Now Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro speaks with supporters at a campaign event on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Philadelphia (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall).
By James Nycz
Leading up to Election night, Republicans were optimistic.
In Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, Democrat John Fetterman’s months-long lead had started to wane, and a late surge in Republican rival Mehmet Oz’s poll numbers could once again prove that pollsters were underestimating Republican support in the state.
Fetterman’s debate performance struck uncertainty into the hearts of even his Democratic supporters, and Republicans were eyeing as many as five competitive House seats in Pennsylvania as flip opportunities.
But come Election Day, the ‘red wave’ seemed to change hue.
Pennsylvania’s marquee Democratic candidates outperformed President Joe Biden’s 2020 votes across the board. Fetterman led Biden’s numbers by 3.1 percent and outperformed the president in almost every county, sometimes by double digits.
Republicans failed to flip a single House seat in Pennsylvania, including vulnerable incumbents such as U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, despite redistricting that caused Pennsylvania to lose a member in the House of Representatives. State Democrats looked poised to flip the lower chamber of the Legislature for the first time in twelve years.
Most strikingly though, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro walloped Republican Doug Mastriano by 14 points.
This phenomenon was not limited to Pennsylvania. Other purple states, and even some red ones, saw Democrats outperform the president’s numbers in 2020, cruising to victory, and defying the pre-election suppositions of a wave year for Republicans.
In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer racked up a similar lead to Shapiro, beating her opponent by 11 points and far surpassing Biden’s performance in the state.
In Kansas, a state that went for Trump by more than 14 points in 2020, incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly won the state by a healthy margin of 1.5 percent by pitching herself as a work-across-the-aisle centrist who would fight for core Democratic values like healthcare and education.
Notable democratic leads further speckled the country in states such as Arizona, Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin, among others.
Despite the success of these purple and red state Democrats, the speculation on Democratic candidates for the 2024 presidential election still focuses on high-profile pols from Democratic strongholds.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Vice President Kamala Harris both hail from California,
Biden — though born in Pennsylvania — held his U.S. Senate seat in the comfortably Democratic state of Delaware. And now U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, though hailing from Indiana, had never held statewide office in that red state, and was mayor of largely Democratic South Bend.
My question is simple: why not look for presidential hopefuls in the most competitive states in the country?
The reality of the Electoral College is that it’s winner-takes-all, state by state. This is why on election night, despite its larger population, California is taken for granted as a Democratic win, and a state such as Wisconsin is given so much airtime.
Having a presidential candidate who has deep ties to these crucial states is essential for a Democrats’ ability to take the White House.
Of the five Democratic presidents since President John F. Kennedy, only one — President Barack Obama — was born in what would be considered a safe Democratic state today. The opposite is true for failed Democratic presidential challengers: only George McGovern was born in South Dakota.
But ‘home field advantage’ isn’t the biggest asset for purple and red state Democrats when running for nationwide office. These Democrats have not just proven their ability to win in competitive statewide elections, they have outpaced the current president’s performance in these states — in some cases more than tenfold.
Faces of the Progressive movement, such as U.S. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have faced their most competitive elections in primaries.
On the other hand, the Nov. 8 winners from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Kansas have not just had to compete in primaries, but have defeated formidable Republican opponents in races of national importance.
Looking ahead to 2024, if Democrats are to learn anything from the midterms, they should turn their gaze from their strongholds on the country’s coasts and instead look to Tuesday’s winners in ‘Middle America’. There, they’ve already found the secret formula.
James Nycz works for the Progressive Turnout Project and holds a Masters in Politics from the University of Cambridge. His work has been published in the Wall Street Journal. He is from Lower Makefield, Bucks County.
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