Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala faces a challenge from the left from county Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan in the May 16 Democratic primary, but some Pittsburgh-area Republicans are trying to give the six-term incumbent the chance to continue on to the November general as their nominee. Reporter Ryan Deto of Triblive.com reports that Bob Howard, the party’s leader in the small community of Marshall, has been encouraging GOP voters to write down Zappala’s name in a Republican primary where no candidates are actually running.
Democratic election law expert Chuck Pascal tells Deto that Zappala would need to secure at least 500 write-in votes, which is the number of signatures that would have been required to get on the Republican primary ballot, in order to win with a plurality of support. This is just what happened in 2019 when enough Republicans wrote down Zappala’s name to award him their nod, though he also won the Democratic primary that year by a 59-41 margin.
There are no reports of any rival GOP write-in campaign for this spring, but it’s not clear yet how much internal support Howard’s effort will receive. Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco says that he approved Howard’s drive but won’t publicly back it because “[a]s a Republican chairman, I can’t support Democrats.” Zappala’s team in turn says they didn't ask any GOP groups to support a write-in campaign, though the district attorney himself said in December he could again win the Republican nomination this way.
Zappala, as we’ve written before, has turned off criminal justice reformers during his 25 years as the top prosecutor for this dark blue Pennsylvania county. Bolts Magazine’s Daniel Nichanian, in his overview of the state’s 2023 district attorney races, notes that the incumbent declared during his last campaign he was “done with socialists and ACLU forums” and quipped he was “not running for public defender.” Zappala, though, did speak to a Young Republican group during that contest even as he avoided several Democratic gatherings.
Since then, Zappala attracted national attention when he forbade his prosecutors from offering any plea deals to clients represented by a prominent Black attorney who called the district attorney's office "systematically racist." The district attorney did away with that policy after a backlash, but his critics have continued to fault his record. One of those critics is Dugan, who launched his effort in January by saying, “Police are looking for alternatives to arrest, prosecute, and punish.” Dugan recently earned the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Party, though the powerful Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council is sticking with the incumbent.
P.S. This would not be the first recent race in Pennsylvania where a defeated primary candidate secured the other party’s nomination thanks to write-in votes, though the dynamics were quite different in the 2016 contest for the dark red 9th Congressional District in the Altoona region. Businessman Art Halvorson failed to wrest the GOP nomination from longtime incumbent Bill Shuster by just a 50.6-49.4 margin, but about 1,060 Democrats put Halvorson’s name down in a primary where no one was on the ballot.
The hard-right Halvorson said he hadn't solicited write-in votes but would accept the Democratic nomination anyway, declaring he'd caucus with the GOP in Congress should he win. The challenger, though, wasn’t able to form the disparate alliance of Democrats and tea party types he needed: Shuster won the general election 63-37 as Trump was taking the district 70-27, and he went on to retire the next cycle.