Pennsylvania US Senate Primary Wasn’t Closest in History

Pennsylvania US Senate Primary Wasn't Closest in History Pennsylvania US Senate Primary Wasn't Closest in History

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz addresses supporters after the primary race resulted in an automatic recount due to close results on May 17, 2022 in Newtown, Pa. TV personality Oz, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, finished in a virtual dead heat with former George W. Bush administration official Dave McCormick with 95% of the vote reported. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

John Gizzi By John Gizzi Thursday, 19 May 2022 09:50 PM Current | Bio | Archive

There have been some sleepless nights among Pennsylvania Republicans this week as the initial count in the closest primary in Keystone State history since 1964 approached its completion.

As of Thursday evening, TV physician Mehmet Oz clung to a lead of 1,123 votes out of more than 1 million cast over hedge fund billionaire Dave McCormick.

With the top two candidates separated by 0.1% of the vote, a recount seems inevitable. Under a state law enacted in 2004, any contest in which the winning margin is less than 0.5% of the vote must undergo a recount in all 67 counties.

As fraught with uncertainty as the primary is, an even closer race for nomination in Pennsylvania took place in 1964. Despite the obvious differences between then and now, there are also some haunting similarities between the fractious Republican Senate primary of 2022 and the battle royal for the Democratic Senate standard 58 years earlier.

With Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson headed to be elected in '64, Democrats smelled blood in their attempt to defeat Republican Sen. Hugh Scott.

Their primary featured two unique contenders from different factions of the party. State and county Democratic organizations backed state Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, who came up from the coal mines of western Pennsylvania to become a fighting lawyer for the underprivileged and for labor unions, and a local judge in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh).

President Harry S. Truman tapped Musmanno as one of the jurists in the Nuremberg trials judging Nazi war criminals, and he subsequently won election to his state's highest court.

Unintimidated by Musmanno's reputation and his organization support was Pennsylvania's three-term secretary of internal affairs, Genevieve Blatt. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Law School and the first woman to win statewide office, Blatt ran as the ''reform candidate'' who would defy ''party bosses.''

Solidly in her corner was the state's Democratic senator Joseph Clark, who had overcome Philadelphia's Democratic machine to become mayor and then senator.

A factoid that was unusual for 1964 and rarely noticed in the press was that both Musmanno and Blatt were single.

The two were neck-and-neck on the night of the primary April 28, with Blatt clinging to a slim lead. Allegheny County Prothonotary (chief clerk of courts) David Robinson ran a very distant third, and Musmanno would always insist Robinson's 90,000 votes would have come to him.

Blatt's lead began to decline when votes came in from Philadelphia. Nationally syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported (May 25, 1964) that ''after the vote was completed on election night, the machines were routinely opened up from the back and agents of the Philadelphia County Commissioners called off the figures on the recording dials to tally-sheet clerks.

''But instead of calling off the numbers on the dials, in precinct after precinct, they conveniently ignored the actual count, padding the Musmanno totals and fleecing the Blatt totals. Simple as pie.''

''Frankly, this goes beyond the acceptable level of cheating,'' Evans and Novak quoted an unnamed Pennsylvania Democrat as saying.

Blatt's lawyers demonstrated at least 12 cases of voting chicanery. This was enough fraud to trigger the city's recount law, the recount being observed by investigators from the state Department of Justice.

But there was no statewide recount law at the time, leading to individual recounts in different counties and cities and resulting legal actions. Musmanno went into court to have 6000 empty line votes, the majority of which were cast unto him, recorded to his total.

The state Supreme Court minus Musmanno rejected his petition in July. On Aug. 28, Blatt was certified as the winner by 513 votes out of more than 900,000 cast.

With a truncated time in which to campaign and the Democrats bitterly divided by the primary, Blatt lost to Republican Scott in November by a heartbreaking close 50.6 % to 49.1% margin — even as LBJ swept Pennsylvania with 65%.

Noting the similarities between 1964's Democratic primary and today's Republican primary, some Pennsylvanians who talked to Newsmax did suggest that a repeat could occur of the rancor and protracted recount Democrats experienced. This, they say, will hinder the chances of Oz or McCormick of defeating Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman, a progressive Democrat.

There are other opinions, however.

''It's a different time,'' Republican former Gov. Tom Corbett, who recalled the earlier contest and met Musmanno through his lawyer-father, told Newsmax, ''Republicans are very unlikely to experience the divisiveness [of Democrats in '64] because the Senate is evenly split, And it's particularly important for the eventual Republican nominee to win because of who the Democratic nominee is.''

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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