High tide for Republicans in Pa.?
Have we seen high tide for Republicans in Pennsylvania?
From the Civil War until the mid-20th century Republicans dominated Pennsylvania politics, gradually giving way to a shared power two-party system by mid twentieth century. But by the early 21st century, Republicans had reestablished control over state politics, coming to control the state Legislature by overwhelming numbers as well as 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 state Legislature, and dominated the state’s congressional delegation, holding three of every four seats. Few if any political parties outside the southern states have enjoyed such a hegemony lasting as long as Pennsylvania’s GOP.
But now the party may be facing long-term decline after some 160 years of party ascendancy.
Evidence for that conclusion is abundant:
• Exhibit A is the recent abysmal record of state Republicans in winning the governorship. Tom Wolf’s 2018 victory now means Democrats have won four of the past five gubernatorial elections. Moreover, Republicans are simply not nominating the caliber of gubernatorial candidates they once did. Both of the last two (Corbett and Wagner) have only faintly resembled earlier GOP icons like Bill Scranton, Dick Thornburgh or Tom Ridge.
• But gubernatorial futility is not the Republican’s sole problem. Closely related is the party’s inability to win Pennsylvania’s “independent” statewide offices: Attorney General, Auditor General and Treasurer. The last Republican to win Attorney General was Tom Corbett in 2008. The last Republican Treasure was Barbara Hafer (2000) who actually left office as a Democrat. The last Republican Auditor General was that same Republican turned Democrat Barbara Hafer in 1997. The GOP’s freeze-out from these offices means the bench for higher state offices is inevitably leaner while the offices themselves, individually and exercise considerable influence over state government policy.
• Equally troubling for state Republicans is their steady erosion of support in the voter rich Philadelphia suburbs. Loss of Republican strength in the suburbs traces back 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 a third or so of all voters 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 adding some three congressional seats to the Democratic column. These suburban votes represent a long-term abandonment of the once solid Republican vote expected from suburban voters.
• Also ominous is the Democratic party’s successful efforts to weaken the iron grip Republicans hold over the state legislature. Democrats flipped some 11 seats in the state House and perhaps five Senate seats, leaving Republicans still in control but battle scarred. Some observers now think Democrats have a chance to win back one or both houses in 2020.
• Last but certainly not least among Republican worries is President Trump’s anemic approval rating in Pennsylvania. Approval rates matter more when the president is also on the ballot as he is expected to be in just two years (2020). If his popularity doesn’t improve heading into 2020, it will be difficult for Republicans to bounce back.
If demographics are destiny, Republicans are in trouble, anchored in a constituency of mostly white, lesser educated, older voters — while support is hemorrhaging 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 showed Democrat Tom Wolf winning a stunning 65% of the female vote while ticket mate Sen. Bob Casey won 63%.
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 is not going to solve the deep problems confronting the GOP. Republicans must do that themselves.