The One Race to Watch in November’s Philly Election

GOP Council members David Oh and Dennis O'Brien should watch their backs.

From L to R: Council members David Oh and Dennis O’Brien | Photo Credit: City Council’s Flickr

From L to R: Council members David Oh and Dennis O’Brien | Photo Credit: City Council’s Flickr

Most of the municipal races this year are like the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons: fun to watch, but we all know how they’re likely to end. Jim Kenney will beat Melissa Murray Bailey. Incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams will sack Republican challenger Chris Sawyer. Register of Wills Ron Donatucci will destroy GOP nominee Ross Feinberg.

The race for City Council at-large is different. It could end with an incumbent or two being kicked to the curb, a millennial could get elected, and the local Republican party just might suffer a devastating setback.

In other words, it’s a real, actual, competitive race.

Technically, there are seven at-large Council seats up for grabs on November 3rd. But only two of them are actually in play — those set aside by the City Charter for minority parties or Independents. Democrats will win the other five at-large seats handily. That’s just the reality in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 (the same reality explains why Bailey, Sawyer and Feinberg are ultra-longshots in their respective campaigns as well).

The two at-large seats in question are occupied by Republicans Dennis O’Brien and David Oh, who are both seeking reelection. Three GOP nominees are running against them: longtime Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce president Al Taubenberger, former Ralph Lauren executive Terry Tracy and steamfitter Daniel Tinney.

Independent Andrew Stober, a transportation expert who recently left the Nutter administration, has mounted a campaign as well. If he wins, the Republican party would lose one of its very few positions of power in Philadelphia, which could set a precedent for more Independent challengers in years to come.

To be sure, Oh and O’Brien have excellent chances to win re-election. There are several reasons for that, but the biggest is simply that they are incumbents. Since 1983, only 13 incumbent Council members who have served for a minimum of four years have been defeated by challengers.

Still, Oh and O’Brien should watch their backs. Here’s why:

  • Incumbent at-large Council members have always been more vulnerable than incumbent district Council members. Of the 13 incumbents who have lost since 1983, nine have been at-large.
  • In recent years, voters have tossed out incumbent Council members who had previously seemed untouchable. Councilman W. Wilson Goode, Jr. has been in office for nearly 16 years and is the son of a former mayor of the same name; he lost in the 2015 primary. Frank Rizzo, Jr., also a son of a former mayor who shares his old man’s name, was sacked in the 2011 primary after serving on Council for the same amount of time. (Former Councilman Ed Neilson was booted in this year’s primary, that was less surprising in that he’d only been on Council for a year-and-a-half.)
  • Neither Oh nor O’Brien won the support of the city’s Republican party in the primary election, which suggests that a number of ward leaders are dissatisfied with them. That is sure to hurt their get-out-the-vote operations on Election Day. That’s more concerning for Oh than O’Brien, because O’Brien has won without the party’s backing more than once.
  • Oh admitted to a pretty serious campaign finance violation earlier this year, which garnered some negative press coverage.
  • Though Oh and O’Brien finished first and second among Republican at-large candidates in the primary, their challengers weren’t far behind. Tracy was just 238 votes shying of beating O’Brien for the No. 2 spot. Tinney was 511 votes away.

OK, so the incumbents have a few weaknesses. That only matters if there are credible candidates running against them, right? As it turns out, there are. Here’s a primer on the challengers, and what they bring to the table:

The Reformer: Terry Tracy

Strengths: Tracy, 33, finished third in the GOP primary. He’s racked up endorsements from everyone from the police union to the urbanist PAC 5th Square to the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, which suggests that he could potentially win votes across the city. He was one of the top Republican fundraisers, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. And he has cast himself as an agent for change, which will appeal to some voters in this climate.

Weaknesses: His name recognition isn’t great — it isn’t nonexistent, thanks to the fact that he ran for City Controller in 2013 – but it isn’t great.

The Elder Statesman: Al Taubenberger

Strengths: After running for office many, many times before — for mayor, Council, state representative and Congress — people know 62-year-old Taubenberger. He’s got better name recognition than any of the other at-large challengers. Many of his supporters are seniors, who vote more frequently than young people, as well as residents of the Northeast, which is home to some of the most powerful Republican wards in the city. Plus, he’s got the police union, firefighters union, teachers union and PR honcho Frank Keel, among others, on his side.

Weaknesses: Taubenberger has lost every race he’s run in. At some point, name recognition has diminishing returns. Also, in the primary, he finished last among the five Republican at-large candidates who advanced to the general election.

The Big Labor Guy: Dan Tinney

Strengths: Tinney, 33, hails from the Northeast, the aforementioned GOP stronghold. His campaign said he’s won the endorsements of several labor groups, including the police union, firefighters union and building trades council. He’s one of the top fundraisers in the race, thanks in large part to Big Labor.

Weaknesses: He has almost no name recognition. And his fundraising chops didn’t stop him from finishing fourth among Republican at-large candidates in the primary.

The Wild Card: Andrew Stober

Strengths: Stober, who is 36, was the top fundraiser among Republican and Independent at-large candidates in the most recent campaign finance reports. He’s received favorable press coverage as well as endorsements from the teachers union, the police union and the 5th Square, among others. Given his connection to Mayor Michael Nutter, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more where that came from. Stober could also argue that, as a progressive who appeals to some Democrats, he theoretically has a larger pool of potential voters to draw from than the Republican candidates.

Weaknesses: Independents have an abysmal track record in Philadelphia. They virtually never win. Stober is a different kind of Independent, to be sure, but he has to carve out a whole new path to victory. He starts at a major disadvantage to the Republican nominees. In the last two general elections for City Council at-large, every GOP candidate has gotten a minimum of 26,000 votes. So it stands to reason that Republicans start with a base of about 26,000 votes, whereas Stober has to find all his votes from scratch. To make matters worse, Stober has very little name recognition. He has spent money on a digital ad campaign and plans to purchase at least one mailed advertisement, but whether that’s enough to buy name recognition is an open question.

The Incumbents

As intriguing as many of the challengers are, Oh and O’Brien have a lot working for them electorally. Like Taubenberger and Tinney, O’Brien has a base in the GOP stronghold of the Northeast, and he may well win support from some Democrats as well. Oh has a base in the city’s Asian community, and he’s proven he can appeal to a diverse group of voters across the city. Both have secured endorsements from a bevy of labor and businesses groups.

On top of that, the election next month has gotten very little ink, and incumbents tend to do well in low-interest, low-turnout elections. Oh and O’Brien also have the top two positions on the ballot, and low-information voters are said to gravitate to the first names they see in unpopular races.