Pennsylvania's Elections Tell Us How Worried Republicans Nationwide Should Be

Salena Zito
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Posted: Nov 14, 2017 2:10 PM
Pennsylvania's Elections Tell Us How Worried Republicans Nationwide Should Be

YORK, Pa. -- In York's mayoral race last week, a convicted felon-turned-environmental activist who's registered as a Democrat but running as a Republican defeated the black female Democratic incumbent.

And he did it with a local coalition of Bernie Sanders and Republican supporters, as well as a breakdown of trust in the leadership of the incumbent mayor.

This was perhaps the Keystone State's most eye-catching result. But more broadly, Pennsylvania's off-year election results are worth examining in order to take the voters' temperature, as we're one year out from President Donald Trump's historic win here that few predicted, and one year away from the 2018 midterm elections.

Why is Pennsylvania important? Well, because what is brewing here serves as a microcosm of what is brewing across the country. If Republican House candidates, who hold a 13-5 majority in the congressional delegation, are starting to lose favor with voters here, then nationally, the Democrats are on their way to a celebratory election night one year from now. In short, the path to the House majority in Congress runs straight across Pennsylvania.

But this is also a place with indicators of how state legislatures across the country -- those key down-ballot seats that Republicans have been winning for nearly a decade -- will shape up, as well as the Trump coalition.

Democrats won some key local races in the environs of Philadelphia and its suburbs -- some of which broke historic records. Those wins were affected by local issues like building a new school in Lancaster, but Republicans nonetheless found themselves on the wrong side of voter sentiment.

Wisdom dictates to a political party's psyche that you never dismiss local election results having a direct impact on larger races; if you aren't in touch on the most local level, that's going to affect state House and Senate seats, as well as congressional races.

Truth be told, if a wave is coming, you are going to get swept away by it if your party has lost favor nationally, even if you do everything else right.

Statewide, Democrats suffered a marquee loss here in the Supreme Court race when former Pittsburgh Steeler Dwayne Woodruff lost to Republican Justice Sallie Mundy.

They were also on the losing side in spirit, with a statewide referendum on whether local taxing authorities should be able to exempt residents from paying property taxes on their homes. That anti-tax sentiment is a good sign for Republicans.

Democrats were really energized in local races in the Philadelphia collar counties. Candidates ran solid campaigns with good local messaging -- a move that was very reflective of the gains that Republicans made in 2009 with a similar local emphasis.

Simply put, when candidates focus on policies that impact localities and accomplishments, not culture wars, they win elections. One place Democrats did use an anti-Trump sentiment to win was in a Delaware County Council election, where they won two seats for the first time in history. Campaign signs that read "Vote Nov 7th Against Trump" and "Vote Nov 7th: Bring Sanity Back" littered the leafy suburban neighborhoods ahead of the race.

But that is not very much of an indicator that this was a breakdown of the Trump coalition; Delaware County went strong for Hillary Clinton in 2016, giving her nearly 60 percent of its support, and those two county council races were razor thin.

So, is it time for the GOP to panic? Have the big Republican local majorities in Pennsylvania overstayed their welcome? Become complacent? Been damaged by Trump? Become angered that the Republican Congress has gotten nothing done?

All of those things are very possible but should not be overstated. The Philly suburbs may just be continuing their blue trend. And historically, the party that holds the White House tends to do poorly in the midterms.

To flip this state blue down-ballot next year, Democrats need to offer a tangible economic benefit that outweighs Trump's successes on the economy. So forget the free stuff and the higher minimum wage, and show the voters you have a way to increase wages through job growth and competition.

Democrats also have some serious image problems in this state. They are still fractured between the progressives and the more moderate voices in the Party.

They also keep electing people who have serious legal problems, such as Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who won a fourth term in last Tuesday's election despite facing a 54-count federal indictment for corruption.

Republicans here should take a deep breath. No, there wasn't a big anti-Trump backlash here, but the shenanigans in the state capitol, where they hold a supermajority in the Senate and a comfortable majority in the state House, is wearing on voters.

The same goes for the GOP congressional delegation; it is easy to imagine congressional seats in Bucks, Chester and the Lehigh Valley becoming very vulnerable in six months if Congress doesn't accomplish something.

And if there are signs that is happening here, then it's also happening in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. As those state delegations go, so goes the country.