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Down with the Status Quo in Pennsylvania

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Down with the Status Quo in Pennsylvania

The Keystone State’s unresolved primary was a test of populism vs. moderation. May 27, 2022
Politics and law

Pennsylvania’s recent primary corresponded with editor Charles McGrath’s description of a typical John O’Hara short story: one that “turns on a tiny alteration in tone or mood.” And like many plots by O’Hara, who often wrote about his “Pennsylvania Protectorate,” last week’s election awaits resolution. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state announced a recount of the Senate Republican primary race between Mehmet Oz and David McCormick. Oz is virtually tied with McCormick, who, in response to Pennsylvania’s intricate dating requirements for mail-in ballots, is pursuing a controversial legal path that could alter the slim margins or even bring him victory. For now, this expensive battle for retiring GOP Senator Pat Toomey’s open seat remains undecided.

Still, we can draw some early lessons. Across Pennsylvania’s disparate regions, last Tuesday’s election revealed how voters made sharp electoral turns in response to the tone or mood of divergent candidates. Amid ongoing social and economic turbulence, the primary tested voters’ capacity for populism or moderation.

In the past, voters in Pennsylvania—once described by another native son, John Updike, as America’s “least eccentric state”—rewarded moderate and oftentimes patrician Republicans and Democrats at the polls. But those patterns reflected better days for working-class voters. Donald Trump’s 2016 Pennsylvania victory—and Bernie Sanders’s pick-ups in rural, blue-collar counties in that year’s Democratic primary—confirmed acute political disenchantment and a rejection of both party establishments. Following the Covid-19 era, voters’ impatience with Pennsylvania’s centrist tradition has only intensified.

We saw the result last Tuesday: many Republicans and Democrats embraced the most ideological or populist candidates and rejected moderation or incumbency in their respective closed primaries. Overall, the primary offers clues for the November general election, featuring a pivotal U.S. Senate race, an open gubernatorial seat, and competitive congressional and state legislative races.

On the Republican side, the still-unresolved Senate GOP primary reflects voters’ doubts about the populist credentials of Oz, a celebrity surgeon, and McCormick, recently CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund. If anything, regional voting patterns suggest that the candidates’ negative ads worked. McCormick, who painted Oz as an inauthentic conservative based on his past comments and positions, carried most of Pennsylvania’s bounty of rural, Protestant, historically Republican counties. Meantime, Oz, who attacked McCormick for his former company’s Chinese ties and the issue of offshoring, performed best in post-industrial Catholic, traditionally Democratic counties that had experienced manufacturing decline. Trump’s endorsement of Oz, moreover, helped in regions like northeastern Pennsylvania, where voters who had supported Barack Obama switched Republican to support the former president. Both Oz and McCormick, however, still faced the improbable rise of Kathy Barnette, who waged a grassroots campaign and enjoyed late-game media saturation. Barnette, who touted her social conservatism, won counties that historically make up the cultural heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch, described once by an historian as “the most conservative people in America.”

It was in those same conservative counties, though, that Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who touted a liberal populist message, had his highest voter percentage share in the Senate Democratic primary. In fact, Fetterman, who was in surgery following a stroke on Primary Day, won all 67 counties over Conor Lamb, who ran as a centrist Democrat and critic of his party’s leftward direction. Lamb had attempted to replicate the statewide Democratic strategy of the past: an unassuming persona, deep political family roots, innumerable endorsements, establishment party backing, and an assurance of moderation. In the past, the playbook worked well, especially in 2006 for Democratic Senator Bob Casey, who hailed from a storied, pro-life political family and defeated incumbent Rick Santorum in a punishing midterm for Republicans. But the Lamb campaign had failed to account for the changed political landscape. “I think there was a lot of arrogance—a lot of people believing what they wanted to believe and ignoring reality,” one Democratic strategist told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

As one former Democratic congressman told the Tribune-Review, Fetterman was a “juggernaut populist with a cult following.” Fetterman, who hails from a wealthy GOP family, aggressively campaigned in Trump-voting, conservative areas. He also spoke in a way and took positions—defending natural-gas fracking, for instance—that resonated with working-class Democrats. “One of the most vile things ever said about Pennsylvania is that it’s Pittsburgh [to the west], Alabama in the middle, and Philadelphia [to the east]. It’s just gross and it’s not true,” Fetterman told The Atlantic last year. He also visited places like rural McKean County, where he commented at a local event, “Wherever people might feel they’ve been forgotten and marginalized . . . that’s where someone like me needs to be.” He added: “Someplace like Smethport, Pa. . . . these are places that should matter as much as anywhere.” Last Tuesday, in terms of voter percentage share, McKean was Fetterman’s best-performing county.

Fetterman’s leftist populism will be tested in a general election against either Oz or McCormick, either of whom would likely tout a mainstream populism akin to GOP Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin’s successful strategy last November. Fetterman has dismissed the “progressive” label, though he touts marijuana legalization (in a state confronting a fentanyl crisis) and takes an “activist” approach to criminal justice as Pennsylvania cities big and small grapple with crime. Further, “Republicans are registering formerly Democratic voters at four times the rate that Democrats are making the reverse conversion,” as Reuters reported last month. Thus Fetterman will confront the prospect of a different electoral reality in November.

And yet, for all the GOP’s advantages, the party is now preparing for the possible failure of GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a south-central Pennsylvania state senator who cultivated a similar but conservative populist following—albeit one that many GOP insiders fear will turn off voters in the general election.

During the pandemic, Mastriano positioned himself as a leading opponent of outgoing Democratic governor Tom Wolf’s dramatic Covid-19 restrictions, which included defining “essential” and “non-essential” businesses. “For me and everyone else out there, every job and business is essential. I know when I was working as a janitor . . . I needed that job,” said Mastriano in one of his many Facebook video posts.

Those posts became a major factor in his rise. “One of the first things that enticed me to get to know Mastriano was his Fireside Chats opening and closing with prayer,” one voter, referring to his Facebook posts, told Michael Torres at RealClearPolitics. Overall, Mastriano ran a religious-themed grassroots campaign. His support included the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Pennsylvania. “When we met him, he gave us the time of day when nobody else would,” the group’s co-chair told Spotlight PA. As with Trump signs in 2016, the saturation of Mastriano signs throughout Pennsylvania, including Greater Philadelphia, predicted the outcome: he won nearly 44 percent of the vote among a sizable primary field.

Shortly before the primary, Republicans—understanding Mastriano’s political liabilities in a November election—attempted to prevent the party’s worst-case scenario. But all efforts to coalesce around a single, alternative candidate came far too late. Then, the weekend before the election, Trump endorsed Mastriano over Lou Barletta, who had been among the first members of Congress to back the former president’s 2016 campaign and had, at Trump’s urging, left a safe congressional seat in 2018 to run an underdog race against incumbent Democratic Senator Casey. But after Trump’s 2020 loss, Mastriano positioned himself as a leading proponent of conspiracy-laden election assertions. “There is no one in Pennsylvania who has done more, or fought harder, for election integrity,” said Trump in his statement. In November, Mastriano, considered too polarizing a figure for a largely suburban state, faces Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro, whose campaign ran an expensive ad that boosted the candidacy of Mastriano, his preferred opponent.

Shapiro is running as a pragmatic centrist and a calming force against Mastriano, whom he recently called “extreme” and “dangerous.” Unlike Lamb, who followed a similar strategy, Shapiro ran unopposed in his primary and thus didn’t face an insurgency from the left. He is counting on the suburban coalition that delivered midterm pick-ups for the Democrats in 2018 and Biden’s election in 2020. This coalition includes not only Philadelphia’s “collar” counties but also Lehigh Valley’s vast suburbia, the state’s many “eds and meds” communities, and Harrisburg’s East and West Shore, home to a massive base of Democratic and Republican state employees who supported Wolf in 2018.

Both political parties face their respective challenges. Republicans now have a broadened coalition that includes working-class voters who are changing their Democratic registration but also voters suspicious of their own party. As political analyst Sam Chen told one PBS affiliate, “The Republicans in the last several years have really taken to the idea that those who are in office or those who have been there [are] bad news and they’re just as bad, if not worse than Democrats.” Meantime, Democrats are relying on suburban voters, including independents and disillusioned upper-middle-class Republicans, but also on enthusiastic progressives, who espouse unpopular policy positions. Amid President Joe Biden’s plummeting poll numbers and dissatisfaction with Democrats’ ever-leftward lurch, midterm history is not on their side.

Either way, voters in the Keystone State appear to have little patience for the status quo. Expect surprising results in November.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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