GLENSIDE, PA.—As Marjorie Margolies chit-chatted with voters for last-minute support at a polling station in this leafy Philadelphia suburb, her campaign aide Dylan McGarry, standing nearby, had only one word on his mind as he introduced her: Clinton. “She’s the candidate endorsed by Bill Clinton,” he routinely reminded voters walking into the polling station.
Margolies, now best known as Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, ran her comeback congressional campaign as a celebration of the past. The former congresswoman, who served one term representing the Philadelphia suburbs two decades ago, was betting that voters were having pangs of Clinton nostalgia.
In her television ad, Margolies reminded voters she cast the decisive vote for former President Clinton’s budget in 1993, a decision that proved her Democratic loyalty but led to her defeat. Hillary Clinton made her first campaign appearance for Margolies at a swank New York City fundraiser, and Bill Clinton had enthusiastically backed her a month earlier. Her campaign’s Facebook feed even featured a “throwback Thursday” post last week, featuring a 1992 photo of the former first lady campaigning with the candidate.
After a very brief one-minute concession speech, Margolies whispered to her pollster, Celinda Lake, “It’s a shock.”
At times, her campaign rhetoric even sounded like Hillary Clinton’s, as she talked about the need to elect more women to Congress, the burden of being the early front-runner, and her own post-political career working at a nongovernmental organization (Women’s Campaign International) helping women around the world.
But in a sign that voters are focused more on the future than the past—and a sign of the limitations of running on Clinton nostalgia—Brendan Boyle, an upstart 37-year-old state representative backed by labor, came from behind to handily defeat Margolies. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Boyle led Margolies, 41 to 27 percent.
Margolies split the suburban vote with two other candidates (physician Val Arkoosh and state Sen. Daylin Leach) from Montgomery County, while Boyle racked up sizable leads in the Philadelphia precincts in the recently redrawn district. After a very brief one-minute concession speech, Margolies whispered to her pollster, Celinda Lake, “It’s a shock.”
Even before the ballots were counted, Democratic strategists in the state privately wondered why the Clintons didn’t do more to campaign for their extended family member. The television ad Margolies aired with the former president featured stale footage from his rally instead of fresh video touting her candidacy to the camera. Hillary Clinton’s fundraiser wasn’t even held in the Philadelphia area. Neither Clinton campaigned in the state in the home stretch of the primary, even as Bill played a high-profile role in Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial victory in Virginia and enthusiastically campaigned for Alison Lundergan Grimes’ Senate campaign in Kentucky.
Several voters interviewed said they thought the former president was paying his debt to Margolies for casting a tie-breaking vote for his budget in 1993, rather than providing a genuine show of enthusiasm for her campaign. Few said the Clinton endorsement played a role in their decision.
“Everybody knows what she did for the Clintons. I personally don’t think that’s a winner. He’s got to do it. He owes her. Doesn’t it seem like he’s helping pay an old debt?” said Joe Looby, a voice-over artist who was passing out sample ballots at his local precinct.
But the Clintons also had something at stake in the results. Margolies was the first candidate Hillary Clinton endorsed in the 2014 cycle. Even if it was obligatory, it still was significant for a politician who has been wary of wading into electoral politics. Margolies was running on fond memories of the past—a likely element of a future Clinton presidential message.
Margolies was running on fond memories of the past—a likely element of a future Clinton presidential message.
And Margolies’s loss marked a stinging setback for female candidates in Pennsylvania. With her defeat, it’s unlikely there will be any female members of Congress from the Keystone State at the start of the new Congress. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who held the seat for a decade before running for governor, lost badly to Tom Wolf in her primary bid for statewide office. EMILY’s List, which supports pro-abortion-rights Democratic women for office, belatedly spent money in attack mailers against Boyle for his voting record on abortion in the Legislature.
“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. They did exactly what we asked them to. I have run on my record,” Margolies said before the results were in. “He came in once and she helped us but I want this to be about the stuff I’ve done since I left Congress—working with women around the world.”