This past week, Pennsylvania voters once again defied prognostications, rejected the status quo, and exhibited how demography has realigned the state’s politics. An unpopular Democratic president (born and initially raised in the region that delivered Donald Trump’s 2016 statewide victory), surging voter registration numbers for Republicans, and economic disaffection failed to deliver a red wave. On-the-ground, anti-Democratic sentiment in working-class, once reliably blue regions like northeastern Pennsylvania didn’t translate into electoral destiny for the GOP.
Instead, Democrats enjoyed an historic midterm election. For the first time since the 1940s (excluding 2009, when Republican Arlen Specter switched parties and served with Democrat Bob Casey), the Keystone State will have two Democratic U.S. senators. For the first time in state history, Pennsylvanians voted for a third successive Democratic gubernatorial term. And for the first time since the 1840s, Pennsylvania will have a Democratic governor and two Democratic U.S. Senators. Democrats also managed to hold all competitive congressional districts (they own a majority in the state’s delegation) and, pending some outstanding election results, could seize a majority in the state House for the first time since 2010 (partly thanks to last year’s reapportionment process).
The GOP’s disastrous statewide performance follows a decade of lost notable races amid Trump’s rise and narrow 2016 win in Pennsylvania. In 2015, for example, Democrats won three pivotal open seats on the state Supreme Court (the highest vacancy rate since its formation in 1722). In 2018, Democratic governor Tom Wolf won reelection against Republican state senator Scott Wagner, who warned his opponent to “put a catcher’s mask on your face, because I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.” In addition, thanks in part to the state Supreme Court’s redrawing of House districts that year, Democrats flipped congressional seats in suburban Philadelphia. If anything, it was in Philadelphia’s “collar” counties, in addition to suburbia throughout Pennsylvania, where Trump’s presidency proved catastrophic for the GOP. During the Trump era, just in the populous Southeast counties, Democrats extinguished generations—even centuries—of GOP dominance in suburban courthouses. Following last week’s results, Jeff Piccola, a long-time fixture in state GOP politics, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I have been around and been an observer of state Republican activities since the ‘60s, and I have never, ever in that period of time seen the state party so weak and ineffective.”
What happened to Pennsylvania’s Republican Party? First, Trump has proven detrimental to the GOP’s statewide battle of voting margins. Though Trump accelerated a dramatic red shift in western and northeastern Pennsylvania, his presidency became punishing for the GOP among moderate Republicans and independents in the state’s vast and growing suburbs, where scores of young professional transplants are boosting local Democratic voter rolls. Second, this year’s election once again illustrated that heated rhetoric and staunch conservatism on social issues is a losing statewide campaign strategy in Pennsylvania, where voters have a long tradition of rewarding centrists—including candidates with right-leaning views. Third, though working-class voters in historically industrial Democratic counties are now inclined to vote Republican, this doesn’t mean that their allegiance is assured. And fourth, partly thanks to Trump’s 2020 election preoccupations and claims of voter fraud, Democrats have a significant advantage over Republicans with no-excuse mail-in voting, enacted in Pennsylvania following bipartisan legislative election reforms in 2019. In short, despite the party’s encouraging 2021 election cycle, the GOP’s poor midterm performance confirms that it faces challenges ahead in Pennsylvania—especially in its suburban regions.
Democrat John Fetterman’s U.S. Senate victory over Republican Mehmet Oz is widely considered an upset, but, with hindsight, the political momentum was consistently on the progressive lieutenant governor’s side. Armed with robust fundraising dollars in the nation’s most expensive Senate race, Fetterman ran a grassroots left-leaning populist campaign—“every county, every vote”—that delivered all 67 counties in the Democratic primary and then proved formidable last Tuesday.
A 2021 Atlantic interview captured the former Braddock mayor’s campaign themes, one that led him to outperform Biden in nearly every county. “You know what [urban and rural Pennsylvanians] have in common? Cameron County, the smallest county . . . has a Dollar General store. Drive a mile up the street [from his home]. And there’s a Dollar General store here,” said Fetterman. “That is the giant common thread running between: That’s where people get their basic sundries, and they both pay the same shitty wages to the same folks that work there. And it just shouldn’t have to be that way.”
Fetterman’s message, focused on working-class plight, improved Democratic voting margins in Trump-leaning areas. Among Fetterman’s best-performing counties was Obama-to-Trump-to-Biden Erie County, where his family vacations. “He’s here on his own time and his own dime,” the county’s Democratic chair told the Inquirer. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Brandon McGinley observed, Fetterman carried “formerly country-club Republican, now country-club Democratic Upper St. Clair, and formerly hardscrabble Democratic, now hardscrabble Burgettstown.” Both went blue.
Fetterman’s opponent, Oz, faced what proved to be insurmountable hurdles. In the tight GOP primary, Oz’s top challenger, David McCormick, waged an expensive and bruising campaign that left the Republican victor with high unfavorability ratings—including in rural areas where voters questioned the celebrity TV doctor’s conservative bona fides. During the summer, the Oz campaign foundered. One Politico headline asked, “Where in the World is Dr. Oz?” Meantime, Fetterman, sidelined after a pre-primary stroke, earned widespread media attention for an aggressive digital campaign that caricatured Oz as a carpetbagging quack doctor. And though Oz benefitted from Trump’s primary endorsement, the former president’s support—including a pre-election rally—hurt him in suburbs that leaned Republican before 2016. Oz ran a centrist campaign that targeted alienated suburban voters in places like Greater Philadelphia’s Chester and Bucks Counties, two crucial pick-ups for retiring Republican Pat Toomey in his 2016 Senate reelection. But even a top campaign message—the crime crisis in Pennsylvania’s cities—fell flat in suburbia (a CNN exit poll showed Fetterman narrowly outpacing Oz among voters who considered crime the most important issue). Crime and disorder are distant concerns in Philadelphia’s wealthy suburbs like Tredyffrin Township, where the morning commute remains a pre-Covid memory (while Center City office vacancy rates remain high).
Then there was the highly anticipated October debate, but again, in hindsight, it proved inconsequential, despite its stark display of Fetterman’s post-stroke condition. By the time of the debate, two weeks before Election Day, “almost half of the mail ballots requested in Pennsylvania [had] already been cast and returned,” noted a Wall Street Journal editorial. Moreover, due to a failed distribution agreement between Verizon Fios TV and Nexstar, Fios subscribers in Greater Philadelphia and elsewhere had to turn to streaming to watch the debate. And at that point, the region’s voters were focused less on politics than baseball: the underdog Phillies had just won the NLCS and were headed to the World Series.
By Election Day, the anti-GOP mood had prevailed around Philadelphia and other suburban areas. “If you want to be a majority party in Pennsylvania, you have to win the suburbs and Oz got drubbed,” one GOP strategist told the Inquirer. “It’s not just Oz, Republicans generally got drubbed, and that is a significant problem that has to be solved for.”
In Republican circles, one election theory holds that McCormick, instead of Oz, could have vanquished Fetterman in the general election. But this discounts how Fetterman could have campaigned against McCormick—an alum of the George W. Bush administration and former hedge fund CEO—in working-class regions where Bush is still reviled and where communities suffered from manufacturing decline. If anything, throughout Pennsylvania, Republican candidates—especially centrists—suffered the consequences of State Senator Doug Mastriano’s militantly rightward gubernatorial campaign against Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who enjoyed “the biggest gubernatorial margin in an open race since the 1940s,” as Spotlight PA reported. As Toomey told the Inquirer, “I think the big factor in the race that can’t be dismissed is just how much headwind came from the top of the ticket.” He added: “Mastriano’s loss was on an epic scale, and it is very hard for down-ballot candidates to overcome that.”
Before the primary, Mastriano, who became popular among conservative grassroots voters amid the state’s Covid restrictions, earned Trump’s endorsement thanks to his 2020 election fixations. Trump “interfered with the primary here when there was no reason for it,” former U.S. Representative Lou Barletta, one of Mastriano’s eight GOP primary opponents, told the Inquirer. Mastriano then proceeded on a campaign with limited campaign dollars, television visibility, or press engagement. “He doesn’t do interviews with the mainstream media . . . He won’t do any debates,” former GOP Senator Rick Santorum told Newsmax radio. “So he’s run . . . what I would call sort of a covert campaign. Very few covert campaigns are successful.”
Mastriano’s religiously infused, ideological campaign was also dramatically right of the average Pennsylvania voter. “John 8:36” was stamped on campaign signs, security was provided by an evangelical church, and in late September, Mastriano commenced “40 days of fasting & prayer” leading to Election Day. Meantime, his Democratic opponent, Shapiro, ran a centrist to center-left campaign with a massive fundraising advantage and robust advertising that painted Mastriano as extreme and dangerous. Shapiro, moreover, always had an electoral advantage in a state that rewards moderate candidates. As a result, Shapiro even won Republican areas, such as East Lampeter Township in Lancaster County, long considered a GOP bastion. “I’ve never seen a Democrat do that,” a long-time local Republican leader told LancasterOnline.
But more than anything, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, it was Mastriano’s “no exceptions” position on abortion that did damage. By late summer, one survey showed that 62 percent of Pennsylvania women registering since the Court’s ruling had registered as Democrats. Such trends contributed to the GOP’s suburban reckoning. In suburban Philadelphia alone, as an Inquirer analysis found, Mastriano had a nearly 379,000-vote deficit (compared to Oz’s 245,000-vote deficit). As one successful Democratic state House candidate told the Courier Times, “In Bucks County, most of us are in the middle.” This was evidenced by the county’s ticket-splitters. As it stands, for example, more than 40,000 voted for moderate Republican U.S. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick but rejected Mastriano. Steve Santarsiero, a re-elected Democratic state senator in Bucks, noted to the Courier Times that Roe v. Wade’s overturning “was much more of an issue than we would like to believe,” noting how voters consistently talked about the issue.
In Pennsylvania’s suburbs, even beyond Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, Democrats benefitted from voters’ persistent disgust with Trump and overwhelming rejection of Mastriano. But this midterm also confirms a continued trend: Democrats’ increasingly favorable prospects in health-care-driven (and traditionally GOP) suburbs, including around the Midstate, Greater Reading, and the Lehigh Valley. In recent history, many of these suburban communities were Republican, still relatively rural, and home to conservative Pennsylvania Dutch voters. Today, they’re sprawling and booming suburbs with an increasingly diverse and Democratic voter base.
Take the example of Harrisburg’s West and East Shores, where UPMC and Penn State Health are top employers. In red-leaning Cumberland County, Democrats are winning in West Shore locales like Camp Hill and growing Hampden Township, where both health-care systems opened new hospitals in the past decade. Meantime, on Harrisburg’s East Shore, Democrats flipped two state House seats. In nearby Hershey, where a massive residential development project is underway to accommodate the area’s growing health-care sector, voting patterns increasingly trend blue. One hour east, in suburban Reading—where Philadelphia’s Drexel University opened a medical school campus last year—Democrats flipped another state House district. Democrats also flipped a state House district around Allentown, where Lehigh Valley Health Network’s flagship hospital is located, and a district that includes parts of Lancaster city and its suburbs, where a top employer is Penn Medicine/Lancaster General Health.
In a recent interview with USA Today, one Lehigh Valley swing voter captured how many Pennsylvanians feel about Trump: “I don’t think this area will go Republican again as long as he’s on the ballot.” This is a view now shared by numerous Republican strategists. As one Philadelphia operative told the Inquirer, “I’ve even heard in very Trump parts of the city and the state that he is an albatross, he is hurting, and he needs to go.” He added: “We can’t win races if he continues to be the head of the party.”
Trump’s 2024 presidential announcement looms as Pennsylvania Republicans reel from historic losses. Moreover, the party faces the state’s shifting voter dynamics, including in “eds-and-meds” suburbs. For now, the GOP will continue to digest last week’s troubling returns. In 2024, when suburbia will once again play a pivotal role, Pennsylvania’s election returns will reveal whether Republicans’ poor showing this year was a Trump-fueled setback or a long-term crisis.
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