Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf at a 2017 news conference announcing highway improvements in southeastern Pennsylvania (Commonwealth Media Services photo)
Republican officials claim the passage of two referenda in last week’s primary election shows the party is on the right track for the 2022 campaign.
That will be a big year, since Pennsylvanians will be electing a new governor and U.S. Senator. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will be leaving office as a result of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. After serving two terms in the U.S. Senate, Republican Pat Toomey decided not to seek a third term.
“Last night, Pennsylvanians voted to reject Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf’s overreach of executive powers after his failed COVID response – a clear sign of accountability coming in 2022,” Republican National Committee Chairperson Ronna McDaniel tweeted last Wednesday.
The passage of the referendums will curb the emergency powers of Gov. Tom Wolf and his eventual successors.
Republicans have repeatedly attacked Wolf for his responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming his actions were too harsh and violated the fundamental rights of citizens across the state.
Wolf and his administration insisted that the declarations and restrictions were necessary to save lives.
The questions asked voters to give lawmakers the authority to end an emergency declaration any time with a simple majority vote and limit a governor’s emergency disaster declaration to 21 days,
Before May 18, the state constitution required a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to end a governor’s disaster declaration. The governor also could legally issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it without limit.
The simple majority vote referendum passed by 52.1 to 47.8 percent. The 21-day referendum passed by a margin of 52 percent to 47.9 percent.
So, are the Republicans right in claiming the referendum victories portend great things for the GOP in 2022?
There is no doubt the referendums showed that Wolf’s popularity had taken a hit due to the repeated attacks by Republicans.
Wolf did try to fight back, claiming the proposed amendments would make it harder for state officials to deal with future emergencies, but his efforts fell short.
When he ran for his second term in 2018 against GOP candidate Scott Wagner, Wolf captured 57 percent of the vote. However, his support against the referendums dropped by 10 percent.
Two counties should be of particular concern to Democrats. Cumberland County, located across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, had been a GOP stalwart for years. However, the county’s population is one of the fastest-growing in the state, and thanks to an influx of educated newcomers, it’s been trending blue.
Back in 2018, Cumberland County backed Wolf by a 50.5 percent to 47.3 percent margin over Wagner. However, residents there supported the referenda questions by 56.4 percent to 43.5 percent and 57 percent to 42.9 percent, respectively.
Meanwhile, voters in Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg, and a long-time bastion of power for the Democratic Party, supported the referendums by 50.8 percent to 49.1 percent and 50.9 percent to 49 percent, respectively.
Back in 2018, Wolf thumped Scott Wagner by a 59-39 percent margin in Dauphin County.
There is the question of voter turnout. Primary elections usually draw far fewer voters than general elections, and last Tuesday’s primary was no different.
Only about 25 percent of registered voters in the Commonwealth bothered to cast ballots in the primary. In the 2018 general election, 58 percent of Pennsylvanians voted. That year Wolf and fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Bob Casey both easily won re-election.
That’s one reason why the Legislature should only allow referendums in general elections.
There’s also the fact that referendums usually are approved as the last one defeated came in 1993.
How all this will affect, the 2022 race for governor is hard to gauge. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is expected to win the Democratic nomination and be a strong contender in November.
He’s served for eight years as Pennsylvania’s attorney general and generally avoided any major snafus while winning praise for his investigation of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests and subsequent cover-ups by bishops and cardinals in the church.
But Shapiro will have to be careful about his connections with Wolf. No doubt Republicans will make him out to be a Wolf clone, and we’ll see if any of their attacks hit home.
Wolf’s appeal or lack of it could be a factor in the U.S. Senate race, especially if Lt. Gov. John Fetterman wins the Democratic nomination.
Both races will be crucial in determining the future of Pennsylvania and the nation. Wolf has stood up to Republicans not just in the pandemic but on a host of other issues, including voter suppression. Things will be much easier for GOP lawmakers and their agenda if a Republican wins the race for governor.
But the race for U.S. Senate could even be more critical as it’s one of only a handful of contested senate races in 2022. With Democrats and Republicans each having 50 seats in the Senate, any flip by one party or the other could be the difference in whether President Joe Biden’s plans are fulfilled or never see the light of day.
To win, candidates will have to unify their parties, which could be easier for Republicans than Democrats, considering the widespread GOP support for former President Donald Trump in the state. Democrats will have to use the model of President Joe Biden, who was able to bring progressives and moderates together to win Pennsylvania.
In the end, it will come down to turnout. Keep in mind that in 2020, Trump captured 406,941 more votes than he did in 2016. However, Biden collected 531,788 more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 to win the Keystone State and the presidency.
Opinion Contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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