AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
It was not only Virginia and New Jersey which held elections in November of 2021. Another critically important swing state held statewide partisan elections as well. They were not for Governor, but Pennsylvania voters went to the polls to elect a new State Supreme Court Justice. In a fiercely contested race, Republican Kevin Brobson defeated Democrat Maria McLaughlin by less than 1%, while Democrats defeated a GOP incumbent for the lower Commonwealth Court by a margin of 16,000 votes out of 2.6 million cast. While judicial elections may seem unimportant, they matter in Pennsylvania, where district lines for Congress and the state legislature have been drawn by the state courts, and the state Supreme Court intervened in a controversial decision in the 2020 election to change absentee voting rules and deadlines in a way many argued was favorable to Joe Biden.
On a wider level, Pennsylvania is a critical swing state nationally. With open races for governor and Senate this year, as well as for numerous competitive seats in Congress and the state legislature, it is a key battleground for both parties. The November 2021 results, which did not show the same large swings to the GOP seen in New Jersey or Virginia, indicate that while Republicans are positioned to win both statewide races, they will have to work for it. Joe Biden’s unpopularity alone may not be enough.
If there is one thing we can be reasonably confident of, it is that the 2022 elections in Pennsylvania will be close. While Democrats and the media are extremely bullish on the chances for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, widely expected to be the nominee for governor, and dismissive of the Republican field—including former Congressman Lou Barletta, Senate President Jake Corman, former congresswoman Melissa Hart, and potentially State Senator and close Trump ally Doug Mastriano—Shapiro has little margin for error. For all his strength as an incumbent, he won by only a 4.6% margin in 2020, and Democrats nationally are a whole lot more unpopular now, thanks in large part to Joe Biden’s failings.
Much of the competitiveness in Pennsylvania can be explained by the diversity of the state. Pennsylvania is not unique in having diverse constituencies and demographics. But in many states, a few or even a single group is sufficiently dominant that any national trends which affect that group will tend to also affect the direction of the state as a whole. New Jersey and Virginia, for example, are heavily exurban/suburban, with large but not dominant African American and Latino populations in smaller cities. As a result, when both groups swung against Democrats in 2021, the result was a large and almost uniform swing in favor of Republicans.
Pennsylvania has several distinct regions. In the center, there are the sorts of rural counties where Donald Trump was able to rack up huge margins. In the northwest, near Erie County, the same trend has occurred as in other midwestern cities. Biden managed a mere 49.8% there in 2020, compared to Obama’s 59% and 57% in 2008 and 2012. Erie County has been shrinking, however, and much of the Democratic vote loss has been in absolute rather than relative terms. A similar phenomenon as has occurred in the Pittsburgh area, where the surrounding counties have trended Red. Pennsylvania as a whole has lost another congressional seat and would be shrinking if not for growth in the Philadelphia suburbs, where the trend seen in Northern Virginia has continued as well. Montgomery County grew by 7.1% last decade, ahead of the national average, and Biden’s 62.41% was the highest of any Democrat in history, well ahead of Obama’s 60% and 56% in 2008 and 2012, or Kerry’s 56% in 2004. Whereas Donald Trump won 11,000 more votes in the County than Mitt Romney did in 2020, Joe Biden won 86,000 more votes than Obama.
The key to understanding why Pennsylvania remains a swing state is the interplay between these regions. Republican trends in the areas outside of Philadelphia have not been sufficient to make up for the growth and trends in the southeast. There are some unique reasons for this. The first is that Republicans were starting from a relatively high base level. Whereas rural areas of many southern and midwestern states were historically Democratic, and hence the shift to voting 75% Republican was a shift from having voted 60% or so for Democrats as recently as 2000, in Pennsylvania, the GOP has always been strong.
Finally, Pittsburgh itself has partially reinvented itself as a biotech center, with the result that much of its population decline is among the sort of older working-class voters of all races who are swinging Republican in other parts of the country. They are in turn being replaced by younger “hipsters.” Its population decline has therefore not particularly affected GOP margins. Furthermore, this process is accelerating. Having fallen from 1.6 million to 1.2 million between 1970 and 2010, Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, added 30,000 new residents last decade.
Alleghany County gave Joe Biden 430,000 votes (59.43%), 57,000 more than Barack Obama received in 2012 when he won with 57.1% of the vote. Donald Trump’s 283,000 votes there were only around 20,000 more than Romney received in 2012. A 97,000 margin for John Kerry in 2004 became a 91,000 margin for Barack Obama in 2012, and a 148,000 vote margin for Joe Biden in 2020.
In short, the trends in Pennsylvania have generally been for greater polarization. Heavily Democratic Pittsburgh has become more heavily Democratic. Heavily Republican central PA has become even more heavily Republican. Democrats’ margins in the counties outside Philadelphia, which hovered around 50-55% from 2004-2012, have now moved toward 60%. Meanwhile, most of the smaller cities have gone from around 60% Democratic to 50-50 or marginally Republican. The net effect has been to reduce the floor for Democratic candidates and raise the ceiling.
What does this mean for 2022 beyond close races? Well for one thing, just because Pennsylvania is resistant to national trends does not mean they do not exist. Republicans still won the Supreme Court race in 2021. It just means that 6-7% swings in Virginia and New Jersey were 1%-2% swings in the Keystone State.
The dynamics of the state’s key voting blocs are critical for understanding the fragmentation in the fields for both the Republican nominations for Senate and Governor and the Democratic primary for Senate. Pennsylvania has no runoffs, meaning a candidate can and often does win their party’s nomination for statewide office with 30% of the vote or less. The result is that there is a premium on candidates who have a solid base of support within the party. Often this comes at the expense of “electability.” For Democrats, this means that candidates with a base in the Philadelphia suburbs will generally be able to overwhelm rural candidates or those from the Western part of the state because the latter represent voters who are much less likely to vote in Democratic primaries.
While Democrats have cleared the field for Shapiro in the governor’s race, in the Senate primary, Congressman Connor Lamb, who represents conservative-leaning areas surrounding Pittsburgh and is the favored candidate of much of the national party, has struggled against Philadelphia-based candidates and the state’s wacky and controversial Lieutenant Governor, John Fetterman. A recent poll had Lamb at a mere 15%, trailing Fetterman (44%) and State Senator Malcolm Kenyatta, an African-American Bernie Sanders-style progressive, (20%). The poll was conducted for Kenyatta’s campaign so his numbers can perhaps be discounted, but it lines up with the fate of other rural Democrats from the Western part of the state in prior primary contests.
This is important because while the GOP field is fragmented as well, almost any of them would stand a very solid chance against Fetterman or Kenyatta. Kenyatta is far left and an urban politician and Fetterman is infamous for his self-promotion. A former small-town mayor with a beard who looks like a biker and stands nearly seven feet tall, Fetterman has tried to market himself to national “progressive” donors as the sort of guy who can win back Trump and conservative voters with a combination of left-wing policies and dressing like a caricature of what Saturday Night Live thinks Republicans look like. He has an eccentric history, including chasing down a young African American jogger with a gun, which would normally be anathema in the 2022 Democratic Party. That some Democrats think running such a candidate will win over conservative voters says more about the Democratic echo chamber than anything else.
As for the Republicans, Sean Parnell, a Trump-endorsed former congressional candidate who narrowly lost a congressional race to Lamb in 2020 and is a veteran, recently dropped out of the race due to revelations from a messy divorce trial. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a regular on the Oprah Winfrey Show and successful T.V. personality in his own right, announced his entry into the race. While Oz is certainly the candidate with the highest name recognition in the race and is someone who is as colorful as Fetterman with likely a much broader appeal to real people, even his own polls show him under 20% (although that still puts him in the lead). He is going up against Carla Sands, Donald Trump’s Ambassador to Denmark, Jeff Bartos, the 2018 Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and perhaps most interestingly, David McCormick, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury who has close links with Donald Trump’s inner circle.
McCormick was, until recently, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, one of the more innovative of the world’s large hedge funds, which manages more than $140 billion in assets around the world. His wife, Dina Powell, was Deputy National Security Adviser for Donald Trump, and he has reportedly hired several Trump campaign and White House veterans. While Oz is the most “high-profile” candidate, and Parnell was the media caricature of a “Trump” candidate, McCormick, a professional with international experience, management skills, and money, seems to be the one with the most potential. Any of them could win, but the smart money would probably be on McCormick for both the primary and the general.
A general election with McCormick would likely be a repeat of the Virginia governor’s race, with Democrats trying to paint a successful businessman with decades of experience as some sort of rioter. It would likely work even less well than it did with Youngkin. McCormick’s Trump contacts would allow him to mobilize GOP voters, while his time at Bridgewater and links to finance circles would allow for penetration into the Philadelphia suburbs, where voters would distrust Kenyatta or find Fetterman weird and off-putting. McCormick probably wouldn’t win Montgomery County by any more than Youngkin won Loudon, but by cutting the margin from Biden’s 62% to 56%, Youngkin did enough to win the state, and McCormick would likely accomplish the same feat.
While Conor Lamb on paper would be more formidable, the same issues plaguing Lamb in the primary would plague him in the general. One reason candidates from Western Pennsylvania have struggled in Democratic primaries is that they lack name recognition in the Philadelphia area and struggle to raise the money to remedy that because most of the state’s donor base is there. Even if Lamb wins the primary, he will face the same problem in the general, and in Oz he would be facing a candidate with universal name recognition, while McCormick would have functionally unlimited money, and would likely make the 37-year-old Lamb look like a kid. If nominated, Lamb would therefore likely face the fate of his predecessor, Ron Klink, another Western Pennsylvania congressman who won the right to challenge Rick Santorum in 2000 only to be badly outspent, eventually losing by 6% even as Al Gore won the state.
The Republican primary for governor is a different beast. Its fragmentation is due to the field consisting of a large number of Republicans with the same problem Conor Lamb has in the Democratic Senate primary (not being from the Philadelphia media market), but absent the sort of Oz/McCormick candidate who can overcome it with money. Jake Corman, the Senate President, represents almost the exact middle of the state, including the aptly named Centre county, with the result that his name recognition and fundraising potential largely come from his leadership role. Both former Congressman Lou Barletta, who represented the seat that stretched between Harrisburg and Scranton (avoiding both), and Doug Mastriano have tried to make up for the lack of a geographical base with ideology. Barletta has played up his early support of Donald Trump and history of opposition to illegal immigration, and Mastriano has attacked Corman for being insufficiently supportive of Donald Trump after the 2020 elections. The main problem is they all share the same geographical and demographic base, so they must compete on ideology, but they lack the fundraising base to spread that engagement to the rest of the state. It is quite possible any of them can win the nomination with 30% or less.
Any of them “could” also win the governor’s race, especially if Joe Biden’s 2022 is like his 2021. But if they do so, it will be for different reasons than the senate race. For the senate race, the fundamentals, nature of the candidates on both sides, and dynamics favor Oz or especially McCormack, even in a year like 2020. To win the governor’s race, absent signs of a major effort by any of the candidates or a new entry, the GOP needs the national environment to overwhelm a stronger and better-funded Democratic candidate (Shapiro) with a united party behind them.
There is a lot at stake – total control of the state government, for one thing. The new legislative maps have Joe Biden winning State Senate districts 26-24, and state House seats 103-102, an almost even split. In the event the GOP wins the governor’s race, it is almost impossible to see them not holding control of the legislature. That could transform the state when it comes to education policy, elections, and a host of other issues. Pennsylvania looks to be set for an exciting 2022 when it comes to politics.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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