Conventional wisdom — as well as basic math — says school board candidates who cross-file in the primary election and win nominations from both parties are a shoe-in come November, guaranteed to beat any other candidates who may have only run and won on a single party ticket.
So when, say, there are four seats available and three cross-filed candidates win both party nominations, it’s assumed the real battle will be between the two candidates who won the Democratic and Republican nominations for that fourth seat.
“It’s fairly obvious that people who can win on both sides in the spring have, hands down, the ability to win in the fall,” King’s College political science professor David Sosar said. “It’s very seldom that someone who won on both sides loses in November.”
Three recent elections
Seldom, but not unheard of. A review of school board races in the last three general elections — 2007, 2009, and 2011 — shows that while you might be safe betting a few bucks on cross-file winners, you shouldn’t bet the house.
There are 11 school boards in Luzerne County, meaning there were 33 board races in the three years combined. Of those, 14 were virtually settled in the primaries, with the number of winning candidates equal to or less than the number of seats available in those districts.
In the remaining 19 races, a total of 102 candidates ran for 72 seats. More than half had cross-filed and won nominations from both parties; that’s 56 people who went into the general election with a presumed guarantee of victory. Yet in the end three lost, despite their cross-file advantage.
Perhaps more telling, there were nine other cases where a cross-filed candidate won a seat in November, but received fewer total votes than a single-party candidate in the same race.
The reasons a cross-filed candidate loses, or wins but gets fewer votes than a single-party candidate, can be both obvious and subtle, Sosar and Wilkes University Political Science Professor Tom Baldino said.
“It may be name recognition,” Baldino said. In theory, the candidate who ran and won on both party tickets in the primary should enter November with more of it. “Even if I was a registered Republican, if I win on both tickets people who vote in the Democratic primary would have seen my name.”
But in the end, a single-party nominee with higher name recognition can best a two-party candidate fewer people recognize. “There are no qualifications to be a school board director,” Baldino said. “And from much of what I’ve seen around here, winners tend to be the best known and not necessarily the best qualified.”
Incumbency factors in
Cross-filed winners who are incumbents face an additional risk, Sosar said: Voter dissatisfaction with their performance on the board as the general election nears.
“I think the real issue with school boards is that you can’t win. It’s a highly criticized position, and regardless of what you do you will anger some people and please others,” Sosar said. “Every political office is like that, but because of the kind of money you talk about with school boards it’s much worse.”
He noted, for example, that the budget for the Hazleton Area School District is comparable to the budget for Luzerne County government.
There is also an X-factor introduced in general elections that candidates don’t face in the primary: Independent candidates. The primary elections in Pennsylvania are races designed to pick nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties who compete in the general election — in fact, Sosar and Baldino noted, the whole point of allowing candidates to cross file was to take politics out of school board races. But the general election is not restricted to the two parties.
“An independent can file to run in November,” Sosar said. “In fact anyone can run as a write in.”
Victory is rare, but it can occur. In fact, in Luzerne County, the three times cross-filed candidates lost in the last three elections, they lost to independents
All three losses also occurred in the same district: Wyoming Area. In 2009, independents Gil Dominick and Frank Casarella beat two successful cross-filed candidates who were on both the Democratic and Republican ballots: incumbent John LaNunziata and newcomer Michael Aufiere. In 2011, Independent Mary Louise Degnan beat incumbent Toni Valenti, who had won both party nominations in the spring primary.
There is one other potential pratfall for candidates tho cross file and run on both tickets in the primary, Baldino noted. “Let’s say I’m a registered Republican and I put my name on both ballots and I lose on the Republican side. I am now a Republican running on a Democratic ticket. Around here there are Democrats and Republicans who will vote strictly for the party label. Even though I’m a Republican, I won’t get any Republican votes because I’m on the Democratic ticket.”