The Challenges Facing Pennsylvania Democrats

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In what many predicted would be a horrific midterm election, the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania instead enjoyed a blue wave. Democrats won over some non-MAGA Republicans, convinced young voters to support them, flipped a U.S. Senate seat, and seized control over the state House of Representatives.

The party narrowed its losses in rural and white counties, where population is declining, and won a majority or at least a larger share in the East and South, where population is growing. After the giddiness fades, party leaders will surely wonder about how durable their majority is. Did voters support Democrats and their priorities – or, equally likely, did they repudiate a Republican Party that increasingly embraces MAGA and Christian nationalism?

Democrats defined themselves as supporters of Roe v. Wade, and women and younger voters showed just how important that issue was to them. It is likely that a post-Roe world tilts the electoral field toward Democrats, at least somewhat. But Pennsylvania confronts a host of other serious challenges, from aging infrastructure to climate change and housing costs. Most of these issues will prove difficult to resolve. Moreover, the state’s politicians have earned a reputation for corruption, with ten Democratic members of the state House going to jail in the last ten years. Voters deserve lawmakers who can resist the pull of self-interest.

In the governor’s race, Democratic state attorney general Josh Shapiro won a resounding victory, defeating state Sen. Doug Mastriano with 56.5% of the vote. Pennsylvania had not awarded the same party with control of the executive branch for three terms in a row since World War II. Shapiro obtained a majority even in conservative counties in the South and East – Berks, Cumberland, and Monroe – where Democrats remain in the minority but have been growing in strength. And Democrats almost prevailed in Lancaster County, too.

To some degree, this strong Democratic performance owed to the massive difference in resources between the campaigns. Going into the election, Shapiro had more than $25 million to spend; Mastriano had an eighth of that. Shapiro successfully painted Mastriano as an extremist, with many of his ads featuring his opponent speaking on abortion, democracy, and the 2020 election. The attorney general also won numerous endorsements from Republican dignitaries, including former governor Tom Ridge, many of whom worried that Mastriano was a threat to the rule of law.

In the U.S. Senate race, Democratic candidate John Fetterman won 51% of the vote versus Republican Mehmet Oz’s 45%. The Democrat won many Eastern Pennsylvania counties (Monroe, Northampton), possibly helped by a growing number of New York and New Jersey residents attracted to cheaper housing there. Fetterman did well, for a Democrat, in places like Berks and Cumberland Counties, winning 46% of the vote.

Democrats won 12 seats in the state House, resulting in a one-seat majority. Some of the races were decided by a handful of votes. Democrats gained ground in suburban Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as around other smaller cities such as Lancaster, Reading, and Allentown. These results make clear why the GOP fought so hard to retain control over drawing or gerrymandering the districts.

Democratic control in the state House will block Republicans from proposing new constitutional amendments. Such proposals do not require the governor’s signature and typically occur during primary elections, when the electorate is older and whiter – and more favorable to Republican initiatives.

For a Democrat, Josh Shapiro is relatively conservative. It remains to be seen whether a divided legislature can pass bills that might legalize marijuana, resolve problems with the state’s election laws, or impose limits on the legislature’s ability to accept gifts. Democrats will likely want to raise revenue for schools and higher education, which will face opposition from the GOP-led state Senate. Yet many state budgets come down to negotiations with the governor, the state Senate majority leader, and the state House Speaker. Democrats will have two seats at that table.

Democrats believe that some other issues, such as raising the minimum wage, could win voter support in 2024. How disciplined Democrats prove on solving problems, in a state with numerous moderate and conservative voters, will likely determine how lasting their power will be.

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