What 5 counties tell us about the changing face of Pa.’s elections | Mark O’Keefe

Gov. Tom Wolf tours the construction site of the Beaver County methane cracker plant. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

The Year was 2000. Faith Hill’s “Breathe” was the most popular song. The St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans to win the Super Bowl. The New York Yankees beat the New York Mets to win the World Series. Venus Williams won her first championship at Wimbledon. AOL bought Time Warner for $165 billion. “Gladiator” won the Oscar for Best Picture.

That year, Westmoreland County, located outside of Pittsburgh in Southwestern Pennsylvania, voted for Republican George Bush. It was the first year since 1972 that the county voted for a Republican president. It had voted consistently for Democratic presidential candidates going back to 1932.

It was the same way for neighboring counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania like Beaver, Greene, Fayette, and Washington. All had voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates since 1932 except for 1972 when they supported Republican Richard Nixon in his landslide re-election victory over Democrat George McGovern.

The five counties had been the solid rock built by the Democratic party to control Pennsylvania politically. However, that rock began to crumble in the early 2000s as mines and steel mills began to close. The unions, which had strongly supported Democratic Party candidates over the years, saw their ranks evaporate with the closings.

Democratic candidates lacked the financial support to win elections without union support, opening the door for the Republican party and its candidates. Many Democrats in the area, always conservative, socially found solace in the GOP message of guns, law, and order, and anti-abortion.

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After Westmoreland County went red in 2000, Greene County followed in 2004, supporting Republican George Bush over Democrat John Kerry by a 50-49.3 percent margin.

Beaver, Fayette, and Washington counties followed in 2008, backing Republican presidential candidate John McCain over Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

In Fayette County, McCain topped Obama by only half a percentage point. He won Washington and Beaver by five and three percentage points, respectively.

Since then, all five counties have voted solidly for Republican presidential candidates.

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Compared to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s showing in 2012, Donald Trump saw his 2016 margin increase by 11 percent in Greene County, 10 percent in Fayette County, five percent in Beaver County, four percent in Washington County, and two percent in Westmoreland County.

Overall since 2000, the margin of victories by Republican presidential candidates increased from 51.6 to 63.6 percent in Westmoreland County, 44.2 percent to 60.8 percent in Washington County, 40.4 to 66.3 percent in Fayette County, 43 to 71 percent in Greene County, and 44.1 percent to 52.9 percent in Beaver County.

At this point, there’s no turning back for these counties. This fundamental shift in politics will continue to have consequences for years to come. Republicans can now point to Southwestern Pennsylvania and most of Central Pennsylvania as their territory, making it difficult for Democrats to make any inroads in those areas for the foreseeable future.

However, while southwestern Pennsylvania turned from blue to red between 2000 and 2020, three other counties have done the reverse.

Chester County has the seventh-largest population in the state, with a census-estimated population of 524,989 residents as of 2019. It voted for Republican presidential candidates from 1880 until 2008 except for 1912 and 1964.

However, it backed Obama in 2008 by a 51.1-48.4 percent margin over McCain.

The county went for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 but supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a 51.9-42.5 margin over Donald Trump. Last month residents there backed Joe Biden by a 57.9-40.8 margin over Trump.

Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg, the state’s capital, had sided with Republican presidential candidates from 1888 until 2008 except for 1936 and 1964.

It swung for Obama in 2008 by a 53.9-49.9 margin and has continued to support Democratic presidential candidates since then. It backed Biden by a 53.6-44.1 margin over Trump.

It’s a similar story going on in Centre County, home to Penn State University.

It supported GOP presidential candidates in 20 of 23 races from 1940 until 1992. It backed Democrats in 1992 and 1996 but then voted for George Bush in 2000 and 2004. However, it supported Obama in 2008 and has voted for Democratic presidential candidates since then. Biden topped Trump 51.7 percent to 46.9 percent.

These counties could serve as a counter-balance for Democrats who have relied primarily on Philadelphia and Allegheny counties to win elections.

One county to watch in upcoming elections is Cumberland County, located in Central Pennsylvania. It has supported Republican presidential elections every year but one since 1940. While Trump won the county this year, his margin of victory dropped from 18 percentage points in 2016 to 10.5 percent this year.

One of the fastest-growing counties in the state, it has changed from mainly a farming community to one dominated by hospitals and doctors,  retail stores, restaurants, and warehouses. It will be interesting to see if Republicans can continue to defeat Democrats despite the county’s demographics changes.

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.