Keystone omens for America
5 things to watch as Pennsylvania’s 2022 elections unfold
I grew up in Pennsylvania, where my formative experiences with politics and policy began starting more than forty years ago. My interest in politics continued into my years as an undergraduate at Villanova University, where I took a class on campaigns and elections taught by Jim Brown, then-chief of staff to Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, a centrist Democrat whose son has represented the state in the U.S. Senate for the past decade and a half.
Portents from the past
One event that cemented my lifelong interest in politics was the November 1991 special election for U.S. Senate between Republican Dick Thornburgh and Democrat Harris Wofford, who had been appointed to the seat by Casey after the incumbent Republican Senator John Heinz died in a plane crash earlier that year. That 1991 special election was a harbinger of things to come at a national level.
Wofford entered the campaign at a severe disadvantage to Thornburgh, an establishment Republican who had served two terms as governor from 1979 to 1987 and was President George H. Bush’s Attorney General in the three years before the special election in Pennsylvania. Just three months before the election, one poll had Thornburgh with a 44-point lead over Wofford. In the span of a few weeks, however, he blew that lead, and Wofford won the race by more than 10 points – an amazing turn of events.
This 1991 special election in Pennsylvania was important for three main reasons:
1. It shows how just a few months is a lifetime in politics.
2. The victor ran on a forward-looking, populist agenda that sought to build coalitions (rather than fragment them) centered on the issues of health care and good paying jobs, and he painted his opponent as the establishment figure that he was.
3. It offered a preview of coming attractions at the national level, where an unknown Democratic southern governor named Bill Clinton would use a similar template and some of the same campaign advisors to challenge a Republican incumbent who had a job approval rating above 80% after the 1991 victory in the Gulf war.
Back to the present
This brief trip down memory lane continues to have relevance to America’s politics more than three decades later. Pennsylvania often serves as a barometer of what’s happening more broadly in America, in part because the state is positioned at a crossroads politically and demographically.
It’s a swing state that can go in different, often surprising directions that doesn’t neatly fit into the “red” or “blue” columns. The last 10 of 12 presidents won in Pennsylvania – the state voted for the Democratic candidates in 2000 and 2008 over George W. Bush, and Donald Trump won in 2016 after Barack Obama’s two victories and before Trump lost to Joe Biden in 2020.
One thing that makes the state interesting this year is that two key incumbents, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, are leaving office, and the contest to replace them is wide open in both parties. How things shake out parties between now and the May primaries will send important signals about the overall direction of both parties.
It’s still early in the game for the 2022 midterms and a lot can happen in 10 months. But the picture that’s emerging in Pennsylvania politics that I hear about during regular visits and in conversations with friends and family who live there offers some important insights about broader national politics in 2022 and beyond.
The leading issues in the state
The twin crises of the pandemic and the economy still feature prominently in the state’s debate, but there’s a strong anti-incumbency wind blowing this year. Important energy questions linked to fracking and education issues also are in the mix.
In the past year, there were some disturbing incidents and violent and anti-Semitic threats against school boards, but the debate about how to respond to these threats motivated the Pennsylvania School Boards Association to vote unanimously to withdraw from its national counterpart last year.
A lot can shift in a short period of time, as the 1991 special election shows, but a poll conducted by Franklin and Marshall College last fall offered an early snapshot of what was on the minds of registered voters in Pennsylvania and how they are viewing the issues:
The top two concerns were government and politicians (20%) and unemployment and personal finances (17%). COVID-19, civil liberties, and the economy came in tied for third at (7%).
President Biden’s job approval in Pennsylvania dropped in the second half of 2021, from 44% in June to 32% in October.
About 4 in 10 voters say Biden’s job performance has changed in the months before the survey, and nearly all of them (90%) say he’s performing worse. The main reasons those who say Biden is doing worse are the Afghanistan withdrawal (31%), the border crisis and immigration (15%), the economy and inflation (15%), and COVID-19 (14%).
Five dynamics to watch in Keystone State politics
1. Republicans: To Trump or not to Trump, that is the question
More than a dozen candidates are seeking the Republican nomination for governor and the field is even larger in the U.S. Senate. At this early stage in the process, it’s hard to make sense of who might come out on top.
Pennsylvania has a closed primary system, which means only registered party members can participate in their party’s primary election. According to state election rules, the winner of the primary election is the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes, so a candidate doesn’t need to win an outright majority.
The most interesting dynamic to watch is in the U.S. Senate fight. The Republican field includes television personality and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and Carla Sands, a former ambassador to Denmark. David McCormick, a former Bush administration official and hedge fund financier, is expected to throw his hat into the ring.
Their debates will be shaped by a wide range of issues, but the overarching question is one the GOP faces as a whole – how to deal with the enduring influence and shadow of Donald Trump. Many will simply seek to “pull a Youngkin,” using the triangulating template that Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin employed to defeat a Democratic opponent who didn’t have much of a game plan beyond anti-Trumpism.
Leading Republicans already in the Senate race recently refused to say if they would have supported an effort by some state Republicans to overturn the 2020 elections, something the current Republican incumbent Pat Toomey opposed. Most are trying to figure out how to position themselves within the context of the current Republican Party, and no candidate has emerged with a clear signature issue or proposal for addressing the challenges on the minds of voters.
2. Democrats: Will a moderate or a progressive have the best plan to build a coalition to win both the primary and general elections?
The primary field for Democrats doesn’t have as many candidates as the Republicans for the governorship or the Senate. The current Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro is the only candidate for governor, and he’s looking for ways to energize the Democratic base and expand support by finding a lieutenant governor who can bring things to the ticket that he doesn’t have personally.
The Senate nomination contest is shaping up to be an interesting test of whether the Democrats will choose a progressive or moderate approach. In the mix are the current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, Philadelphia state representative Malcom Kenyatta, U.S. Congressman Conor Lamb, and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh.
John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor, commands a big lead in early polls, and some analysts have started to frame this race as another fight between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, with Congressman Lamb as the moderate. It’s still too early to tell what may transpire, but State Representative Kenyatta would make history if he secured the nomination by becoming the first Black and openly gay candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania.
The Fetterman versus Lamb dynamic is already framing the early stage of the contest – both men are from Western Pennsylvania representing two different factions of the party. The key thing to watch is what the candidates do to build actual coalitions and support.
Over the past four years, many candidates on the left made the mistake of getting high on their own supply and believing what Twitter and advocacy groups said online would somehow magically translate into votes, and lost. Watch for more moves like the recent step by Lamb to reinforce and build support among trade unions - and other steps to connect with the groups and concerns of voters.
3. Watch the results and trends in the state legislature – it matters in the long run.
The Republican Party has control of both State houses, and Democrats haven’t been able to pick the lock on winning either house for more than a decade. That reflects a broader failure of the Democratic Party across the country – failing to invest in down ballot races.
This shortcoming has direct implications for Democrats over time. As David Brooks notes today in his New York Times column
“…the real problem is that Democrats are not focusing on crucial state and local arenas. The Times’s Charles Homans had a fascinating report from Pennsylvania, where Trump backers were running for local office, including judge of elections, while Democrats struggled to even find candidates. “I’m not sure what the Democratic Party was worried about, but it didn’t feel like they were worried about school board and judge of elections races — all of these little positions,” a failed Democratic candidate said.”
Again, it’s still too early to tell what might happen in the state legislature races, but it seems unlikely that Democrats will break their losing streak this year.
One other thing to monitor: the redistricting that’s underway. How the lines are redrawn will have implications for the long-term prospects for both parties. These maps will be debated and contested, including in the courts and impact how the parties seek to win support.
4. Ongoing challenges to the legitimacy of election processes
Some Republican state lawmakers are forging ahead with an election review of 2020, something they call a “forensic audit.” They are continuing to do this despite no strong evidence of fraud from 2020. Most voters in the state (55%) oppose these efforts, with 42% supporting the review, according to the most recent F&M poll, reflecting mostly the partisan splits.
The reason this effort is important to watch this isn’t because anyone truly believes the 2020 election results will be overturned. Rather, the effort may end up undermining already weak trust and confidence in elections, and this could present legitimacy challenges for the 2022 elections and beyond.
5. Shifts in voting attitudes among key voter groups such as Latinos and Asians
Politics isn’t static and the assumptions used by strategists and analysts sometimes lag behind reality.
In Pennsylvania, watch how attitudes are shifting among key blocs of voters and examine why those shifts are occurring. The Wall Street Journal recently took a look at why Latino voters in Reading have been shifting towards the Republican Party, mainly based on concerns about the economy and cultural fights.
A friend of mine in Pennsylvania often reminds me of the assumptions Democrats made about Italian Americans and Catholic Americans and their strong political support and how that shifted over time – an important reminder about the need to appreciate the diversity within different groups and constantly listen to their concerns rather than push ideas that are not in sync with them.
Keep an eye on the keystone
Pennsylvania is just two hours away from Washington D.C. and its voters watch what happens and doesn’t happen in the Beltway to see how it will impact their lives. A year into Biden’s presidency, most don’t like what they see. The contours of a change election are moving into place for the 2022 midterms.
For Republicans, a key question is whether to maintain the tacit devil’s bargain that many have made with Trumpism – will it pay off electorally? It remains unclear in such a wildcard state, and even if candidates win office hewing closely to Trumpism, what sort of country would they be governing?
For Democrats, a key question is what they stand for and how to build the strongest and most effective coalition to win power and get things done. The lesson from Trump’s 2016 razor thin victory after the state voted for Obama two times is that Republicans could well have a clean sweep in the key races up for grabs in 2022.
President Biden has a lot on his plate as he turns the corner into his second year. But if he wants to have any chance of getting meaningful things done in the third and fourth years of his presidency, Biden will need to look back to his roots in Pennsylvania where he was born and raised and invest some time in shaping politics there in 2022.