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Twilight of the Blue-Collar Democrat

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Twilight of the Blue-Collar Democrat

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, last week’s election marked the end of a crucial party constituency. November 11, 2021
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

Following the Democratic Party’s widespread losses in last week’s election, President Joe Biden declared that passage of the infrastructure bill in the House of Representatives “is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.” Though polling indicates that Americans support that bill—not the costly and expansive “Build Back Better” act—voters admonished Biden and his party’s economic stewardship in down-ballot races.

Rejection of the Democrats’ progressive platform, with its identity-politics fixations, was particularly evident among blue-collar voters, who once made up the party’s electoral base. Biden spent his political career courting these voters—and promoting his “scrappyScranton roots—with Kennedy-era platitudes befitting an Edwin O’Connor novel. But last Tuesday showed that the Democrats’ working-class constituency has finished its years’ long last hurrah. The divorce was especially acute in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Democratic affiliation was once synonymous with economic advancement in working-class communities. Blue-collar voters are turning to the Republican Party, further dampening Democrats’ hopes for next year’s midterms.

In New Jersey, the narrow victory of Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy, hailed as America’s “most progressive governor” by The Nation, signals trouble ahead for Democrats. Murphy even underperformed among suburban voters, who have trended blue since the Chris Christie years. But it was Republicans’ South Jersey pickups that proved most surprising.

In South Jersey’s multi-member third legislative district (LD3), essentially working-class suburbia, all incumbent Democratic state lawmakers lost. The most prominent political casualty was Stephen Sweeney, the longest-serving State Senate president in Jersey’s history, whose seat was reliably held by Democrats since its creation in 1973. (Before the election, Sweeney was considered a potential 2025 gubernatorial contender.) But in a story made for a political sitcom, Sweeney—a union ironworker and the state’s second-most powerful politician—lost to Republican Edward Durr, a non-union truck driver who spent a few thousand dollars on his campaign. The loss shocked Jersey politicos, including Sweeney’s childhood friend, George Norcross, who called the Democratic defeats a “tsunami” in a Politico interview. “Nobody saw this coming. . . . Including me, and I like to think I’m pretty astute about this.”

Sweeney’s long-time political clout has been tied to Norcross, an insurance executive and Jersey’s most powerful unelected political figure. Beginning in the early 1990s, Norcross built a South Jersey-based political and economic-development machine—fueled by blue-collar votes—that still has outsize influence in the statehouse. But South Jersey Democrats in the mold of Sweeney and Norcross, who once described himself as a Reagan Democrat, don’t align with today’s leftward-drifting party. For all its faults, the South Jersey political apparatus isn’t consumed by ideology, and progressives now campaign against moderate Democrats there—most notably in Camden County. As last week showed, politicians like Sweeney can no longer find refuge among blue-collar voters. “The Democratic Party today, because of a lack of prominent leaders, has largely become defined by the progressive faces in our country,” said Norcross.

South Jersey’s Democratic losses—and Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s near gubernatorial win—are also a result of the economic conditions under the party’s national leadership. The most inflationary economy in three decades—exemplified by rising gasoline and grocery prices, in addition to supply-chain disruptions—has induced frustration as Americans push through the post-pandemic fog. The election, moreover, showed how voters are punishing down-ballot Democrats for Biden’s economic policies, including a restrictive energy agenda that leads Americans to pay more to drive or heat their homes. According to an NBC News poll, 57 percent of Americans “disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy.”

Murphy’s policies intensified this economic discontent. A devastating state tax burden, for example, is squeezing families and pushing others to move to more affordable areas like Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Economic burdens help fuel the political realignment in blue-collar South Jersey counties like Gloucester, partly represented by Sweeney, where voters increasingly trended Republican in the Trump era. High taxes, combined with Murphy’s pandemic policies, even led some registered Democrats to vote for an improbable candidate like Durr.

Meantime, in neighboring Pennsylvania, Democrats confronted their own reckoning in state-level races, including a crucial state Supreme Court seat won by a Republican. In recent years, moreover, working-class voters have narrowed the Democrats’ statewide voter advantage: from 1.2 million when Barack Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 to 605,000 today. This toss-up state’s GOP base is in once-reliably Democratic, blue-collar counties shaped by extractive industries and the labor movement. The GOP’s ascendance is particularly evident in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County and metro Pittsburgh’s Westmoreland County, further indicating Democratic vulnerability in next year’s midterms.

In Luzerne, an historically Democratic stronghold, Republicans have consistently enjoyed down-ballot gains in the Trump era. The county played a pivotal role in the former president’s 2016 statewide victory. Since then, Republicans have narrowed Democrats’ voter-registration advantage by more than 20,000. It’s a stunning reversal of electoral fortune for Democrats, who flipped the county with legions of ethnic Catholic voters during Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. For decades, Democrats in Luzerne’s working-class communities operated patronage systems when school districts and other governmental entities replaced the anthracite coal industry as the region’s primary employer base. In today’s local political climate, though, it’s best to avoid Democratic affiliation.

Consider the outcome of last week’s down-ballot elections in Luzerne, where Wilkes-Barre is the county seat. Republicans swept five vacant seats on Luzerne’s council, the county’s governing body. Now, Republicans have a ten-to-one GOP majority on the county council following post-election news that one councilman, Robert Schnee, changed his party affiliation in June. He told the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader that he’s no longer a Democrat “because of what was going on at the national level,” while adding that the party switch had “nothing to do with local Democratic leadership.” Following the election, a Hazleton-area township supervisor, who ran unopposed as a Democrat, announced his own party switch. “This wasn’t the Democratic Party I signed up for,” Jim Montone told the Hazleton Standard-Speaker, citing Democratic governor Tom Wolf’s pandemic leadership and the party’s national direction. “I don’t know where they are going with this party, but I have to be true to myself.”

In Western Pennsylvania, Westmoreland County is now solidly GOP territory in terms of local power and voter rolls. Two decades ago, a blue-collar base ensured Democrats’ control of the county and the party’s 62,000-voter-registration advantage. But last week, any signs of that Democratic past ended in Westmoreland, part of the bituminous coal region and the epicenter of Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported, GOP victories last week “give Republicans control of every elected office in county government as well as every state and federal office specific to Westmoreland.” Three of the four GOP county office winners were once Democrats. “To my knowledge, it’s unprecedented for the Republican Party to control these [county] offices,” said Westmoreland’s GOP chair.

Westmoreland’s political realignment is part of a decade-long trend in Western Pennsylvania, where Republicans now have a voter-registration edge in six counties when discounting heavily blue Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh. As one former Westmoreland GOP chairman told PennLive, during the Clinton years, Democrats “were trying to market themselves as a more moderate party, and then Al Gore ran significantly to the left of Bill Clinton [in 2000], and they’ve ran that trend ever since.” The party’s intensifying opposition to fossil fuels, moreover, doesn’t work in Pennsylvania, which is second only to Texas in natural gas production. This industry is critical to the future of Westmoreland and Luzerne, where a proposed $6-billion natural gas-to-gasoline plant will be the “largest economic development investment“ in the county’s history.

Overall, last week’s election returns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey clearly established that large segments of blue-collar voters believe the Democratic Party has betrayed their socioeconomic interests, even as progressive identity politics and accusations of “privilege” infuriate the party’s former base voters. The idea of privilege is alien to working-class communities in northeastern Pennsylvania, where older voters, living on fixed incomes, struggle to pay rising bills and property taxes. Now, as the region’s notoriously brutal winter arrives, they face the prospect of devastating oil and gas bills to heat their century-old homes.

The elections seem to point to major problems ahead for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Next November, in places like South Jersey or Pennsylvania’s coal region, blue-collar voters may decide which party controls Congress. Their embrace of the GOP is a reminder that Democrats can’t rely solely on suburban voters.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

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