In recent days, Pennsylvanians, especially those east of the Susquehanna River, have reached a rare bipartisan consensus: hope for a Phillies victory in the World Series. In Greater Philadelphia, a holiday-like spirit prevails, as locals wear red attire. But amid the anticipation, it’s also peak electoral season here and throughout Pennsylvania—infamous for its razor-thin voting margins—where voters next Tuesday will decide a major U.S. Senate race, competitive congressional seats, and who occupies the governor’s residence in Harrisburg.
The Phillies have offered respite, however temporary, to voters wearied by prevailing local concerns, especially economic security and public safety. Driving through winding residential roads around Philadelphia, including where I live on the predominately Democratic Main Line, I’ve seen a prevalent number of Republican yard signs suggesting competitive electoral territory—and this in an area that has trended blue since Donald Trump’s presidency. Further, in my conversations throughout the Keystone State, where I’ve traveled extensively this year, expressions of local discontent have consistently translated into anger at the Democratic Party.
Just one week before Election Day, Pennsylvania’s political mood compares with the 2006 midterms, when the GOP confronted its own statewide reckoning. That September, the late Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha, who represented a then-blue congressional district in western Pennsylvania, told MSNBC that anger over the Iraq War, in addition to issues of “jobs and the economy,” could lead to Democrats taking Congress. “It is always local issues that have the predominance,” Murtha told Lester Holt. “But this is such an overriding—I see an intensity I haven’t seen since 1974.”
Indeed, in 2006, Pennsylvania played a crucial role in Democrats’ congressional takeover. Working-class voters turned out GOP incumbents, especially in the state’s west and northeast, and so did suburbanites, particularly in Philadelphia’s historically Republican “collar” counties, where Democratic voter registration surged. At the time, voters directed their ire toward the Bush administration’s management of the war. Shortly before Election Day, Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC that, “It may not be popular with the public. It doesn’t matter in the sense that we have to . . . do what we think is right.” This response wasn’t well received in Pennsylvania, a state with a high level of military service.
Cheney’s interview, moreover, exhibited what Pennsylvania voters, particularly in blue-collar counties, viewed as a political party that didn’t represent their interests. Gas prices had then reached $3 per gallon in a state grappling with offshoring and manufacturing decline. “I’ve been a big Bush supporter for a long time, but . . . these gas prices. I just wish he’d do something about them,” one suburban Philadelphia Republican voter told NBC News. Dissatisfaction with the GOP expanded to the border and immigration policy. “Polls show large majorities of the public both support tighter borders as a matter of national security, and oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants,” the New York Times reported. “Many working-class Democrats resent what they see as a continuing influx of cheap labor.”
But 2006 also marked a cycle when voters, in addition to viewing Republicans as out-of-touch on the economy, saw the GOP as veering too far rightward on social issues. In Pennsylvania, the most prominent casualty was U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost to Bob Casey, then a pro-life Democratic moderate, whose revered father, a two-term governor, operated as an “Independent Democrat.” Overall, as one Democratic strategist described the situation to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the anger toward Republicans was “explosive.” “They were saying to these guys in power: ‘Rethink things. Stop being so doctrinaire and single-minded.’”
Now, amid an ongoing political realignment in Pennsylvania, legions of Democratic voters who punished the GOP in 2006 are now registered Republicans, hoping for a red wave next Tuesday. They live in counties like Westmoreland, where Republicans now dominate a formerly Democratic stronghold, and Luzerne, where the GOP is on course to holding a voter-registration majority. Based on state data, in Luzerne, Northampton, and Erie counties—all traditionally Democratic locales that became prime Trump territory—Democrats have lost more than 8,600 voters since last year. Throughout Pennsylvania, as LehighValleyLive reported, “There were more Democrats who switched to Republican affiliation this year (53,091) than vice versa (19,477).”
As a recent Muhlenberg College survey found, the economy and inflation overwhelmingly prevail as top issues for Pennsylvania voters. This is evident among business owners, who struggle to find workers, but also the state’s large senior population—especially in its 48 rural counties—where “many local residents age in place, in old, often-deteriorating housing in small towns, or invisibly among farms and forests,” as Becky Bennett recently wrote at PennLive. In populous working-class areas like Luzerne, inflation led to a recent county proposal to raise property taxes. “Disgusting, keeps going up,” one Luzerne resident told WNEP. “I’m a senior citizen on a fixed income, so I don’t want to pay any more taxes.”
The Biden administration’s economic response has only intensified the resolve of many Pennsylvanians, in regions like the anthracite coal region and the Lehigh Valley, to vote Republican. Just outside Bethlehem, for example, a construction company owner has displayed campaign signs for Mehmet Oz, the GOP Senate candidate, and Doug Mastriano, the Republican running for governor. “I’ve been in business since 1974,” the owner told PennLive’s John Luciew. “I have seen a whole lot of ups and downs in the country. But never quite like this. This is really bad. Prices are out of hand. And everything, the way it’s being handled by the current administration, it’s upside down.” Meantime, Democrats’ energy messaging doesn’t play well in Pennsylvania, where more than half of state households use natural gas for heating fuel and where polling shows voters in both parties believe domestic gas and oil production helps lower costs.
Crime has also figured as a top concern for Pennsylvania voters, who don’t subscribe to progressive solutions on criminal-justice matters. This issue placed Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman in a vulnerable electoral position, even before his troubling debate performance last week. As lieutenant governor, Fetterman chairs the state’s Board of Pardons, where his leadership, including a push for clemency, reflects what the Philadelphia Inquirer describes as “the heart of an activist and, at times, the force of a bully.” But such activism isn’t a sentiment shared by Pennsylvania voters, particularly those facing crime and quality-of-life problems in their neighborhoods.
Indeed, crime is a daily topic of conversation in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, in Philadelphia, a Pew survey found that “70% of Philadelphians see crime, drugs, and public safety as the most important issue facing the city.” City and suburb residents’ fears are hardly imagined. Violent crime continues to rise, and robberies have more than doubled compared with this time last year. Suburbanites avoid venturing into Center City, where the nonresident worker population remains low. Downtown retail stores are closing due to safety concerns. As the region’s Franchise Owners Association president told the local ABC affiliate, “We have lost about 15-20 stores in the city . . . Nobody wants to run the business in the city of Philadelphia. Very dangerous.”
Nevertheless, as a West Philadelphia civic leader told the Inquirer this summer, “There’s a fear of progressive retaliation against business owners” who express their concerns. “They can get protested, they can get boycotts. So they stay silent. But more people are saying ‘enough is enough!’” Indeed, last week, Republicans in the state House of Representatives filed impeachment articles against progressive city district attorney Larry Krasner, whom they charged with being “derelict in his obligations” to prosecute crimes.
Meantime, in Pittsburgh, where progressives have made significant judicial inroads in recent local elections, the city faces its own crime crisis. The homicide rate, for instance, stands at its highest rate in the past seven years. “We can see what’s happening in our city—there’s a visible increase in violent crime,” the city council president told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. As a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial observed, recent shootings “aren’t even in high-crime areas.” Downtown residents have expressed disgust with the city’s direction. The paper quoted one downtown apartment building manager, who described a “huge increase in crime, pervasive homelessness,” and “open-air drug abuse and sales.” She added: “As a professional in this city, and an advocate for downtown residents, I am pleading for more police presence.”
The crime concern also applies to Pennsylvania’s smaller cities, including Johnstown, Hazleton, and Williamsport, where in August the district attorney’s office issued a release declaring that young gang members “do not fear acts of violence.” In Luzerne County, the district attorney recently lamented how his office is stretched thin as it assists short-staffed police departments with rising crime. “An increase in the complexity of crime . . . the best example I can give: Cases that we used to see a simple assault on are now shootings. You know, the number of homicides hasn’t really gone up. The number of people that get shot and survive has increased dramatically,” he told WNEP. The local crime crisis is also pervasive in schools, including in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne’s county seat, where gang members brought weapons to the area high school last week.
Just days before Election Day, whether in northeastern Pennsylvania or even pockets of suburban Philadelphia, voter discontent—especially on economic and public-safety concerns—is directed toward Democrats. Their view of the Democrats this year echoes Pennsylvanians’ impression of Republicans in 2006: “doctrinaire and single-minded.” For instance, at a virtual event this summer, Democratic U.S. Rep. Susan Wild—perhaps the state’s most vulnerable congressional incumbent—said that she “might have to school” voters in the district’s Carbon County, once a Democratic stronghold. “I’m not quite sure what was in their heads because the people of Carbon County are exactly the kind of people who should not be voting for a Donald Trump,” said Wild. In his September speech in Philadelphia, President Joe Biden warned of the “extremism” of “MAGA Republicans.” But the problem for Democrats, at least in Pennsylvania, is that vast numbers of such Republicans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and even 2012. In recent years, following Trump’s election, they switched party affiliation because they no longer believed that Democrats represented their economic and cultural interests.
As it stands, according to the current RealClearPolitics average, Fetterman holds a slim lead over Oz. For perspective, at this point in 2016, retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey was similarly behind his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, and won. And the mood, especially after the debate, isn’t on Fetterman’s side. If anything, like 2006, even congressional and down-ballot races could prove surprising in Pennsylvania.
An exception is the governor’s race, where Democratic candidate and current state attorney general Josh Shapiro has run a centrist and highly disciplined campaign—one reminiscent of successful statewide moderate GOP campaigns in the past. His opponent, Mastriano, veered to the right of the average Pennsylvania voter, who, for example, takes a nuanced position on abortion and supports gay marriage. In an interview with WHYY, for example, one suburban Philadelphia Republican voter, a supporter of former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta in this spring’s GOP gubernatorial primary, questioned if Mastriano could be trusted as governor. “I think he’s too far conservative,” she noted. “I think he will cause more of a divide in our state if he gets in as governor.” In Pennsylvania’s suburbs, voters are receptive to Republicans’ message on crime and the economy but in most instances are averse to staunch conservatism on social concerns.
In recent years, the Keystone State has undergone an economic and demographic transformation. It’s become a global hub for warehousing, for instance, and numerous eastern Pennsylvania cities now have Hispanic-majority populations. As a recent Wall Street Journal census analysis found, Luzerne County “diversified faster than any other large county in the U.S. during the first two decades of this century.” Pennsylvania’s suburbs, even beyond Philadelphia, are increasingly diverse and prosperous. And its working-class regions, which once elected local Democratic machines and fueled the U.S. labor movement, have never been more Republican. Considering these complex dynamics, expect compelling and even surprising voter trends emerging out of next week’s election.
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