerpiece of his campaign, meanwhile, involves changing the state's income tax from a flat rate -- every wage earner pays the same 3.07 percent -- to a federal-style "graduated tax," with wealthier residents paying higher rates. And while all the candidates say they want to increase investment in roads and other infrastructure, only Hoeffel tells you how he'd pay for it -- by raising gasoline taxes and vehicle-registration fees. Wagner and Onorato, meanwhile, take a more Republican-sounding line, pledging to reduce corporate taxes.
In a political season dominated by Tea Partiers, Hoeffel may be the only candidate in the nation pledging to raise taxes. Which makes you wonder whether he has a chance in hell.
To the extent there's a favorite in this race, it's Onorato, who raised more than $7.3 million as of March. That's more than triple his rivals combined-- Hoeffel had less than $500,000 -- and it well outpaces the nearly $5 million raised by the presumptive Republican nominee, state Attorney General Tom Corbett.
Madonna predicts a hard slog for Hoeffel -- in part because "Onorato and Wagner have been working a lot longer and harder to build support." Onorato draws heavily from donors and staffers once allied with Rendell, and Wagner's statewide office has helped him "get support from one county organization after another," Madonna says. "It's left Hoeffel without a base."
Hoeffel's prospects rely heavily on geography: "Jack and Dan certainly have to contend with each other in the west and central parts of the state," Hoeffel contends, whereas "I've got a strong and unshakable lead in the Philadelphia suburbs."
But the map has been complicated by the late entry of Anthony Hardy Williams, a black state senator from Philadelphia, in the race. Williams threatens to prize away Philly-area votes, and he's tussled with Hoeffel over school vouchers. That issue sometimes divides black voters, desperate for better schools, and white liberals who support public schools ... especially if their kids don't have to attend the ones that are failing.
Hoeffel's homebase, Montgomery County, is one of the state's most affluent areas: More than one household in three has a median income in the six-digit range, Census figures say; statewide, less than one out of five households are doing that well. Hoeffel governs there in a bipartisan coalition with Republican Jim Matthews. But moderate Republicans are a dying breed, and an agenda that carries in Montgomery County may not play so well in hard-pressed, more conservative regions.
Which is a problem, because Hoeffel's plan to restructure the state income tax, for example, would require amending the state Constitution -- something a governor can't do on his own. And his position on gay marriage likely won't matter if Republicans maintain control of at least one house of the legislature, which seems almost certain.
Onorato and Wagner are muting such issues in any case. Though long known as pro-life politicians, both now say they support the state's current abortion law. Wagner even supports the medical use of marijuana -- "which shocked me," says pollster Terry Madonna.
Hoeffel smiles at the shifts, saying, "I'm proud if I've helped bring [Onorato and Wagner] over." But even some strong advocates of LGBT rights, like local blogger Thomas Waters, back Onorato, fearing Hoeffel is too progressive to carry off a win in November. In a recent post, Waters wrote that Onorato is "the type of Democrat that [state voters] can support, because he isn't as far left progressive as Joe Hoeffel."
Which raises the real question for Democrats this year -- whether it's the race for governor, or for Arlen Specter's seat, or countless other races across the country. How do you fight the rising passion on the right? By taking a middle-of-the-road stance a la Wagner and Onorato? Or by lining up behind a full-throttle liberal like Hoeffel?
With so many voters undecided, this race may be decided more by a feeling in the gut than anything -- and that will test how much fire Democrats have in their belly. As for Hoeffel, "By God, I think I can win," he says. "Based on my record, and my willingness to speak up, I think I'm the right guy."