Costa's Appeal To GOP Voters Raising Eyebrows

May 10, 2018

Call it a tale of two Costas.

In campaign-season mailers being sent to Democratic voters in the 21st state House district, state Rep. Dom Costa boasts of his success at “Moving Pittsburgh Forward.” 

The Stanton Heights Democrat, first elected in 2008, touts bills “to protect women from unfair pay practices,” and to “give those with a non-violent criminal record a fair chance at employment.”

But in mailings that have been sent to Republican voters, Costa highlights other attributes. The former Pittsburgh police chief advertises “a career protecting and serving” and boasts of his support from police unions.

“At a time when politicians are too often placing party above people, now more than ever we need proven, experienced leaders in Harrisburg,” urges the mailing from Costa, who sought and won the Democratic Party endorsement earlier this year. The mailing then instructs Republican voters on how to use county voting machines to write in Costa’s name in the May 15 primary.

The GOP mailing, which began circulating on social media Wednesday, has raised cries that Costa is crafting a Plan B to run as a Republican in November, should he lose next week’s Democratic primary to Sara Innamorato.

It's not uncommon for office-seekers to quietly stage a write-in bid in the other party's primary, even while locking down the nomination for their own. Securing a nomination requires getting at least 300 write-in ballots, and being the top write-in vote-getter.

Typically, such efforts are undertaken by candidates sure of winning their own party’s support: They are often merely an attempt to cover the bases, by preempting a potential challenger surfacing at the 11th hour on the other side of the ballot.

But Innamorato is running a competitive race by all accounts -- even with respect to fundraising, which ordinarily benefits incubments. And that has prompted Innamorato to charge that Costa was engaging in "a last ditch effort to hold onto power," as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported late yesterday.

It’s not clear whether Costa would actually run as a Republican if he were to lose his own party’s nomination: Neither he nor his campaign returned calls Thursday morning, and a statement he gave to the Post-Gazette late yesterday didn’t address the question. But Jim Burn, who formerly chaired the Democratic Party at both the county and the state level, says, “He has to be asked by party leadership: Will you abandon the party if you lose next week?”

Burn, an Innamorato supporter, notes that there could be consequences for any party members who supported Costa as a Republican. Under state party bylaws, anyone who “by voice, vote, financial support or otherwise has, within two years, supported a candidate … opposed to the duly nominated candidate of the Democratic Party” is ineligible to be on the committee for two years.

Burn said that if Costa affirms that he would run as a Republican– or hedges on the question – current county chair Nancy Patton Mills “could strip him of the endorsement. If I were chair, I would strip him of the endorsement, send out a press release, and notify the entire committee.”

Patton Mills seems unlikely to take that step. She calls Burn’s proposed approach “ridiculous."

"All of these what ifs – I’ve never issued an ultimatum based on something that could happen in the future," she says. "I fully expect Dom to win this primary, so I think this will all be moot.”

Patton Mills says that while she had not have heard about Costa’s mailings as of Thursday morning, “it’s not unusual at all to do a write-in, because it would make things easier in the fall to be on both ballots. I think it’s a smart move on his part.”

Asked whether she had faced a similar situation before, Patton Mills notes that in 2013, Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris re-registered as an Independent in an effort to set up a general-election challenge to Bill Peduto, who secured the Democratic nomination in the spring primary. Harris was stripped of her party post – she was a ward chair – but later had it restored.