For Democrats, municipal races are dress rehearsal for 2020 | Mark O’Keefe

December 12, 2019 6:30 am

Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Democrats celebrated the results of last month’s municipal elections as they won county commissioner races in the Philadelphia suburbs of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh and Monroe counties.

The counties had been held for a long time by Republicans and Democrats pointed to the victories as evidence that a Blue Wave is headed for Pennsylvania in 2020, which will deprive Donald Trump of a second term in the White House. Trump had surprised the experts back in 2016 by winning the Keystone State, which hadn’t voted for a Republican president since George Bush H.W. won the state in 1988.

However, Republicans countered that the GOP won four county commissioners races in Southwestern Pennsylvania, which had been dominated by Democrats in past years. They joined nearby Fayette County which had been taken by Republicans in 2015.

It’s noteworthy that Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in all five counties, winning them by 108,564 votes. That was a total of 48,846 more votes than Republican Mitt Romney got over Democrat Barack Obama back in 2018.
Remember Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,292 votes.

So, all five counties will play a pivotal role in the 2020 election. If  Trump keeps that margin or adds to it, he could well win Pennsylvania.

And that’s why the GOP was celebrating those recent wins in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  But there are a couple of factors to consider before Democrats start heading for the nearest bridge.

One is that all those county commissioner races were extremely close. Republican candidates won Westmoreland County by 5,245 votes, Beaver County by 3,660 votes, Washington County by 2,497 votes and Greene County by 1,690 votes.
Furthermore, in three of the five counties, a Democratic candidate finished second.

Overall, the leading GOP county commissioner candidates in those five counties, collected 101,157 votes, far short of the 221,520 votes Trump received.

That’s somewhat to be expected since voter turnout is far greater in presidential elections than county commissioner races.
However, the races continued a troubling trend for Republicans in Southwestern Pennsylvania since 2016. Back in 2018, GOP gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates captured more votes than their Democratic counterparts but their totals were much smaller than Trump’s huge margin of victory. That’s probably one of the main reasons why they both lost to Democratic incumbents.

Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Casey actually won Beaver County, edging out GOP challenger Louis Barletta 34,442 to 32,169. In the other four counties, Barletta received 186,144 votes while Casey picked up 162,822 tallies.
Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf also won Beaver County, defeating GOP challenger Scott Wagner 36,166 to 30,593. In the other four counties, Wagner tallied 181,978 votes while Wolf garnered 169,649 votes.

Another factor to consider is that the counties that flipped for Democratic Party candidates are much larger in population than the counties that went Republican.

According to the 2018 census, Bucks County is the fourth biggest in the state with 628,195 people. Delaware County is fifth with 564,751 people while Chester County is seventh with 519,283 people and Lehigh County is 10th with 362,100 people.  Monroe County is 19th with 169,507 people.

Westmoreland County is eleventh with 350,611 people. Washington is 18th  with 207,346 people and Beaver County is 20th with 164,462 people. Fayette County is 26th with 130,606 people and Greene County is 57th with 36,586 people.
Four of the five counties that switched to the Democratic Party also reported population gains in the past decade. Lehigh County led the way with a five percent population growth followed by Chester at 4 percent, Delaware at 1 percent and Bucks at .5 percent. Monroe County’s population dropped slightly from 169,842 to 169,507.

Meanwhile, the counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania that switched to the Republican Party all lost population over the past decade.

Greene County reported the biggest decline at 5.6 percent. It was followed by Fayette County at 4.5 percent, Westmoreland County at 4 percent, Beaver County at 3.6 percent and Washington County at .2 percent.

So, what does any of this mean for Trump’s re-election chances in 2020. Well, things are murky to say the least. Was Trump a one-hit-wonder? Will he get the same level of support he received in 2016, especially in Southwestern Pennsylvania?

Can a Democratic presidential candidate cut into any of that support?  Will people who supported Obama and Trump, back Trump again?

In the end, the presidential candidate who wins the Democratic Party’s nomination would be wise to learn a lesson from Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated presidential campaign in 2016.

Despite pleas from local party officials, she campaigned very little outside of Pittsburgh, apparently taking voters there for granted. Trump, meanwhile, made a big stop in Monessen, Westmoreland County, which, no doubt, helped him at the polls in the area.

If Southwestern Pennsylvania is ignored again, that could well lead to four more years in the White House for Trump.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor, Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard, of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.