Pennsylvania’s attorney general contest could be key to how the crucial Keystone State goes in November.

Patrick Murphy is running for state attorney general. As congressman from Pennsylvania’s 8th district he was the point person for the Democrats’ successful drive to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Murphy was the first Iraq war veteran to be elected to Congress, having been a paratrooper and a Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyer. In 2008 he became an early supporter of Barack Obama. In the 2010 defeat suffered by Democrats, Murphy lost his bid for reelection.

Murphy’s history is important to Pennsylvania’s voters as he works to build a broad base of support statewide. Pennsylvania, like many rustbelt states, has had a bumpy relationship with with candidates. One could say there is a definite deficit of trust. Voters are unhappy with the condition of the economy, high unemployment, the continuing crisis of home ownership and foreclosure, as well as an industrial and public infrastructure lying idle and in decay. These are the top concerns for the nation’s voters as the 2012 campaign opens to a clear choice – will the election license the Republican/tea party to continue its obstructionist, Wall-Street-serving posture preventing the government from playing an important role to create jobs to move the economy in a better direction – or not?

How will Pennsylvanians vote in 2012? This election is in some ways a rematch of 2010, with higher stakes. 2010 was a bitter pill; now is the time to set the stage for a better outcome.

In Pennsylvania the 2010 election was won by Republicans. They won a U.S. Senate seat for right-winger Patrick Toomey, a governorship for Tom Corbett, and majorities in both the state House and Senate. That has produced two successive state budgets that punish public and higher education, freezing or reducing most spending.

The effect is so severe that one school district, Chester-Upland, has teachers and support staff volunteering to work without pay. The district and union are pleading with the state for emergency money.  The Pennsylvania State Education Association has said that Chester-Upland is one of a number of school districts at the brink. At the same time, at the governor’s behest the legislature has been working to bring vouchers to fund private education with public money.

In addition, two different proposals to restrict voter access and impact election results are before the legislature. One would require photo identification. It would reduce turnout primarily among low-income voters, seniors, and communities of color. The effect would be to reduce the numbers for Democrats. The other measure would reapportion how electoral votes are counted, doing it by congressional district. This would dilute one-person one-vote.

Also, the legislature has passed a bill that provides cover for the drilling and natural gas industry.  It eliminates local ability to enforce restrictions on drilling. Fracking , the process of extracting gas from rock formation, has become a national issue as companies seek to extract the gas at low cost with little or no regard for the impact on water and other resources.

Dealing with budget cuts, fracking, voter suppression, attempted restriction of food stamps, school vouchers, efforts to restrict unemployment compensation, and more have occupied the time and energy of thousands of Pennsylvania’s citizens.

Buses going to Harrisburg, the state capital, continue to carry teachers, construction workers, seniors and students to protest. Hundreds of online letters and petitions to legislators have been initiated. The state AFL-CIO has been active online and in person all over the state in support of job actions, organizing drives, and legislative issues.  

In the last half dozen electoral cycles the Republican suburbs, a five-county region with a population now over 4 million, have often gone Democratic. The demographics of these counties has changed. Bucks, with a population near 650,000, once farm country, is now the nation’s second biotechnology center. Today Bucks is 90% urban, with increasing numbers of immigrant, African American, Asian and Latino workers. This county went for Barack Obama by 53.7% in 2008. And for most of the past six years Patrick Murphy was the congressman.

At stake in the 2012 election is Pennsylvania’s other Senate seat, held by Democrat Robert Casey. It’s a must-win for Democrats to held onto the Senate. And Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes are a must-win for Barack Obama to beat whichever Republican is selected.

Murphy has received key statewide endorsements, including Philadelphia Mayor Tom Nutter, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh area) labor leaders. Still he is in an uphill battle. Many think Murphy, with good roots in Democratic politics, suburban and urban, is just the ticket for 2012 to rebuild Democrats’ winning power in the state.