Famed Pirates announcer Bob Prince used to talk about a batter's "hidden vigorish": The longer a batter was in a slump, Prince argued, the closer he was to finally getting a hit. By that standard, Republicans should not just beat Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, but sweep City Council races they don't even have candidates in.
But as Pirates fans know, no matter how long the slump, you can always go another inning without a hit.
To state the obvious: There hasn't been a Republican mayor in Pittsburgh since the Great Depression. And in the past decade, no Republican mayoral candidate has broken the 30 percent barrier: In 1997, Harry Frost took 21 percent the vote from Tom Murphy; Jim Carmine got 23 percent in 2001; and in 2005, Joe Weinroth took 27 percent from the late Bob O'Connor.
DeSantis, a consultant and former staffer for the late Sen. John Heinz, should do better than any of those guys. In previous races, most Pittsburghers couldn't pick the Republican out of a line-up. (And that's where you have to look for local officials sometimes.) DeSantis, though, will have money to spend, partly because of his GOP ties, and partly because -- unlike Harry Frost -- he isn't sleeping on someone else's couch.
He's also had a nice media bounce, considering he got fewer than 1,000 write-in votes. (Joe Weinroth got on the ballot with 4,000 votes.) Your very own City Paper featured DeSantis standing before an American flag in a cover photo ... on July 4, no less. And when DeSantis called for numerous debates and a renunciation of political gifts -- pro forma stuff for a challenger -- the story got above-the-fold coverage on the front page of the Post-Gazette's local section. The coverage won't always be that friendly, but when you're a political unknown, tone matters less than volume.
As importantly, DeSantis is a pro-business Republican with a moderate face. He's tied closely enough to the GOP that he can tap its backers for financial support, but not so closely that he can be written off as a hack. In that, he most resembles former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey, who in 1999 pulled off an upset over Democratic heavyweight Cyril Wecht.
Roddey, though, was better known than DeSantis, thanks to years served on the boards of the Port Authority and WQED. And Wecht was famously abrasive. Back in 1999, he was even accused of nearly running a mother and her 4-year-old off the road. Compared to that, getting into a tussle with police at a Steelers game -- as Ravenstahl once did -- is small potatoes.
Yet despite all that, and despite winning a majority countywide, Roddey took just 37.5 percent of the city's vote.
So far, there's little reason to think DeSantis will do better. Much like city councilor Bill Peduto, who abandoned his own mayoral challenge, DeSantis is stressing fiscal probity and government reform. As Peduto can attest, such issues don't light many fires outside the East End, and Ravenstahl can co-opt ideas that do.
But DeSantis has one asset: Ravenstahl's haplessness. Many of Ravenstahl's gaffes have been trifling, but his management of the police bureau has been disastrous. Most recently, he angered women's groups -- and almost everyone else -- by promoting three officers who faced allegations of domestic abuse.
Ravenstahl's problem isn't his inexperience; it's his inability to learn from experience once he gets it. Earlier this year, for example, he took a midnight jaunt to New York City on a private jet owned by Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle. The resulting outcry should have taught Ravenstahl that his comings and goings would attract speculation -- especially if someone else pays the tab. Yet months later, when city council held a public hearing on the police promotions, he attended a charity golf event on UPMC's dime.
Can DeSantis capitalize on such mistakes? Maybe, though if he wants to champion women's issues, he'll probably have to address the $650 he's contributed to troglodytic ex-Senator Rick Santorum. I interviewed DeSantis last month, and while he was cruising for most of the discussion, when I asked about those contributions, it was like he'd shifted into reverse while looking for fifth gear. ("Anything you want to say about those contributions?" I asked. He clamped his lips shut and shook his head from side to side.)
If Ravenstahl can avoid embarrassing himself until November, he can't lose. If he can't avoid embarrassing himself, he doesn't deserve to win.