Down In the Weeds: Pennsylvania

Most political pundits look to the 2018 midterm election results in Pennsylvania and predict nothing but doom and gloom for the GOP come 2020.  Indeed, the state lost three Republican Congressmen and got trounced in the Senate and gubernatorial elections.  Further, both the gubernatorial and Senate candidates were heavily endorsed by Trump.  Assuming the GOP in the state does not become their own worst enemy, many of these pundits may have egg on their faces come 2020.

First, the House races were thrown into disarray after the state supreme court redrew the congressional district map.  This caused, in some areas, an incumbent vs. incumbent scenario.  Although the court-drawn map made greater geographical sense, it clearly gave a slight advantage to the Democrats.  In 2020, everyone knows the districts in greater detail.

After those midterms, most people pointed their fingers at GOP party chief Val DiGiorgio.  There is no doubt that he is a tepid Trump supporter.  In the buildup to the midterms, there had been grumbling about his performance.  DiGiorgio hails from the southeastern part of the state near Philadelphia.  Party officials from the western part of the state had been complaining about him.  He was not popular to begin with having won the chairmanship in 2017 by only two votes.  They claimed he was a bad fundraiser and had an anemic staff.  In 2016, he originally endorsed Marco Rubio before switching allegiances to Trump.

Then DiGiorgio did the unthinkable.  Supporting a female Republican running in a municipal election in Philadelphia (who lost badly), DiGiorgio began a series of flirtatious text messages that culminated in him sending a picture of an erect part of his anatomy to the woman.  She eventually went to the local newspaper and DiGiorgio’s career as party chief ended in disgust.

To succeed DiGiorgio, it was reported that Lou Barletta, who ran and lost the Senate race, had the inside track given his close association with Trump and the fact he is well-respected in GOP circles.  Others, including RNC member and top Pennsylvania fundraiser Bob Asher, were pushing for Bernadette Comfort.  Others within the Trump reelection effort also were openly supportive of Comfort.

Some party officials in the state began to complain of overreach and meddling by Trump operatives including Brad Parscale and Donald Trump, Jr.  In the end, in a compromise, Lawrence Tabas won out.  He is a lawyer who led the successful campaign against Jill Stein’s recount efforts in the state.  Comfort was then named chairwoman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Pennsylvania.  What likely did Comfort in was complaints she ignored the charges against DiGiorgio when they surfaced.  Regardless, with DiGiorgio now out of the picture, a calm has returned to the state party apparatus as they focus on 2020.  Thankfully, the situation was handled swiftly and to the agreement of all with little acrimony.

When talking about Pennsylvania, we are talking about the divide in America in microcosm between culture and the economy.  Voters in the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are insulated from the economic downturns experienced in the more rural areas.  Decades of economic distress have caused anger and frustration, particularly with Democrats.  In 2018, given changes to the map, Chuck Shumer said that for every Democrat they lost in western Pennsylvania, they would pick up one in the Philadelphia suburbs.  He was only partially correct.  Their reliance on the metropolitan suburbs may not be enough to offset Republican gains elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

The numbers speak for themselves.  Although voter registration does not necessarily mean additional votes, the trends over the past five years are encouraging to Republicans.  The key is not so much the collar counties of Philadelphia which are increasingly turning blue and pushing into the Amish country of Lancaster county.  Instead, look elsewhere- the northwest and northeast parts of the state.  In 2016, Clinton lost over 55,000 Obama votes in the northeastern counties (she lost the state by 44,000 votes).  Lackawanna and Luzerne counties have seen a surge in GOP registration that should give the Democrats concern especially considering this is Biden country.  What you have in this area is the voters acting more like Appalachia than the Acela corridor.

In the northwest area, especially Erie county, the GOP has also seen a surge in party registration that cannot be overlooked.  In the past three years, Republicans in the area have built-up a 2-1 advantage in voters switching party allegiance.  Even still, some party leaders in the northwestern part of the state worry about Trump fatigue going into 2020.  Said one party leader, the people like the policies and actions of Trump.  What they are growing leery and weary of is Trump’s constantly “talking out.”  Still, that same official noted that unlike 2016, voters in the area are not complaining about the state of the economy- a good sign for Trump.

Perhaps the story of David Oh best exemplifies the mindset of voters in Pennsylvania, especially Republican voters.  Philadelphia is dominated by the Democrats and two at-large seats on city council are reserved for the minority party.  Normally that means two Republicans, but recently a member of the Workers Party won a seat leaving one for a Republican.  In a five candidate field, Oh emerged victorious and some took notice.  Oh ran as an outsider willing to take on the party establishment.  The Philadelphia Parking Authority is dominated by operatives, including Republicans, who use their positions to hand out patronage jobs.  It is that corruption that Oh ran against and delivered a winning message.

Equally important, Oh campaigned in areas many Republicans never campaigned before.  There are Republicans in Democratic strongholds like Center City and Southwest Philly and he went there.  Realizing he had no chance of winning the Northeast section of the city, he nevertheless campaigned there.  He entered the lion’s den and did not rely on simply his strongholds like China Town and South Philly.  He also appealed to a diverse electorate.

But ultimately, it was his outsider status and willingness to take on the establishment that spurred him to victory.  In a way, David Oh was like Trump without the tweets and, as that Erie county official said, “outside noise.”  Assuming Trump can limit the outside noise and focus on the one thing that most motivates voters in Pennsylvania- the economy- all those Democratic efforts in the collar counties and suburbs of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will be for naught.  Through the center of the state, it is not only the economy but gun rights that motivate voters.  People do not hunt in the wilds of Chester or Delaware counties, but they do in Centre, Carbon, Lackawanna, and Erie counties.

One final note: Democrats in Pennsylvania have expressed their displeasure with governor Tom Wolf signing a GOP-backed bill that does away with straight-ticket voting in the state.  Democrats claim the move weakens their hand to regain control of the state legislature.  Imagine that- Democrats advocating for something undemocratic.

Next: West Virginia