Flashes of Blue in Historically Red South-Central PA

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In South Central Pennsylvania, Republican extremism and Democratic voter registration gains could sweep Democrats into regional relevance for the first time in decades.

While Republicans have made registration gains statewide in recent years, they still trail Democrats by about half a million voters and the critical South Central region — specifically Dauphin and Cumberland Counties — is evidently bucking the trend.

Republicans lost the registration majority in Cumberland County, the fastest-growing county in the state, in 2019 for the first time since 1964; the total of Democrats and Independents or third-party registrants now exceeds Republicans.  From 1998 to 2022, Democrats cut into the Republican registration advantage there by about 20 percent. Over that same period, Republicans went from a nearly 25,000-voter advantage to a 12,000-voter deficit in neighboring Dauphin County. The 2020 legislative redistricting process yielded several new Pennsylvania State House seats that now lean Democratic.

Republican election performance in statewide races in this region lags further behind the party’s dwindling registration advantage here. In 2016, Donald Trump won Cumberland County by 22,000 votes. In 2020, his winning margin shrunk to less than 15,000. Across the river, Dauphin County went from Hillary Clinton +4,000 to Joe Biden +12,000.

Anti-Trump sentiment may account for some of the registration and performance numbers since 2016 but can’t explain the local elections being won by Democrats in municipalities where it was difficult to find a Democrat even a decade ago. That progressive growth began before Trump and continued after as voters prioritize progressive issues like reproductive rights.

Democrats are, consequently, building strong candidate benches on the west shore of the Susquehanna River, which splits Cumberland County on the West and Dauphin County on the East. In 2014, the Borough Council in Carlisle, the Cumberland County seat, had a party breakdown of five Republicans to two Democrats; in 2016, it was four Democrats to three Republicans, and in 2018, five Democrats to two Republicans. Today, it is 7-0 Democrats.

Camp Hill Borough, a Western suburb of Harrisburg, did not have a Democratic member of its council until 2011. Today, its council is 6-1 Democratic (and all-female).

A mile south of Camp Hill, New Cumberland Borough’s top 2021 vote-getter in the municipal race was a Democrat.

That’s merely a sampling of municipal elections, but it clearly shows that the fast population growth in Cumberland County has not been to Republican advantage. This is a moderate, suburban, and rural region that has been moving toward the political center as the Republican Party has raced rightward – the party nominated a man often labelled as a Christian nationalist for governor and the Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation this year that could lead to a constitutional-amendment eviscerating state protections for abortion. A similar abortion proposal recently failed on the Kansas ballot by a 20-point margin.

Instead of trying to appeal to a broader electorate, the right has reinforced its unpopular positions on social issues and nominated hard-liners. Pennsylvanian voters have noticed. The historical data from the past 10 years should be concerning for Republicans, but the worst is yet to come. Of voters registered since June, 56 percent are women, and they’re registering 62 percent Democrat to just 15 percent Republican; the majority are under age 25. This chasm is striking.

The gender and age divide in recent registration shows that the Republican platform does not appeal to many new voters, and reproductive rights have the potential to be the straw that breaks the elephant’s back in burgeoning swing areas like Dauphin and Cumberland Counties. Franklin & Marshall polling shows 84 percent of Pennsylvanians believe abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances.

Statewide, Republican wins are possible only when the party racks up huge wins in rural regions to offset its enormous deficits in more populous counties – but as the GOP’s South Central firewall crumbles, it will likely face increasingly uphill battles in the years to come.

This November, look for flashes of blue in the historically red swath in South Central Pennsylvania.

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