In Penn­syl­va­nia, Democrats have a road map for how to beat Trump in 2020

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - PAUL KANE [email protected]­post.com

With blowout races for se­na­tor and gov­er­nor, Penn­syl­va­nia re­ceived much less at­ten­tion in the re­cent midterms than the pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­ground usu­ally gets dur­ing hard-fought cam­paigns.

Most of its races for the House were set­tled well in ad­vance of Elec­tion Day, thanks to a court­drawn map more fa­vor­able to Democrats.

But that’s about to change now that the po­lit­i­cal cal­en­dar is turn­ing to­ward the pres­i­den­tial season, par­tic­u­larly be­cause Pres­i­dent Trump’s big­gest 2016 up­set took a very sharp turn this year away from Repub­li­cans.

Look at Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.’s more than 13-per­cent­age­point vic­tory last month, only to be topped by Gov. Tom Wolf’s 17point re­elec­tion win. Those Democrats torched the four sub­ur­ban coun­ties sur­round­ing Philadel­phia and Al­legheny County, home to Pitts­burgh and its in­ner sub­urbs, by mar­gins never be­fore seen.

Take Ch­ester County, the wealth­i­est in Penn­syl­va­nia, due west of Philadel­phia. Hil­lary Clin­ton broke through the tra­di­tional GOP strong­hold in 2016, win­ning by 9 per­cent­age points over Trump. Casey won there by 20 per­cent­age points.

“You can’t at­tribute that just to a ver­dict on me,” Casey said in an in­ter­view inside his Se­nate of­fice, giv­ing Trump’s un­pop­u­lar­ity much of the credit.

Wolf won there by 24 per­cent­age points, ac­tu­ally top­ping Clin­ton’s raw vote to­tal in Ch­ester County from the higher-turnout 2016 race. “A ton of Repub­li­cans were vot­ing for a Demo­cratic can­di­date for the Se­nate and gov­er­nor,” Casey said.

Th­ese re­sults will make Penn­syl­va­nia, and its 20 elec­toral votes, the top tar­get for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2020.

Michi­gan, with 16 elec­toral votes, also saw a sharp swing away from Repub­li­cans. Democrats there won gov­er­nor and Se­nate races by com­fort­able mar­gins, though not quite as big as in Penn­syl­va­nia, while pick­ing up a few House seats.

If the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee wins those two states, Trump’s elec­toral to­tal would drop to 270 based on states he won in 2016.

That would leave him not one elec­toral vote to spare as Democrats would also fight to win back Florida, Wis­con­sin, Iowa, North Carolina and pos­si­bly Ohio. At this point, Min­ne­sota ap­pears to be Trump’s only new of­fen­sive tar­get for 2020.

Repub­li­cans in Penn­syl­va­nia are quick to cau­tion against any re­treat, par­tic­u­larly if Democrats nom­i­nate some­one whom ru­ral vot­ers view as a cul­tural elit­ist.

In those Philadel­phia sub­ur­ban coun­ties, Clin­ton topped Barack Obama’s mar­gin in his vic­to­ri­ous 2012 bid in Penn­syl­va­nia — but she was crushed in ru­ral coun­ties.

Clin­ton lost Cam­bria County, an­chored by John­stown, the one­time Demo­cratic-lean­ing steel city, by 38 per­cent­age points. She lost by twice as many votes as Obama had done in Cam­bria four years ear­lier, a shift repli­cated enough in other ru­ral coun­ties that added up to her 44,000-vote de­feat.

“That sce­nario can hap­pen again,” Christo­pher Ni­cholas, a Repub­li­can con­sul­tant in Har­ris­burg, said Fri­day.

Still, Ni­cholas rec­og­nized that this year pro­vided a fore­warn­ing. He ran ad cam­paigns for sev­eral state leg­isla­tive Repub­li­cans out­side Philadel­phia — pop­u­lar in­cum­bents who had eas­ily won in re­cent elec­tions only to lose in Novem­ber to un­known Democrats.

“Half their vote was from peo­ple who had never heard of them,” Ni­cholas said of the Demo­cratic can­di­dates in the sub­urbs.

The broader prob­lem was spelled out by G. Terry Madonna, who runs the Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics and Pub­lic Af­fairs at Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege, and Michael L. Young in a memo lay­ing bare the Repub­li­can strug­gles:

* Democrats have won four of the past five gov­er­nor’s races, each by more than 9 per­cent­age points;

* Repub­li­cans lost 11 seats in the state House and five in the state Se­nate, cre­at­ing the chance for Demo­cratic ma­jori­ties af­ter 2020;

* Repub­li­cans per­formed even worse in down-bal­lot statewide con­tests: They have lost six straight races for state au­di­tor, four straight for state trea­surer and two straight for at­tor­ney gen­eral.

“The prob­lem now is Repub­li­cans don’t have a bench,” Madonna said in an in­ter­view.

He said he ques­tioned whether 2016 might have been an ir­reg­u­lar blip on the state’s po­lit­i­cal march to­ward Democrats.

Of eight statewide races in the past three elec­tions, Repub­li­cans won just two — Trump and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R), both in 2016.

Two Penn­syl­va­nia Democrats, state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Joshua Shapiro and Trea­surer Joseph Torsella, ac­tu­ally re­ceived more votes than Trump two years ago.

The un­com­fort­able ques­tion for Penn­syl­va­nia Democrats is, what do their six statewide win­ners in 2014, 2016 and 2018 have in com­mon? All were white men. Clin­ton and Katie McGinty, Toomey’s op­po­nent, were the lone Democrats de­feated.

“Isn’t that a male-fe­male story? It was on that day,” Casey said. “But I’m not con­vinced yet that it would be, if you had an­other woman run­ning for pres­i­dent, an­other woman run­ning for the Se­nate. I’m not con­vinced that would be the case. There was some­thing about that mo­ment and those can­di­dates.”

This year, Demo­cratic women claimed four House seats, the first time Penn­syl­va­nia will ever send more than two women to Con­gress.

Casey be­lieves a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, man or woman, can keep Trump’s mar­gin down in the ru­ral towns if they fol­low the Wolf-Casey ap­proach.

“Get there phys­i­cally, lis­ten to them, show up and give a damn,” he said.

His first ad, run heav­ily in the western part of the state, showed coal min­ers talk­ing about Casey’s leg­is­la­tion to help with their health ben­e­fits. A sec­ond ad showed a mother talk­ing about the opi­oid epi­demic in that part of the state.

Clin­ton de­voted out­sized at­ten­tion to Penn­syl­va­nia, in­clud­ing an epic elec­tion eve rally out­side Philadel­phia’s In­de­pen­dence Hall with Bruce Spring­steen, Katy Perry and the Oba­mas.

But her cam­paign fo­cused heav­ily on lib­eral cul­tural is­sues, run­ning ads that ques­tioned Trump’s fit­ness for of­fice. She re­ceived just 26 per­cent of the vote in the ru­ral ar­eas and small towns, ac­cord­ing to exit polls.

Last month, Casey re­ceived 44 per­cent of that same re­gion’s vote.

That came de­spite an ide­o­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion in which he aban­doned the cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive views of his late fa­ther, for­mer gov­er­nor Robert Casey Sr.: The son now sup­ports most gun-con­trol pro­pos­als and in 2013 backed same-sex mar­riage.

His mes­sage for 2020 con­tenders is to fol­low that same path. The nom­i­nee will not aban­don Penn­syl­va­nia’s ur­ban or sub­ur­ban vot­ers, the new Demo­cratic base. He or she does not need to win a ma­jor­ity in small ru­ral towns, but must do bet­ter than Clin­ton.

“You can do bet­ter than what­ever we’ve been get­ting there,” Casey said.

“Get there phys­i­cally, lis­ten to them, show up and give a damn.” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., on how the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee can win ru­ral ar­eas in Penn­syl­va­nia

JAKE DANNA STEVENS/TIMES-TRI­BUNE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) won re­elec­tion by more than 13 per­cent­age points last month. The promis­ing midterm re­sults make the bat­tle­ground state a top tar­get for Democrats in the next elec­tion.

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