Baer: Believe it or not the AG's race is interesting

From left: John Morganelli, Joe Peters, John Rafferty, Josh Shapiro and Stephen A. Zappala, the Democrats and Republicans running for Pennsylvania attorney general.

LET'S TAKE a peek at the race for attorney general.

It's overshadowed by contests for president and U.S. Senate. But it offers insights into Pennsylvania's geopolitics and Philadelphia's clout.

Also, it's about an office that's both stepping-stone and banana peel.

Of the five elected A.G.s since 1980 (previously, the post was appointed), three ran for governor (Ernie Preate, Mike Fisher, and Tom Corbett); one, Corbett, became governor; and two were charged with crimes. Preate went to prison; current A.G. Kathleen Kane awaits trial.

So odds are, whoever wins this year is in for a fun ride. The primary is April 26.

Three Democrats are running: Montco Commissioner Josh Shapiro, Allegheny County D.A. Stephen Zappala Jr., and Northampton County D.A. John Morganelli.

The Republicans are Montco State Sen. John Rafferty and Joe Peters, a former Scranton cop and state and federal prosecutor.

Rafferty is the GOP-endorsed candidate. Democrats didn't endorse, so their race is far more interesting - in terms of raw politics.

Here's why:

On paper, Zappala should be favored. He's a well-regarded 18-year D.A. in the state's second-most-Democratic county, from a political family, and the lone candidate from Western Pennsylvania, a region known for voting for its own. Primary ballots list the home county of statewide candidates.

Plus, Zappala's backed in Philly by Mayor Kenney, the Democratic City Committee, and power-broker union boss John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.

Zappala's father, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala Sr., appeared in a TV ad last year supporting Doc's brother, Kevin, who then was elected to the state Supreme Court. And Kenney's known the Zappalas since the days when Kenney was tight with Vince Fumo. Just sayin'.

Shapiro's a former state lawmaker and polished progressive pol with a reputation for pushing reforms. He's backed by Gov. Wolf, Sen. Bob Casey, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Point is, Zappala has inroads in Philly that could pay off on election day. There's little evidence Shapiro has similar inroads in Pittsburgh.

Yet the only known public poll, a Harper Poll this month, showed Shapiro with 33 percent support of likely Democratic voters, Zappala with 17 percent, and Morganelli, a 24-year prosecutor, with 16 percent.

This despite the fact that Shapiro was never a prosecutor, something Zappala and Morganelli use against him.

But Shapiro's often in the news in the Philly market, home to more than a third of the state's registered Democrats.

The race looks like a two-man test, an east/west struggle twixt Shapiro and Zappala in which each camp admits trailing big time in the other's base.

A Shapiro supporter said, "We're drilling through rock in Pittsburgh and they're drilling through rock in the Southeast." A Zappala supporter said Zappala's currently "getting killed" in Philly but is ahead comfortably in other regions.

Money always matters. Shapiro's likely to spend the most. Morganelli is comparatively underfunded but could benefit if Shapiro and Zappala go at each other hard.

A Zappala victory depends on help in Philly and winning big in his base. He could do that.

But state registration data show 61,443 Democrats statewide have switched to Republican so far this year, and the county with the most switches by far is Allegheny: 6,437 - more than 10 percent of the total.

Might be votes for Donald Trump. Might be votes for John Kasich, a Pittsburgh-area native. But it's not votes for Zappala, since Republicans can't vote for Democrats in a primary. Also, 14,341 Dem-to-GOP switches in Allegheny and neighboring counties exceed switches in Philly and its collar counties.

Might matter in a close race, one that could answer questions about the state's geopolitics and Philadelphia's clout.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer