‘Never Krasner’? Thousands of Philly Republicans switch to Democrat ahead of DA primary

The tactic is not officially sanctioned by the local GOP, but the numbers are notable.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner at a January 2020 press conference with Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner at a January 2020 press conference with Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney

Emma Lee / WHYY
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More than 3,000 registered Republican voters in Philadelphia have crossed the aisle to become Democrats so far this year. That means nearly 3% of all GOP voters in the city have switched sides — putting 2021 on pace to break a calendar year record.

Why the change of heart? District Attorney Larry Krasner, political leaders suggest.

Philadelphia holds closed primary elections, meaning you can only cast votes for candidates in your registered political party. If you want to have a say in a heated race on one side of the aisle, the only way to do it is by changing your registration (you can transfer it back after the polls close).

Some leaders see this as a viable strategy to oust Krasner, who was elected in 2017 by a broad local and national coalition supporting his criminal justice reform agenda. Others say it’s the longest of longshots.

Over the first three months of this year, about 2.5% of the city’s total 118,000 Republicans jumped to the Democrats’ ship, according to a Billy Penn analysis of voter registration data. Only a quarter as many Dems converted to GOP in the same window.

No, it’s not a large enough bloc to swing the race alone. More than 150,000 voters cast ballots for district attorney in the 2017 primary. But the spike is notable compared to past trends. In the last two calendar years where Philly held DA’s races, about half as many Republicans switched to Democrat — and we’re only a few months into the year.

Several battleground states saw a groundswell of Republicans leaving the party following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and President Biden’s inauguration in January. However, Philadelphia’s shift has continued two months later, and the conversion rate outpaces other areas from suburban Montgomery County to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the union that represents thousands of city police officers, told the Tribune last month he was asking police officers to “switch from Republican … to Democrat” to vote for Krasner’s opponent Carlos Vega, and then switch “back to Republican after the primary.” The FOP Lodge 5 has been warring against Krasner’s policies since his election.

The tactic is not officially sanctioned by the Philly GOP, however, which has its own Republican candidate, attorney Chuck Peruto. State Rep. Martina White, who heads the local party, said she’s confident they’ll gain back voters who switch parties.

“We are confident that, at the end of the year, we will have more engaged Republican voters than when we started,” White told Billy Penn. Democrats currently outnumber her party 7-to-1 across the city.

Some Republican ward leaders chalk up the registration shift to an animosity toward Krasner that goes deeper than party lines.

“They’d rather have insurance to make sure that no matter who it is, it’s not Krasner,” said Bill Lanzilloti, a Republican ward leader in South Philadelphia. “It’s not all this love for Vega, it’s just a ‘never Krasner’ kind of movement.”

However, Lanzilloti views the registration gambit as a lost cause. He feels Krasner will win regardless due to his financial backing, and the registration flip-flop just makes more work for the city’s ailing Republican party.

GOP leaders now have to make sure those anti-Krasner crossovers change their registration back after the primary, Lanzillotti said. Over the time it lost 3,000 voters this year, registration data shows local Republicans have also picked up just 721 former Democratic voters.

Political observers also say it’s a hail mary.

“There’s just not enough registered Republicans in Philadelphia who will change their registration to vote against Krasner,” said consultant Mustafa Rashed. “It’s an interesting strategy but I don’t see how it bears fruit.”

Third-party and unregistered voters appear to be changing parties at a rate similar to previous years, according to registration data.

Krasner’s main task will be defending his record on criminal justice reform and also prioritizing public safety at a time when the city is experiencing a historic surge in homicides, Rashed said.

It also remains to be seen whether the political coalitions that backed Krasner during his first run will come to his aid again. “2017 was based on hope and promise, 2021 has to be based on results and direction,” Rashed added.

Krasner’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

Peruto, the Republican nominee, told the Inquirer he would end his campaign if Vega defeats Krasner in the Democratic primary, though he said he didn’t think Vega could fundraise enough to compete with Krasner.

Trevor Maloney, campaign manager for Vega, called the entire dynamic a distraction from Krasner’s policy record. Targeting Republicans is not part of the campaign strategy.

“This is a Democratic Primary,” Maloney said, “so naturally we’re only targeting registered Democrats.”