In Philadelphia’s recent Democratic primary, incumbent District Attorney Larry Krasner romped to an easy victory over former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, by a near two-to-one margin across city voters. Where and how Krasner won shows the growing left-wing bent of the Democratic primary electorate — a significant shift in the politics of Philadelphia’s dominant political party.
With light polling (some an internal poll indicated a tight race just weeks before), a Krasner rout was not necessarily expected, and many political observers thought the incumbent would face a more narrow result in light of surging violent crime in the city. There were 499 homicides in Philadelphia in 2020, a number not matched for nearly two decades, and the city’s criminals are on pace to shatter that record in 2021. Crime is rising while successful prosecutions under Krasner have plummeted. And, in the wake of the lawlessness that characterized the riots and homeless encampments of last summer and fall, it was not unreasonable to suspect that a critical mass of voters might demand a tougher approach from their top prosecutor.
In contrast to his predecessors (among them the famously tough Lynne Abraham), Krasner has refused to seek the death penalty and has created a deliberately contentious — even hostile — relationship with Philadelphia’s police department. He did not come up through the city machine, and won 38% of the vote in the crowded Democratic primary four years ago with significant outside support, most notably from billionaire progressive George Soros. That was enough to win — but it might have suggested a shallow base of support.
But Krasner proved the doubters wrong.
In a one-on-one fight with Vega, he increased his share of the vote by a large margin versus a sole opponent. With almost every precinct reported, Krasner’s final vote count stands at over 65 percent. Vega’s attempt at carving out a “middle way” that includes reform and traditional prosecution did not resonate, and was drowned out by his support from the FOP and a failure to build a wide coalition. He took in just 35 percent of the vote.
The Narrow “Vega Coalition”
Geographically, the race followed a pattern familiar to observers of Philly’s political scene. Vega’s strength was in the most conservative parts of the city — South Philly, Roxborough, and the Northeast — as well as the majority-Hispanic parts of North Philadelphia, which were the same ones that, surprisingly, moved towards Trump in 2016.
To take the latter region first: Vega, who is himself of Puerto Rican descent, may have benefited from votes cast out of ethnic solidarity. But he may also have benefitted from the same factors that saw Republicans increase their vote share in those same neighborhoods in 2020. This could be part of a larger trend — and one that could resonate in narrow statewide elections to come in 2022.
The “Vega Coalition,” narrow as it was, undoubtedly responded to his message of a return to normalcy and stability from the city’s top law enforcement officer — as well as an endorsement from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), many of whose members live in Northeast Philadelphia especially. These areas specifically saw the greatest turnout increase from 2017 primary numbers — it just wasn’t enough to surmount consistently high progressive turnout elsewhere, and an inability for the Vega campaign to make inroads in Philadelphia’s majority-black wards across North, Northwest, Southwest and West Philadelphia.
The Democratic party machine was itself more divided over the fate of an incumbent than they had been since Mayor James Tate’s reelection in 1967. Broad + Liberty first broke the news that the city Democratic Party would not be endorsing Krasner, and NBC10 reported that leaders from 31 wards endorsed Krasner, with 15 endorsing Vega and 20 declining to make any endorsement.
The ward leaders undoubtedly mixed pragmatism with personal preferences, backing the man they favored only if they thought the voters in their areas would follow them. They may have been too pessimistic about Kranser’s chances. In three mixed-race wards on the north side of the city — the 23rd, 43rd, and 54th — Democratic ward leaders endorsed Vega, but their constituents favored Krasner.
Philadelphia Veers Left
If the ward leaders were surprised, so were many others. It can be a mistake to read too much into a low-turnout primary, but the 2021 election fits a pattern of growing progressivism in the city and its dominant political party. Concluding this progressive shift from the data is not always easy; after all, the same party always wins. Primaries for open seats are usually crowded, and the results often come down to which candidate has the better organization to get out the vote.
But a look past the top line shows which parts of the city have a growing appetite for left-wing politics, and the map aligns with those areas that supported Krasner the most strongly. In 2019, Democrats swept the at-large city council races with their usual huge majorities. That year also saw, for the first time in modern city history, the election of a third-party candidate to Philadelphia’s city council: Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party (WFP), whose third-party run bested a split GOP electorate for one of the city council’s two “minority party” seats.
What does the far-left WFP party have to do with a Democratic primary? It shows which regions of the city have the greatest appetite for progressive politics.
This map shows which party’s candidates did better in the 2019 council at-large races, not counting the Democrats. The regions in which the WFP out-polled the Republicans in 2019 (in green) are also Krasner’s dominant areas in 2021. Adding in the areas where Republicans only narrowly bested the WFP (in pink) yields a map that strongly correlates with Krasner’s winning run.
We in Philadelphia are used to elections in which race plays a large role — often the largest. Here, though, the progressive core of Krasner’s and Brooks’s coalitions is multi-racial: both did best in wards that were majority-black, or dominated by white progressives. White conservatives, white moderates, and Hispanic voters tend not to align with these candidates.
How this plays out in the general election this November — or the blockbuster races for Senate and governor in 2022 — remains to be seen. Republicans make up a shrinking share of the Philadelphia electorate, but Krasner’s popularity does not extend to every corner of his own party. Republicans have not elected a District Attorney in Philadelphia since 1989.
Krasner showed strength among the Democratic faithful, and city Republicans’ losing streak is almost guaranteed to continue this fall. The only real question is how far Krasner and his supporters will push the Democratic Party to the left — and how much longer the city’s voters will accept the consequences.