Pennsylvania Republicans Must Solve the Suburban Puzzle
Political pundits rate Pennsylvania among the swing states. Reviewing the Keystone map, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are overwhelmingly Democratic strongholds. Rural Pennsylvania – what political pundits call the “T” – has always been Republican and now has gone super-red. So, the critical battle concerns Philadelphia’s suburbs, with about 22% of the state’s registered voters, and higher turnout than other areas.
Since 1980, Pennsylvania’s population has grown only 7%. Suburban Philadelphia is one of Pennsylvania’s few growing regions – as in Chester County, where the population has grown 68% since 1980. By contrast, rural Pennsylvania is mostly shrinking.
Until recently, suburban Philadelphia had long been a stronghold for the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. Chester County voted for GOP presidential candidates until Barack Obama in 2008 and gubernatorial candidates through 2010. The firewall had just about disintegrated by 2016, though Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey did manage to carry Chester County that year. Today, of the 43 state representatives from Philadelphia’s suburbs, only 9 are Republicans. This led to the first Democratic House Speaker since 2010 and only the second Democratic majority in thirty years.
Pennsylvania’s swing-state status largely owes to Donald Trump and Toomey’s victories in 2016 and Trump’s razor’s-edge loss in 2020, coupled with the victories of a GOP state treasurer and auditor general. But these results were obtained with historic margins in rural Pennsylvania – where communities continue to lose population, and where future candidates will struggle to match Trump’s levels of support. The 2022 U.S. Senate race showed that marginal reductions in Republican success in rural counties as compared to 2020 – e.g., winning by 41%, instead of 44% – almost guarantee GOP defeat statewide.
In short, Republicans have won the hearts of Pennsylvania’s shrinking communities, while falling further behind among voters in the growing communities. Though Republicans’ suburban problem is most grave in Greater Philadelphia, the party also faces early-warning signs in adjoining south-central Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg-York-Lancaster corridor. This is obviously not a formula for future success. Finding a solution to this electoral problem is essential to a rebirth of the GOP in Pennsylvania, and in states with growing suburban populations, such as Georgia and North Carolina.
Nationally, some GOP candidates have won or at least grown their support in the suburbs –consider Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Virginia or Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida. Meanwhile, New York’s Long Island has run the cycle from red to blue and back to light red. Surely, there are tactical and messaging lessons to be learned here.
In Philadelphia’s suburbs, however, the current trajectory for the GOP is not good. Even in this region, though, the GOP can draw some lessons. For instance, Republicans have seen some success in Bucks County, keeping many races competitive and electing a congressman. What success the party has achieved has come through grassroots registration and door-to-door work, with effective outreach in blue-collar communities.
One key piece is engaging and growing support among first and second-generation ethnic communities clamoring for an alternative to the Democrats. This includes – but isn’t limited to –the Indian, Chinese, and Hispanic communities. And, yes, it must include genuine, sustained outreach into the African-American community.
Outreach that is genuine and focused on relationship-building can be successful. When it comes to policy and messaging, the GOP focus must be on economic opportunity, rewarding hard work, education focused on academic rigor, public safety and security, liberty, and families.
Republicans also must stop attacking their own nominees. Most Democrats support Democrats once nominated. When it was clear that Joe Biden was the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump, Democrats including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and nearly every progressive interest group pitched in to help. When Democrats nominated John Fetterman for the Senate in Pennsylvania, his primary opponents got behind him. No “moderate” Democrat held a press conference to say that Fetterman was too radical or his resume too flimsy. When Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro appointed Republicans to his transition team and even his cabinet, progressive Democrats did not protest.
Yet, all too often, GOP candidates face incoming fire from their own. The GOP is filled with media-described “leaders” who loudly abandon candidates from their own party. Republicans need to stop doing this and focus on winning elections with the candidates they have chosen.
Newt Gingrich once identified a key difference between Democrats and Republicans. He noted that at a meeting of 50 Democrats, they would focus on how to get more people in the room. By contrast, at a meeting of 50 Republicans, too many would look around the room and think: “Who doesn’t belong here?”
When you’re the minority party and falling further behind, it is far past time to think about how to unify, grow, and win. That’s what Republicans need to do in Pennsylvania’s suburbs.