Pennsylvania's Agent of Change

November 01, 1991

TC Harris Wofford, who was thought to be a Democratic sacrificial lamb when he was appointed to a vacant Senate seat in Pennsylvania last spring, is now given a good chance to defeat his Republican opponent, former two-term governor and former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, in Tuesday's special election. It would be the upset of the era. He was down 40 points in polls this summer. Mr. Wofford would become the first Pennsylvania Democrat elected to the Senate in 19 years -- and only the second in 50 years.

More is involved in this election than which party or which individual wins this seat. Though there is no tradition of predictive "by-elections" in this country anymore and Pennsylvania is hardly a weather-vane state, a Wofford upset would have an enormous impact on national politics. Next year's congressional and presidential candidates would reassess their priorities on such issues as crime, education, taxes, spending, corruption, civil rights and foreign affairs.

Those are issues of concern, but none is nearly as important to Pennsylvania voters, say pollsters, as "the economy and jobs" and "health care." The former is the No. 1 issue with voters, but Senator Wofford's emphasis on his support for national health insurance has struck a sensitive nerve. More than 90 percent of Pennsylvanians polled said a candidate's views on adequate health care for all was something they would consider in deciding how to vote. Even if Senator Wofford loses narrowly, the outcome will cause many 1992 candidates to change priorities and maybe even change sides on some issues.

A win or near-win by Senator Wofford would be a morale booster for Democrats planning to run for the presidency. It would also boost spirits for Democratic congressional incumbents seeking re-election, if they look at the race in strictly partisan terms. But they need to look more closely at what is happening in Pennsylvania.

Though Democrat Wofford is the incumbent, he is perceived as the outsider and newcomer, having successfully painted Mr. Thornburgh as a Washington insider. As Senator Wofford puts it, "The best chance for beating the Republicans in 1992 is that by and large it's hard for them to say that they are the party of change in Washington. But that isn't easy for Democrats, either, because they have controlled the Congress. Any Democrat running better be damned active in proving he is an agent of change."

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