High tide for Re­pub­li­cans in Pa.?

The Phoenix - - OPINION - By G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young Colum­nists

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.

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