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The Democrats’ Pennsylvania Edge

eye on the news

The Democrats’ Pennsylvania Edge

Rejecting Donald Trump, voters in Greater Philadelphia pose a major obstacle to Republican chances. June 21, 2019
Politics and law

Philadelphia’s suburbs represent an approximation of Republicans’ worst political fears. For decades, the GOP relied on four surrounding “collar counties”—Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery—to offset the city’s Democratic voting margins in national and statewide elections. But now the populous outskirts have joined the city’s blue-shaded protectorate. Once a producer of moderate Republicans, the Delaware Valley now elects Democrats to Congress, county courthouses, and the state capital. As a result, Republicans can no longer count on the region’s congressional seats or down-ballot offices—and next year, suburban Philadelphia’s voters could deny Donald Trump an encore performance in Pennsylvania.

Encompassing over 2,000 square miles, Pennsylvania’s southeastern counties are an expanse of prosperous boroughs and middle-class enclaves, congested highways and wooded backroads. Low-density sprawl—featuring townhouses, strip malls, and office parks—collides with preserved farmland, deer-populated forests, and historic sites from the colonial era. Throughout the region, voting trends suggest a stark political realignment, one driven less by distaste for Republican policies than by distaste for Trump. Since the 2016 presidential election, the number of registered Democrats has increased, and the party now boasts over 90,000 more voters than the GOP.

In 2017, a Democratic upswing, hastened by disillusioned Republican and independent voters, resulted in historic, down-ballot victories for the party. In Delaware and Bucks Counties, Democrats won countywide seats held by Republicans for decades. In Montgomery County, once Pennsylvania’s GOP bellwether, Democrats gained judgeships, borough offices, and school-board seats. Their wins recalled the 2012 election, when the party secured a majority in the top county office—the board of commissioners—after a century-long disadvantage. And in Chester County, where Republicans maintain a slight registration edge, Democrats won “row” offices—treasurer, controller, clerk of courts, coroner—for the first time in 219 years.

The 2018 midterms reinforced Democrats’ suburban ascendance. New county-based congressional districts, controversially drawn last year by Pennsylvania’s Democratic-majority Supreme Court, accounted for three of the party’s five House pickups statewide. In Chester County’s 6th district, Democrat Chrissy Houlahan succeeded Ryan Costello, a Republican declining to run for a third term after his seat was redrawn. Houlahan, an engineer and retired Air Force officer, is the first Democrat to represent Chester County since 1855. Only Brian Fitzpatrick, from Bucks County’s 1st district, survived the regional insurrection.

At the state level, meantime, suburban Philadelphians delivered more wins for Democrats. The collar counties assured Governor Tom Wolf’s second term, elected four new state senators, and flipped 14 statehouse seats—the most since the early 1970s. For a decade, the GOP has enjoyed a commanding majority in the state General Assembly, but in 2020, the party could potentially lose the Senate.  

Suburban Philadelphia’s political transformation, though accelerated by Trump’s presidency, was a gradual result of changing demography. Following World War II, Philadelphia’s decline accelerated the region’s growth, as multigenerational families fled the city’s western and northern sections and settled in Levittown and Warminster, Havertown and Malvern—where they affixed cast-iron eagles above garage doors, raised the American flag, and signed nomination petitions circulated by local Republican committees. They were moderates and championed Mayor Frank Rizzo’s law-and-order governance in Philadelphia. They delivered massive winning margins to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984; in 1988, George H. W. Bush carried the counties by double digits. But in 1992, Bush carried only Chester County. While Republicans maintained control of the region’s congressional seats and down-ballot offices, Democratic presidential candidates began winning Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties.

During the 1990s, the Democratic trend persisted, as the suburbs became more transient and educated than rooted and blue-collar. The technology, pharmaceutical, finance, and health-care sectors proliferated outside the city limits. A demand for high-skill workers drove residential development in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, turning rural communities like Exton into exurban powerhouses. New arrivals—ticket-splitting supporters of fiscal restraint and social liberalism—robbed Republicans of their political fortunes. In the mid-2000s, college-educated and working-class voters rejected Republicans because of George W. Bush and the Iraq war. By 2008, Democrats had accumulated congressional seats, and Chester County, reliably Republican since the 1964 presidential election, supported Barack Obama. Suburban Democrats outnumbered Republicans within his first year in office.

The GOP has ceded even more suburban territory since then. The party’s efforts to make up the losses, especially at the national level, have fallen short. Mitt Romney made Bucks County among his last campaign stops in 2012—to no avail—and Trump nearly won it, thanks to blue-collar towns. Suburbia’s upper-middle-class voters lack clarity in their positions. Issues like trade, immigration, social welfare, and the future of manufacturing are distant concerns. These voters know that Pennsylvania’s poorer regions face social disintegration, but it doesn’t affect them. They champion liberal policies such as open borders and drug liberalization as long as their neighborhoods and schools don’t suffer the consequences. They face their own economic burdens—higher-education debt, health-care costs, delayed retirement. Neither party has offered answers. For now, though, opposition to Trump is reason enough to stay in the Democratic camp.

A new political action committee, the Kennedy Democrats PAC, has targeted Pennsylvania—and suburban Philadelphia—to solidify the party’s support. Backed by Kennedy family members, the PAC is supporting suburban candidates in down-ballot races. Next year, it will target the state’s electoral votes, an outcome that rides on the suburban turnout.

To offset the suburban revolt in Pennsylvania, Trump must energize Rust Belt regions. The electoral shift has already happened in Philadelphia’s suburbs, a region that accounted for a third of Pennsylvania’s voters in 2016. Republicans will have to scramble for statewide viability in 2020. It will be an uphill fight.

Photo: aimintang/iStock

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