Republicans have a problem with suburban voters, Democrats have a problem with rural voters. Where does that leave Pa.’s balance of power?

By: - November 8, 2019 7:18 am

As Democrats romped through the southeast on election night Tuesday — winning control of every county’s government from Allentown to Coatesville — a long foreseen but sudden reckoning came in coal fields and mill towns around Pittsburgh.

Democratic county commissioner majorities holding on in three southwestern counties, once home to blue dog Democrats, were flipped by the GOP, matching a trend that was emphasized by President Donald Trump’s wide margins there.

Democrats “got clobbered,” Joe DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., told the Capital-Star.

Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties all saw Republicans take over their respective boards of commissioners Tuesday. 

Across the state, in northeastern Pennsylvania, Republicans also flipped control of the Luzerne County Council. The county was one of three former strongholds of unions Democrats that candidate Trump carried in 2016, securing his slim Pennsylvania victory.

The results are more than symbolic. They signal potential long-term issues because on Tuesday, Democrats lost the building blocks of political power in what used to be the backbone of their statewide electoral coalition.

Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, is one of two Democrats still holding on in the southwest — along with Rep. Joe Petrarca, of Westmoreland County.

She blamed Tuesday’s dismal results on the region’s voters seeing national Democrats taking anti-natural gas and anti-coal stances.

“It sounds really nice when people say ‘We’re going to do away with coal, we’re going to do away with gas,’” Snyder told the Capital-Star. “But we’re not going to bring you any replacement jobs, we’re not going to tell you how high your electric bills will go.”

Trump hit on the same talking point in a visit to a natural gas industry conference in Pittsburgh in October.

Looking at the commissioners’ results on her home turf, Snyder — a former Greene County commissioner herself — didn’t think she was finished in 2020. 

Citing her independent streak, she said she’s worked with Republicans to get results on such issues as expanding access to rural broadband. And she hasn’t hesitated to vote against her party on such hot button issues as abortion.

But, she conceded that the future didn’t look particularly bright.

“Can Democrats still win down here? Yes — I have,” Snyder said. “Who knows in the next election? I don’t know.”

Winning back the suburbs

But the losses came as Democrats also made sweeping gains throughout the more populous southeast — gains that Republicans were already sounding the alarm over.

“There’s no question, that’s a demographic exchange that the Democrats win,” DiSarro said.

It also could mean the demise  of the long-lived political chestnut that Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between,” as the suburbs of Philadelphia creep ever outward, DiSarro added.

Eventually, if “most of the suburbs won’t vote for Republicans…at some point you run out of rural areas to make up the difference,” veteran Republican strategist Christopher Nicholas said.

The key, Nicholas said, would be for more Republicans to mirror GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s success in the suburbs, which helped him win a tough reelection in 2016 against Democrat Katie McGinity.

Jeff Coleman, another GOP operative, told the Capital-Star that GOP suburban wins could come from fielding more young professional or new immigrant candidates. 

These should be candidates who can answer real concerns around, say, the struggle of raising a 21st century family, with reliable center-right policy prescriptions, he said.

For example, that means Republicans need to offer their own, free-market plan to provide leave for young families, instead of just saying no and handing Democrats a campaign issue, Coleman offered

Family leave “would be an ideal issue for suburban Republicans to embrace,” he said. 

It could also let GOP candidates contrast their targeted measures against the “cradle to grave” approach favored by some Democrats.

“What suburban voters are not looking for is a restatement of ideology, and that’s what we need to caution against,” Coleman added.

A new working class coalition

Democrats have shown they can win statewide in Pennsylvania, including Gov. Tom Wolf cruising to reelection last year.

But what isn’t clear is if the party can win a state legislative majority without flipping districts in the west — at least until new maps are drawn in 2022.

“You can’t afford to completely alienate” districts outside the southeast,” Joe Corrigan, a Democratic political operative based in Philadelphia. “Our path to a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate is in winning seats in and around Pittsburgh and in and around Dauphin County.”

Corrigan added that fielding progressive candidates who drive up turnout in growing and diverse eastern cities such as Allentown, Reading and Lancaster would also be a sound strategy for statewide Democratic races

Some of the best local results for Democrats west of the Susquehanna River came in Cambria County, home of Johnstown, where Democrats held onto their commissioners majority, as well as in in Centre County, which includes State College.

Map by Nick Field via Dave’s Redistricting

In Allegheny County, Democrats also flipped a county council seat in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs — the same wealthy communities that gave their votes to U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, during his upset 2018 special election win. 

They also backed Democratic state Sen. Pam Iovino in another special victory last April.

To University of Pittsburgh history professor and Western Pennsylvania political observer Lara Putnam, Tuesday’s results represent an endpoint for a very specific group of Democrats — the unionized, blue collar ethnics who joined the party during the New Deal.

But it’s a result that’s been coming for a long time. She pointed out how for the last 30 years — starting with Reagan Democrats — these groups crossed party lines up ballot to back Republicans. 

The allegiance shift moved down the ballot, from president to congress to governor and state House to, now, as Tuesday’s results show, even county elections.

“It doesn’t mean the Democratic party doesn’t have a future as a working class party, but getting there from here is a complicated path,” Putnam told the Capital-Star.

The wins in the Allegheny County suburbs — by Lamb, Iovino, and Tuesday’s Allegheny County council flip — Putnam said, show the early stages of a new sort of Democratic coalition.

She said Democrats should refocus on mobilizing “pink-collar” workers — or unionized, college educated working class professionals like teachers and health care workers.

They might be the children of old union miners or mill workers, and might also live outside the already deep blue urban centers.

These voters, Putnam said, will “be supportive of a candidate not for the ‘D’ by their name but if that candidate can speak to them.”

Combine pink collar workers with the remnants of the New Deal coalition, on top of suburbs and increasingly blue cities, and Putnam said that alliance that can earn Democratic candidates surprise wins in tough races.

Putnam also sees it in Democrat Andy Beshear’s performance against unpopular Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in red Kentucky, which included motivated teachers, some slim victories in coal country, and bluing suburbs.

 In future campaigns, Putnam added, it’ll be up to Democrats to reevaluate who they view as working class — is it just a building trade or steel worker, or do they also include a nurse?

“Tell me who owns the safe staffing issue, and that’s going to be your most electable Democrat,” Putnam said.

Next race up

A new test in the west for Pennsylvania Democrats is coming relatively soon.

Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, the chairwoman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, told the Capital-Star this week that she plans “to compete in every single House seat we can next year.”

That includes obvious targets such as the now-open Bucks County seat created by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo’s jump into county government on Tuesday night.

But it also includes one western district that was home to a blue dog Democrat up until recently.

The 58th House District, now held by Republican Rep. Justin Walsh, in Westmoreland County, includes Monessen.

Walsh won a county judgeship Tuesday, prompting a special election in early 2020.

Walsh won the seat in 2016, after long-serving incumbent Rep. Ted Harhai, a Democrat, retired. Walsh beat his Democratic challenger 62-38 percent. Trump won by a similar margin, according to data from Daily Kos.

In 2018, Walsh won reelection by a near identical margin against the same opponent. Gov. Tom Wolf improved on the results, but still won just under 49 percent of the vote in his reelection romp in 2018 against Republican challenger Scott Wagner.

Special elections can have unusual outcomes — but the race would also likely come in the middle of the 2020 presidential primary, heightening partisan tensions.

It might be a long shot, but Snyder — who’s seen flip after flip of blue to red around her — was happy to hear of the run.

“I think it’s great,” Snyder said. “It’s lonely down here for me.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.