Pennsylvania Democrats Restore Order, But West A Concern
Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey dominated the two statewide elections Tuesday the way Democrats mostly have won statewide elections for more than 15 years.
They relied on a slightly altered version of the method patented by Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor wildly popularly in the southeast, when he won his first race for governor in 2002.
The formula: Win big in the southeast, where a third of the state’s voters live, out west in Allegheny County, the second most Democratic county, and fight as hard as possible elsewhere.
Including Lackawanna, Casey, a Scranton resident, won 15 of the state’s 67 counties and only three others in the northeast, Lehigh, Monroe and Northampton as he drubbed Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta by 12.8 percentage points, the unofficial margin as of Friday afternoon. He also won Allegheny, Beaver, Berks, Bucks, Centre, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia.
Only three — Allegheny, Beaver and Erie — lie west of State College, meaning Republicans continue to dominate western Pennsylvania counties where Democrats still have registration advantages.
Wolf won the same counties but added Cumberland and Luzerne, where Barletta lives, in walloping Republican former state Sen. Scott Wagner by an even larger margin, 16.8 percentage points.
“It’s a formula that is mathematically powerful,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College. “It’s the population centers of the state and in the case of the southeast — and to a degree Allegheny County — some of the growing areas of the state, especially the southeast. To dominate in those areas, it’s pretty much game over. You need something along the line of what Trump did in 2016 — just exceptional turnout and overwhelming margins in every place else to just get an extremely close win.”
Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes, or about three-quarters of a percentage point.
Borick said he’s unsure Trump can duplicate that performance when he runs for re-election in 2020.
In beating Republican state Attorney General Mike Fisher in 2002, Rendell won 18 counties, dominating in the southeast — Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — and tacking on Lackawanna, Luzerne, Carbon, Schuylkill, Berks, Lehigh and Northampton plus six counties in the west: Allegheny, Beaver, Greene, Lawrence, Mercer and Washington.
That’s a big difference between Rendell’s first race and Casey and Wolf this week. Rendell couldn’t win Erie in 2002 like Wolf and Casey did, but they couldn’t win anywhere else in the west but Allegheny and Beaver.
In 2006, when he beat Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum to win his seat, Casey won 34 counties, including 17 in the west.
The western counties have repeatedly trended Republican as Democrats turned their electoral attention east. Casey used to worry about it, but it hasn’t hurt him.
Casey and other statewide Democratic candidates have kept winning, even without what were once traditional Democratic strongholds out west.
When Republicans win state races — Tom Corbett for governor in 2010, Sen. Pat Toomey in 2010 and 2016 — they win by holding their counties and picking off some of the Democrats’ eastern strongholds.
In 2010, Corbett clobbered Democratic candidate Dan Onorato, who won only four counties and lost Chester, Bucks, Lehigh, Northampton and Allegheny, even though he was Allegheny’s county executive. Corbett also lives in Allegheny County.
In 2010, Toomey first won his seat over Democrat Joe Sestak by winning Bucks, and eastern counties like Lehigh, where he lives, Northampton next door, Carbon and Monroe. In 2016, Toomey, with Trump’s help, won Bucks again as well as Chester, Northampton, Carbon and Luzerne. Clinton won Philadelphia and its four suburban counties, but lost Northampton, Carbon and Luzerne and didn’t win anywhere but Allegheny in the west.
Casey said he doesn’t think Democrats can keep winning just by relying on the current formula.
“I think we have to continue to solidify our vote in urban and suburban communities, but you have to keep working those counties that have been voting Republican because sometimes it takes a lot of work just to keep them where they are,” he said.
For incumbents, that means working the counties in non-election years.
Since Trump’s election, Casey said he has visited all 67 counties once and 58 counties at least twice.
“You just have to keep doing that and keep talking about issues they’re struggling with, whether it’s wages or rural broadband or the opioid crisis,” he said. “Our vote in ’18 was better in Westmoreland County, for example.”
In 2012, Casey lost the county to the late Republican Tom Smith by more than 15 points. This week, he lost there by only about 10.6 points.
Nonetheless, the key for Democrats remains in the cities and suburbs, a nationwide trend.
In 2012, Casey beat Smith in the four Philadelphia suburban counties by 12.8 points. This week, he won them by 24.7 points. He won Allegheny, where Pittsburgh is, by more than 20 points in 2012, and by 33 points this year. The huge turnout helped.
“People were voting like it was a presidential year,” he said.
Casey doesn’t think Democrats will make much progress in 2020 attracting Republican-leaning Democrats because Trump will be on the ballot, but he thinks Trump should worry about holding on to Pennsylvania.
“If I were Donald Trump, I would be very worried about the Philadelphia suburban vote and their turnout as well as Allegheny,” Casey said.
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