Metcalfe enjoys political perfect storm
Well known, incumbent has big voter edge
Source:
Cranberry Bureau Chief
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By J.W. Johnson Jr.,
Published:
July 11, 2018
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Daryl Metcalfe

CRANBERRY TWP — For nearly two decades, Daryl Metcalfe has represented the state's 12th Legislative District.

During that time, he's faced few challengers, often defeating his general election opponents by nearly twice the number of votes. And while recent years have seen incidents that would potentially derail another candidate, Metcalfe stands poised to win re-election for the 10th time in November.

While it may seem like a phenomenon from the outside, political experts believe it's simply a matter of timing and the makeup of the district, which includes Adams, Clinton, Cranberry, Forward, Middlesex and Penn townships, Callery, Mars, Seven Fields and Valencia boroughs.

“I think Daryl Metcalfe has likely enjoyed such success because of both the composition of his district and a number of factors associated with being an incumbent,” said Meri Long, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

The history

The incumbent advantage is something Metcalfe has seemed to benefit from since first winning the seat in 1998, according to election data from the Pennsylvania Department of State and Butler County Bureau of Elections.

In the race to replace retiring Democrat Patricia Carone, Metcalfe defeated Mark Burd in the Republican primary by 1,217 votes. He went on to claim the seat in November's general election by nearly 6,000 votes.

Metcalfe became just the fifth representative in the district's history, and the third Republican, his military background playing well with the district's electorate.

In the years following, Metcalfe faced nary a challenge in both the primary and general elections. He thumped Independent challenger Louis Hancherick by more than 20,000 votes in the 2000 general election, and beat Democrat Linda Schoettker by more than double the votes in 2002.

He ran unopposed in both the primary and general elections in 2004 and 2006, before dispatching Republican challenger Robin Redding and Democrat John Olsenevich in the 2008 primary and general elections, respectively.

In 2010 Metcalfe sought to make a new political move by running for lieutenant governor in the primary. While he received about 70 percent of the vote in Butler County, he finished third in the state overall. Despite this, he ran unopposed in the 12th District primary, and trounced Democrat Zach Byrnes by more than 13,000 votes in the general election.

The 2012 election again saw Metcalfe run unopposed, though a last-minute write-in candidate, Steve Smith, received a little more than 1,300 votes. Though Metcalfe received more than 29,000 votes, it perhaps set the stage for things to come.

In 2014, Gordon Marburger, a member of the Mars School Board, filed to run against Metcalfe in the Republican primary. However, the state Supreme Court found Marburger had improperly filed financial interest statements — a ruling that resulted in him being kicked off the ballot.

Undeterred, Marburger ran a write-in campaign, getting within about 540 votes of Metcalfe. Marburger beat Metcalfe in three Cranberry Township precincts, and came within a few votes in Mars and Middlesex Township. Metcalfe was carried to victory by votes in Adams Township, voting data show.

Reports indicated Marburger spent about $43,000 out of his own pocket on the campaign, while Metcalfe spent about the same from his campaign war chest. Still, he had more than $95,000 at his disposal for the general election, in which he defeated Democrat Lisa Zucco by more than 4,700 votes.

That fundraising discrepancy was on display again in 2016, when Metcalfe defeated a properly registered Marburger in the primary by nearly 3,400 votes. Reports indicate Marburger raised $4,710 for that election, while Metcalfe raised $19,830. Metcalfe went on to defeat Democrat challenger Christian Rieger handily in the general election.

He again ran unopposed in this year's primary election, setting up a showdown with Democrat Daniel Smith Jr. in November.

The advantage

Long, the University of Pittsburgh political scientist, said Metcalfe's advantages are multifaceted — many of which were on display in more recent elections. She said incumbents have more financial resources, and tend to get better media coverage.

Additionally, she said name recognition and a more fluid campaign operation, honed after years of election cycles, could be enough to make Metcalfe's path to keeping his seat relatively easy.

“This might deter challengers from even entering in the first place,” she said.

Michael Coulter, a professor of political science and humanities at Grove City College, agreed.

“It's hard to beat an incumbent in a primary,” he said.

Coulter cited name recognition as one of the biggest advantages, something Metcalfe definitely has after nearly two decades in office. He's also held the chairmanship of the House State Government Committee since 2011.

Coulter said in many ways Metcalfe is an anomaly, as research shows a majority of people don't know the names of their state representatives.

“In some ways, Daryl Metcalfe might be better known than most House members,” Coulter said.

Coulter also pointed to Metcalfe's style of politics and lack of legal missteps as other significant advantages.

Metcalfe has found himself at the center of controversy in recent years. Most notably in a December incident in which he was accused of making homophobic remarks during an outburst at a committee meeting. The comments came after Montgomery County Democratic Rep. Matt Bradford, D-70th, touched Metcalfe's shoulder during the meeting.

Metcalfe has also found himself in wars of words with other legislators on topics ranging from redistricting to gun legislation, and has taken to social media to make controversial comments about those legislators, as well as a recent post on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Despite the controversies, Coulter pointed out that there has been no legal scandal attached to Metcalfe.

“Absent some significant personal or legal scandal, it's hard to lose,” he said.

He added that Metcalfe's often-abrasive style seems to be well-received by his base, and is in-line with a national trend in political discourse.

“That type of politics is in vogue right now,” he said.

Research also suggests that legislators serving two-year terms tend to have higher incumbency advantages, Long said. She added those making high salaries are able to devote more of their time and attention to campaigning.

Long pointed to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics that indicates incumbents ran for four of every eight legislative seats in 2015 and 2016, with four of 10 running unopposed. Nine of 10 were re-elected.

“So, in many ways his success in the past is not unusual,” she said.

The upset?

What would be unusual, Long said, is if the national political climate helped a challenger to Metcalfe and he lost re-election this fall.

Metcalfe will face off against Smith, who defeated Honora Rockar for the Democratic nomination in May. Smith defeated Rockar 1,494 to 920, earning 62 percent of the vote. Rockar won seven of the 22 precincts in the district, all of which were in Cranberry Township.

Metcalfe, meanwhile, earned 4,029 votes in his uncontested primary race — eclipsing the total amount of votes on the Democratic side. This, Coulter said, is indicative of the district's makeup, and shows the challenge any Democrat faces when running against Metcalfe.

“In a general election ... it is incredibly unlikely for voters to not vote their party identification,” he said. “The best predictor of a general election is party identification.”

As of June 27, there were 13,504 registered Democrats in the district, according to Butler County Bureau of Elections records. That compares with 27,094 Republicans and 6,774 unaffiliated or independent voters.

“You'd have to get a pretty significant chunk of people to vote against their party,” Coulter said of a Democrat challenger. “That's pretty rare.”

He added that typically when people vote outside of their party affiliation, it's in higher-profile elections featuring presidential or governor races. Still, he said 90 percent of people vote for their party in presidential races.

Coulter said a shift in district makeup could lead to a significant challenge to a candidate like Metcalfe. He said a population or demographic change bringing more moderate voters could make such a seat vulnerable, and a credible Democrat with “a fair amount of money” could take advantage.

However, he said state party leaders often weigh the risk and reward for allocating attention and resources to a district, and would likely avoid areas where a close race isn't feasible.

“(Party leaders) probably would pick districts that have more low-hanging fruit ... and look for (seat) pickups elsewhere,” he said.

Metcalfe did not respond to interview requests for this report.