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Election Aggravates Republican Woes In State

December 2, 2018

Election Aggravates Republican Woes In State

From the Civil War until the mid-20th century Republicans dominated Pennsylvania politics, gradually giving way to a shared power two-party system. By the early 21st century Republicans had re-established state political dominance, controlling the state Legislature by overwhelming numbers and the state’s congressional delegation. As recently as four years ago, the GOP controlled the governor’s office, maintained unchallenged control of both houses of the Legislature and dominated the congressional delegation, holding three of every four seats. Few political parties outside the south have enjoyed such a hegemony lasting as long as Pennsylvania’s GOP. But now the party may face long-term decline after some 160 years of party ascendancy. Evidence for that is abundant: Exhibit A is the recent abysmal record of state Republicans in gubernatorial races. Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2018 victory means Democrats have won four of the past five gubernatorial elections. Moreover, Republicans simply do not nominate the caliber of gubernatorial candidates they once did. Both of the last two, former Gov. Tom Corbett and Scott Wagner, the 2018 Republican nominee for governor, only faintly resemble earlier GOP icons like Bill Scranton, Dick Thornburgh or Tom Ridge. Wagner in particular was an inept nominee and raised questions about the party’s ability to recruit the kind of candidates who used to win gubernatorial elections regularly despite large Republican registration deficits. But gubernatorial futility is not the Republicans’ sole problem. Closely related is the party’s inability to win other statewide offices: attorney general, auditor general and treasurer. The last Republican attorney general candidate to win was Tom Corbett in 1999. The last Republican treasurer was Barbara Hafer in 1997, who actually left office as a Democrat. The last Republican auditor general was that same Republican-turned-Democrat Hafer in 1999. Before her no Republican had held the office since Charles Smith in 1957. The GOP’s virtual freeze out from these offices means the Republican bench for higher state offices is inevitably leaner and the offices themselves exercise considerable influence over state government policy. Equally troubling for Republicans is their steady erosion of support in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs. Loss of Republican strength in the suburbs traces to former Gov. Ed Rendell (2003-2011), a popular former Philadelphia mayor. But the carnage in the suburbs has accelerated under President Trump. This year the Philly suburbs comprising about one-third of all voters in the state gave Democrat Tom Wolf an astounding 320,000 more votes than his opponent. In the wider election, suburban voters flipped some 12 state House seats and four state Senate seats from Republican to Democrat, while probably adding three congressional seats to the Democratic column. These suburban votes represent a long-term abandonment of once-solid Republican support among suburban voters. Also ominous is the Democratic Party’s successful efforts to weaken the iron Republican grip over the Legislature. Party strength changes at a glacial pace in the General Assembly where incumbent re-election rates can run 95 percent. But Republicans in 2018 struggled to maintain their majorities. Altogether, Democrats flipped some 11 seats in the state House and perhaps five Senate seats, leaving Republicans still in control but battle scared. Some observers think Democrats have a chance to win back one or both houses in 2020. Certainly not least among Republican worries is Trump’s anemic approval rating in Pennsylvania. Real Clear Polities reports his average national approval rate at a mere 43.8 percent. Approval rates matter more when the president is also on the ballot as he is expected to be in 2020. Trump has time to raise his approval both in Pennsylvania and nationally. But if his popularity doesn’t improve heading into 2020, it will be difficult for Republicans to bounce back. So, have we seen high water for a once-dominant party now showing cracks in a façade of invulnerability? If demographics are destiny, Republicans are in trouble, anchored in a constituency of mostly white, less-educated, older voters — while support hemorrhages among women, minorities, more educated, younger and suburban voters. Women voters are an especially acute problem for Republicans with exit polls from the recent gubernatorial election showing Democrat Tom Wolf winning a stunning 65 percent of the female vote while ticket mate Sen. Bob Casey won 63 percent. But, betting against a party that has made an art form of reinventing itself may be a bad bet. Certainly, Pennsylvania Democrats have regularly demonstrated their talent for rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory. Hoping for Democrat ineptness, however, will not solve the deep problems confronting the GOP. Republicans must do that themselves.

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