Commentary

What the 2021 judicial races tell us about 2022 and beyond | Mark O’Keefe

No party has won three, consecutive terms for governor since they were allowed to run for re-election in 1972

December 2, 2021 6:30 am

(Capital-Star file)

Will the GOP’s success in Pennsylvania’s recent judicial elections translate into victories in the state’s midterm races next year?
To the surprise of no one, Republican Party officials pointed to the victories as stepping stones to even bigger wins next year.

Democrats, on the other hand, cautioned the successes were due to a low turnout and vowed to remedy that problem in the midterms.

Overall, Republicans did win three of the four judicial races on the ballot earlier this month. Republican Kevin Brobson edged out Democrat Maria McLaughlin by one percent to win a spot on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. Megan Sullivan, a Republican, defeated Democrat Timika Lane by seven points for a seat on Superior Court.

Republican Stacy Wallace won an election for Commonwealth Court, but Democrat Lori Dumas nipped Republican Drew Crompton by half a percent for a second seat. The result was so close that  Dumas won a statewide recount by 21,000 votes.

While it’s true Republicans may have momentum on their side, the numbers show that the judicial elections bear little resemblance to other races for president, governor, or U.S. senator.

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Consider that about 2.8 million voters cast ballots in the election, about 31% of Pennsylvania’s 8.7 million registered voters. That’s a far cry from the record-breaking 6,915,283 votes cast (80 percent) in the 2020 presidential election. That’s also far below the 58% of registered voters who cast ballots in the 2018 mid-term elections for governor and U.S. Senate.

However, some results from the election could shed some light on how the midterms might turn out, especially in the race for the Supreme Court, which featured negative ads and big campaign spending.

Of the 13 counties that Democrat Joe Biden won in 2020, two changed sides and voted for Brabson. They were Dauphin County, which Biden won by eight percentage points and Brabson captured by four points, a swing of 12 points, and Bucks County, which Biden won by four points and Brabson took by 2 points, a swing of six points.

There were five counties where McLaughlin fared better than Biden, including Lackawanna, an 11 percent increase, Erie, a 10 percent increase, Allegheny, a six percent increase, Northhampton, a three percent increase and Philadelphia, a two percent increase.

However, there were six counties where Brabson fared better than Donald Trump. They included Delaware, a 17% increase, Chester, a 10% increase, Montgomery and Leigh counties, a five percent increase, Monroe, a 3% increase, and Centre, a 2% increase.

The biggest concerns to Democrats have to be the increases in the “blue wall” surrounding Philadelphia. They include Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties. After years of being GOP strongholds, they have gravitated to the Democratic Party in recent years.

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They’re huge counties with a total of over 2.5 million voters. Combined with Philadelphia County’s 1,585,000 residents, they have about a third of the residents in the state.

It’s also interesting to note that, according to Data Corner, Biden upped Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote totals in Montgomery (67,0000), Chester (46,000), and Bucks (37,000). They were three of the four biggest counties where Biden registered gains over Clinton. Biden’s second-biggest boost came in Allegheny County, where his totals rose by 61,000 over Clinton.

However, any slippage in those numbers could prove fatal for the Democratic Party candidates, considering that Biden only won by 80,000 votes and Trump won by 20,000 votes in 2016.

It’s also noteworthy that other parts of the state, including almost all of Western Pennsylvania, which used to be dominated by Democrats, have trended Republican in recent years, making those votes in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties even more critical. Republicans don’t have to win those counties in 2022, but if they’re close or even competitive, that could be the difference between winning and losing.

It’s interesting to note that while Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate are fighting to prove their loyalty to former President Donald Trump, that wasn’t a recipe for success in the 2018 races for governor and U.S Senate.

Both Republican candidates strongly backed Trump, and both were soundly defeated. Democratic incumbent Bob Casey blasted Republican Louis Barletta by 13 points for the Senate, and Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf crushed his GOP challenger Scott Wagner by 17 points.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania hasn’t had two Democratic Party senators since the 1940s. No party has won three consecutive terms for governor since they were allowed to run for re-election in 1972.

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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