Can the Clintons Rescue an Embattled Family Member in Pa.?

Can the Clintons Rescue an Embattled Family Member in Pa.?

By Scott Conroy - May 16, 2014

HUNTINGDON VALLEY, Pa. -- As he was getting ready for another grinding day on the campaign trail Thursday morning, state Rep. Brendan Boyle turned on his TV and found Bill Clinton staring back at him.

The former president is being featured in an ad for Marjorie Margolies, who is both Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law and Boyle’s opponent in the Democratic U.S. House primary here in Pennsylvania's 13 Congressional District.

Boyle was still watching a few minutes later when one of his own campaign ads appeared on the screen.

This particular 30-second spot featured a man who is not quite as well-known as the nation’s 42nd president: Boyle’s father, Frank -- an Irish immigrant who works as a janitor for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

“It was one of those moments where you step back and think, ‘Oh, this is really amazing -- I’m campaigning against the Clinton family and actually doing very well,’” Boyle said in an interview with RCP. “I would rather have Frank Boyle than Bill Clinton 100 times out of 100.”

The 37-year-old Boyle doesn’t only have the former president to contend with in attempting to defeat Margolies, 71, a former congresswoman who is seeking to regain the seat she lost two decades ago.

The affable former student radio broadcaster of Notre Dame football and basketball games also has the 2016 presidential frontrunner-in-waiting working against him.

On Thursday night, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted a fundraiser for Margolies in New York City -- an event that the candidate herself skipped in order to attend a spring dinner for the Montgomery County Democratic Party. With Tuesday’s primary approaching rapidly and after having faced criticism for running a comparatively lackadaisical campaign, Margolies could not spare an evening outside of the district.

She also figured that there was no reason to pretend that members of the well-heeled Manhattan donor set were turning out to see anyone other than Hillary Clinton.

“In speaking to [the Clintons], it was very clear that ‘we’ll handle this,’” Margolies said of the event.

Margolies’ ties to the first family of Democratic politics are profound and precede by almost two decades the official joining of families via the 2010 marriage of Chelsea Clinton and Margolies’ son, Marc Mezvinsky.

After being elected in what was then a Republican-leaning district in 1992, Margolies cast the deciding vote in favor of President Clinton’s 1993 budget -- a decision that she recalls as one that “painted a target on my chest.”

She lost her re-election bid the following year, leaving the Clinton family indelibly grateful for the woman who “saved the economy” two decades ago, as the former president put it at a fundraiser for her, which he keynoted last month.

Margolies has spent the ensuing years as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and a women’s rights activist, in which she has traveled to some of the world’s most desolate spots. It is in that capacity that Margolies enjoys yet another commonality with Hillary Clinton, whose solo appearance at Thursday night’s fundraiser marked the former secretary of state first direct foray into the 2014 midterms.

Despite this late effort, observers of Pennsylvania politics have wondered whether Bill and Hillary Clinton were hesitant to do more for Margolies. There is a questionable amount of political upside to getting behind in full-force a candidate who has run a weak campaign in a state where the Clintons have deep ties.

The Democratic primary race for the seat being vacated by Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who is running for governor, has been among the most expensive and contentious of this midterm cycle.

Margolies has suffered particularly strong criticism.

Earlier this week, state Sen. Daylin Leach -- another Democratic contender in the 13th District -- filed his second complaint with the FEC, alleging that Margolies had used funds allocated for the general election in her primary campaign -- allegations that the Margolies campaign denies.

With the year-long primary campaign coming to a close on Tuesday, it is clear that Boyle has reason to feel cautiously optimistic about his chances. He and Margolies each told RealClearPolitics that their internal polls show them with a slight edge over each other.

Both of them can’t be right, but it is clear that the race is a long way from where it was last August when the Margolies campaign was touting a poll that showed her with a seemingly insurmountable 28-point lead over Boyle.

Geography is among the biggest assets favoring Boyle, whose youthful appearance makes him look as though he just barely passes the constitutionally mandated threshold of being 25 years old to run for Congress.

In Pennsylvania elections, candidates’ home counties appear under their names on the ballot. And in the race to represent the 13th District, which encompasses parts of northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Boyle is the only candidate who hails from Philadelphia County.

Margolies is quick to point out that she has the endorsements of five of Philadelphia’s ward leaders, representing 40 percent of the city’s registered Democratic voters.

But Boyle has gotten assists from powerful labor leader John Dougherty and a host of Democratic interest groups in the city, including ground and air cover from a well-funded building trades union PAC.

“If this ends up being a low-turnout election, I think that gives Boyle another advantage because he probably has the better Election Day turnout operation,” Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist, told RCP.

As the campaign has drawn to a close, Margolies, Leach and Val Arkoosh -- an anesthesiologist and the fourth Democratic candidate in the race -- have all directed the brunt of their attacks against Boyle, challenging his commitment to abortion rights.

Boyle says that he favors abortion rights, but his opponents note that he co-sponsored a bill, which tightened requirements for physicians performing abortions, and in 2004 received a designation as a pro-life “all star” from a Democratic group that opposes abortion rights.

Though the collective fire that his opponents have directed toward Boyle appears to confirm his status as a frontrunner, it is clear that he would rather be focusing on his message of economic populism and compelling personal story than he would abortion.

“Here’s the reality: Abortion has been legal in the United States for almost a half-century,” Boyle said. “I can very comfortably predict 50 years from now, if we’re having this conversation, the law will be roughly the same as it is today.”

Margolies hopes that her gender will give her a key edge, noting that the outgoing Schwartz is the only woman in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation.

And there is no doubt that the Clinton factor looms large.

As she sat in a hotel lobby before her speech to the Montgomery County Democrats, Margolies was approached by a pair of female well-wishers.

These women, however, didn’t want to talk about the campaign. They were more interested in whether Margolies’ daughter-in-law Chelsea had released the due date for her first child.

“Are you kidding me?” Margolies answered with a bemused chuckle. “They’re trying to have some kind of privacy!”

Southeastern Philadelphia was instrumental in helping to deliver Pennsylvania for Bill Clinton in both of his presidential runs and awarding Hillary Clinton with a surprisingly comfortable victory in her failed 2008 White House campaign against Barack Obama.

Despite the district’s strong affinity for the Clintons, Margolies said that deciding the extent to which her campaign would seek to employ them on the stump was a “no-win situation.”

Asked whether she would have benefited from the massive free media exposure that her campaign would have received had Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared at public rallies on her behalf, Margolies shrugged.

“Who knows,” she said. “It wasn’t going to happen.”

Quickly moving to dismiss any implications that may have been perceived from that characterization, Margolies added that the Clintons “couldn’t have been nicer” in each agreeing to host one fundraising event for her.

“They did exactly what we asked them to do,” she said. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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