The Bizarre, Mysterious Campaign of Marjorie Margolies

(The weirdest part? She's kind of winning.)

The biggest political race in the state is the gubernatorial election. The biggest political name in the state, however, is Marjorie Margolies— aka the soon-to-be grandmother of Chelsea Clinton’s bundle of joy — who is running not to represent the Commonwealth in Harrisburg, but for her old seat in Congress. Accordingly, she’s tapped into a wealth of A-list support: Bill Clinton headlined her latest fundraiser; Madeleine Albright was the guest of honor at an earlier event. Just yesterday, she earned a feature in the Sunday New York Times. And yet, her campaign operation appears shaky at best.

Let’s start with money. It appears she has very little left. Despite a donor base suffused with beltway bigwigs, she’s raised less than fellow primary challengers State Sen. Daylin Leach and physician Valerie Arkoosh. And unlike them, she’s spent almost all of it, leaving her with $159,000 on hand, all but $5,000 of which is earmarked for the general election. Which brings us to another issue: According to Leach, she’s violated Federal Election Commission rules by dipping into that general pot to bolster her meager funds. (Margolies’s campaign says the allegation is false, as well as “desperate.”)

The picture of disarray is heightened by a widespread sense that the Margolies camp isn’t actually doing much campaigning around the district, which covers parts of Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia. I talked to a half dozen political insiders for this story, all of whom shared an impression of an unusually nonchalant electoral strategy. A political operative working on a set of different races says that when he’s been in the field, he’s repeatedly run into canvassers from the campaigns of Leach, Arkoosh, and State Rep. Brendan Boyle, but never anyone from the Margolies camp.

Another political consultant who has ties to Montco politics, also not involved with the race, tells a near-identical story. “I know people in every one of those races. And I know how hard they’re all working. The only difference is what they’re working hard on. I think the Margolies campaign is much more worried about political relationships than about voter contact.” What’s more, the Daily News ran a piece Friday touting the likely advantage Boyle will have turning out votes in Philadelphia, where he’s supported by the building trades unions.

(None of this is to say Margolies has been at home twiddling her thumbs. A quick perusal of her Twitter feed shows her out at political events. Margolies spokesman/campaign guru Ken Smukler, in an email, added that the campaign was “out every night knocking on doors and calling voters” and sent me a picture of some people phone-banking out of a kitchen.)

It’s not just the campaign’s grassroots efforts; it’s Margolies herself who has at times seemed disengaged. Throughout the spring, she’s declined to participate in three debates that the rest of the candidates attended. In the two debates she has shown up to, she’s been criticized for reading canned answers off index cards. While  Leach and Brendan Boyle have been airing ads since April 22nd, the Margolies campaign only ran its first TV spot last Wednesday during the Flyers game. The “What’s the deal with Marjorie” impression was captured well by an April Fools Day post on Politics PA that compared her campaign presence to the infamous missing Malaysian airplane.

To a certain extent, in other words, she appears to be running her campaign as if she were the incumbent, as if having held this same seat 20 years ago (when the district was differently drawn) makes her the front-runner. But here’s the thing: She kind of is. The name identification advantage she came into the race with was enough to give her a wide lead before the race kicked into gear, according to her own internal numbers. Her rivals found similar results. Leach’s campaign manager Aren Platt said a February survey of theirs had Margolies leading the race, with Leach in second, Boyle in third, and Arkoosh bringing up the rear. The Boyle campaign also told me Margolies led a poll of theirs from earlier this year. (Annoyingly, there’s been no independent polling done for this race.)

The polling is backed up by another top-dog element of her campaign: She’s got a hefty chunk of the region’s political establishment behind her, including the most powerful Democratic political figures in Montgomery County, all five women on Philadelphia’s City Council, and several powerful ward leaders in Northeast Philadelphia. Undergirding all this is a tacit vote of confidence from U.S. Congressman Bob Brady. While he officially endorsed  Boyle a year ago, Boyle campaign manager Adam Erickson confirms that he hasn’t lifted a finger for them otherwise. (Brady and Boyle have clashed in the past.) Instead, several of Brady’s own trusty consultants — Ken Smukler, Don “DA” Jones, Linda August — are now Margolies advisers. After Jonathan Saidel, a close ally of Brady’s, dropped out of the PA-13 race, Margolies released a statement titled “Saidel Team to Head Campaign” and announced the hiring of a couple of his people. To get a response from the Brady folks and the Margolies folks on this story, in other words, I only had to reach out to one person: Smukler, who serves as a spokesperson for both.

Now, it’s no secret that Margolies has worked with Brady allies in the past; Smukler has advised her for two decades. What might be troubling for her, however, is that they may not be doing her campaign any favors. In 2007, Bob Brady formed the now-dormant “1776 Leadership Fund,” a political action committee that raised $165,000, donated to zero candidates, and gave 90% of it either directly to, or to firms run by, Ken Smukler, DA Jones, and Linda August. Fast-forward to this race, and according to the Inquirer a whopping 77% of Margolies’s campaign expenditures in 2014 have also gone to consultants, which include Smukler, Jones, and August. “I will admit we have operated in a non-traditional manner,” Smukler says in his email, but insists his strategy is based on a careful consideration of his opponents’ name ID and ground game strength, among other factors.

And while Leach’s FEC complaint is merely an allegation, Smukler has been implicated in controversial campaign practices in the past. Back in 2007, he resigned from his role in Bob Brady’s mayoral campaign after admitting to helping advise outside groups on how to attack Brady opponent Tom Knox.

Marjorie Margolies has a storied local legacy and the fantastic political connections to match. But given the questions surrounding the way she’s running the race — some might call it coasting — it’s difficult not to wonder if the frontrunner status has gone to her campaign’s head. Indeed, at least one of her opponents is claiming he’s caught up. Boyle’s team finished conducting its latest poll yesterday. The results, according to the campaign?  Boyle No. 1, Margolies No. 2. Let the games begin.

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