Pennsylvania Republicans Have a Suburban Problem
Pennsylvania Republicans have won only 11 of 31 statewide head-to-head contests since electing the state’s last Republican governor, Tom Corbett, in 2010. The winner broke 50% in only 7 of those 11 victories. And of those 11 total wins, former U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey accounted for 2, while candidates in judicial races accounted for 5.
Despite population growth in the suburban communities around greater Philadelphia – the Lehigh Valley and the Harrisburg-Lancaster-York corridor – Pennsylvania and its 67 counties have mostly seen stagnant population growth for decades. Of the 22 counties that have seen growth, only 6 are trending Republican. Of the 45 stagnant or falling populations, 43 are part of the Republican base. In the growing counties, meantime, Democrats are gaining ground.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes. But assuming that population trends continue through the fall of 2024, the GOP nominee is unlikely to win the state even if he reaches Trump’s 2016 percentage of the vote in each of the state’s 67 counties.
Republicans have a suburban problem. Suburban communities are trending Democratic. In my own Chester County, for example, Hillary Clinton won by 9.51% in 2016; in 2020, Joe Biden won the county by 17.11%. The story is similar in neighboring Bucks County (Democratic wins of 0.8% in 2016 and 4.4% in 2020). Even in reliably red Cumberland County, in south-central Pennsylvania, Trump saw his victory margin drop, from 18.1% in 2016 to 9.57% in 2020.
Republicans must hit the reset button. To close the voting gap – anywhere from 81,000 (Biden’s margin of victory in 2020) to 263,000 (John Fetterman’s margin in the U.S. Senate race last year) – the GOP must make inroads in the suburbs. The party cannot find that number of needed votes in rural communities plus Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Each cycle that the party fails to do so, the gap may grow.
There is no silver bullet. As a former Chamber of Commerce CEO and as a former congressional candidate, I know that the solutions are not as simple as some suggest – e.g., running more female candidates. Moreover, local county parties and even the state Republican Party have limited ability to affect results in presidential, gubernatorial, or senatorial races.
Nor is it as simple as running “moderate” candidates. The suburbs are the political crossroads. As a candidate, I regularly encountered, at one stop, Republican voters demanding that I oppose Trump, only to arrive at my next stop to hear demands that I support Trump.
But success is possible. There are examples right here in Pennsylvania, like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, as well as in other states, where Governors Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin, and Chris Sununu each lead states with growing suburbs. And our neighbors in nearby Long Island, New York, have largely managed to chart a political course back to red from powder blue.
Certain realities are apparent and offer opportunities for short-term and long-term growth. First, the suburbs are becoming more diverse. The largest growing populations are among Asian-Indians, Chinese-Americans, and Hispanics. These three groups are under-registered, and they vote in lower percentages than average. They seem to want to support Republicans, or at the least, they are put off by today’s Democrats.
First- and second-generation Chinese-Americans have voiced anger about many changes to the America that they came to live in – in particular, about suppression of free speech. This was brought home to me at an Asian-American meet & greet in Wayne, where two mothers made it clear to me their anxieties about the future of free expression in America.
First- and second-generation Asian-Indian parents often shared their concerns that schools are not focusing on academics or rewarding academic excellence – and that this trend is moving to colleges. During a ceremony at a Hindu religious gathering in Exton that I attended, parents told me that their children’s hard work was being undervalued in schools and that they feared that their kids would be denied admission to top universities because their demographic is overrepresented. And a group of entrepreneurs who owned various restaurants and coffee shops told me that they wanted the GOP to stand up for them, for small businesses, and for capitalism – for the American Dream, in other words.
I’ve also seen firsthand the frustration and anger of Hispanic parents and members of the clergy as public schools have become cultural battlegrounds and younger children get exposed to sexually explicit lessons, books, and graphics. At meetings I attended with Hispanic clergy in Reading, some were moved to tears as they voiced frustration that public schools were actually undermining religion and family values. They passionately rejected the notion that the government was in charge of their kids, not parents or religious mentors.
In short, Republicans need to build relationships, register voters, and execute an effective get-out-the-vote plan with people inclined to vote with us. And we need to invite them to join and help lead the GOP, including running for office.
Moreover, Republicans must reach out to another community where they have fallen woefully behind: college campuses. Suburban counties are filled with thousands – even tens of thousands – of college students. The GOP has largely abandoned these campuses to Democrats. Like with mail-in voting, the GOP cannot win elections when losing campuses by 5-1. That must change.
Developing and executing these strategies may not help the suburbs move from a 17% Republican deficit to 51% majority overnight. But over time, genuine and effective party building will yield results. And in the meantime, moving the numbers even a few points in each growing Pennsylvania county could lead to statewide victory. Building relationships with growing minority communities, who share GOP values, in addition to creating a presence on college campuses, are two ways to make a difference in the short-term – and grow the party over the long-term. Success starts with small steps; Republicans need to get started.