Election 2021: Dems show signs of strength in Pittsburgh and its suburbs | Analysis

Democratic Allegheny County Councilors swept their races this year, including three contested elections

By: - November 7, 2021 6:30 am

Mayoral-elect Ed Gainey at his primary election party in May 2021 (Photo via Pittsburgh City Paper).

By Ryan Deto

PITTSBURGH — Voters made history on Nov. 2, when Ed Gainey won the general election, ensuring he will become the first Black mayor in Pittsburgh’s history.

His victory was expected after a surprise defeat over incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto in the spring primary election, as a Democrat running against a Republican in a city that has three Democrats to every one Republican.

Gainey secured over 70% of the vote with a few precincts still left to count. There was some talk about Republican Tony Moreno possibly cracking 30% of the vote in the heavily Democratic city, but he only has about 28.5% of the vote.

That over-performed former President Donald Trump’s 2020 vote share in the city, but under-performed another GOP performance in the city. Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis secured nearly 35% of the vote in a 2007 special election won by Democrat Luke Ravenstahl.

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Gainey’s strong showing wasn’t the only power-play by Democrats in Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs. Democratic Allegheny County Councilors swept their races this year, including three contested elections, flipping one Republican-held seat. Democrats also flipped suburban school boards, and held off some challengers who were campaigning on Critical Race Theory hysteria.

But Republicans had an excellent night too, sweeping all statewide elections. Exurban and rural areas in the Pittsburgh area saw more dramatic shifts to the right, which played a part in carrying statewide GOP judge candidates across the finish line. And Republicans in Westmoreland County took total control of county offices there.

But even surrounded in a rising tide of red, Pittsburgh and its suburbs saw signs of Democrats strengthening.

Shifting Electorate

Statewide races in odd numbered years in Pennsylvania are pretty good barometers of straightforward turnout gains and losses between Democrats and Republicans.

Statewide judge races tend to be low-salience, so votes for those closely reflect party preference and show how many voters turn out on Election Day. As of the count now, Republican Kevin Brobson defeated Democrat Maria McLaughlin 51.8%-48.1%.

In Allegheny County, with still a handful of precincts to count, McLaughlin secured 62.5% of the vote compared to 37.4% for Brobson.

A comparison to the 2017 state Supreme Court race might be helpful, as that race also led the ticket and it wouldn’t alter the balance of power on the court, no matter who won, just like in 2021.

In 2017, Democrat Dwayne Woodruff won 63.1% of the vote compared to Republican Sally Mundy, who won 36.7%. With more votes still to count in 2021, it’s likely McLaughlin’s Allegheny County vote share will inch more closely to what Woodruff received. Considering that 2017 was the year after Trump was elected, one would expect a stronger Democratic performance than that in 2021, the year after Democrat Joe Biden was elected.

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And in Butler County, which is still reliably red, Democrats also made some small inroads even in what was a very good election for Republicans statewide. In 2017, Republican Mundy won 67.2% of Butler County’s vote, and Democrat Woodruff won 32.8%. But in 2021, Republican Brobson won 65.4% of Butler County’s vote, and Democrat McLaughlin won 34.6%, an about 2 percentage point swing towards Democrats.

It was the ancestral Democrat counties, like Washington, Westmoreland, and Fayette, that grew more Republican. But Butler County, even in a favorable GOP year, actually shifted to the left. Butler County is home to Pittsburgh’s fastest growing suburb: Cranberry.

In Allegheny County, Democrats in 2021 essentially matched their performance in 2017 by making a few more inroads in the formally Republican sections of the North Hills, which are fast growing, and losing some voters in the Mon Valley, which is losing population.

Down-ballot Democratic Victories

While Republicans won at the top of the ballot in statewide races, Democrats in local Allegheny County races did very well.

Allegheny County Councilor Anita Prizio (D-O’Hara) defended her swing district, Democratic candidate Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis held off a Republican challenger in Democratic-held seat, and Democrat Jack Betkowski flipped a Republican seat against Republican Joe Wise, who passed away just days before the election.

And it wasn’t just on Allegheny County Council. Democrats flipped one seat on the North Allegheny School Board and two seats on Bethel Park council.

There were some rumblings about Republicans potentially doing well in some Democratic suburbs, like Mt. Lebanon, but Democrats swept school board races there. And although conservative media has been claiming there would be an electoral landslide for Republicans motivated against Critical Race Theory, that didn’t really materialize in Pittsburgh.

Anti-CRT candidates for school board lost in Shaler Township and Fox Chapel, losing to Democrats who campaigned on the importance of having diversity in schools. In Lawrenceville, Xander Orenstein also won a Magistrate District Judge race becoming the first non-binary judge in the country.

And an interesting sign of Democrats coalescing, in addition to performing well in local races, was seen in the election for Allegheny County Common Pleas. There were 10 open seats on the local court, and Democrats won all of them as expected. But, cross-filed candidates, those that secured both the Democratic and Republican nominations, actually finished near the bottom of the Democratic field.

This is in contrast to the primary election, when some of these candidates, particularly Lisa Middleman and Sabrina Korbel, finished near the top of the election. This is just the second general election without a straight-party voting option on the ballot, and clearly some Allegheny County voters were more uneasy in supporting cross-filed candidates compared to those just listed as one party.

Some voters told City Paper they were confused by the cross-filed candidates, wanted to make sure they were only supporting Democrats, and were wary of any candidate that was associated with Republicans. All the cross-filed candidates were registered Democrats, but there was no way to tell that by just looking at the ballot.

Black Candidates Excel

In addition to Gainey’s historic win in the city of Pittsburgh, Bellevue borough also made history by electing the borough’s first Black mayor in Val Pennington.

Black candidates also notched historic wins in Beaver Falls and New Castle. In Sharpsburg, Kayla Portis will become the borough’s first Black council member. All are Democrats.

And on Allegheny County Common Pleas, Black candidates were the top four vote-getters in that election. Nicola Henry-Taylor received the most votes, followed by Tiffany Sizemore, Elliot Howsie, and Wrenna Watson.

Turnout Gains

With still a handful of precincts to count, Allegheny County also saw very high turnout for an odd-year election. More than 32% of registered voters in the county voted in the 2021 general election, one of the highest turnout figures in odd-year Allegheny County elections in recent memory.

It’s unclear how that benefited Republicans or how it benefited Democrats, but in one local race, turnout might have boosted an incumbent’s re-election in a tough district.

Allegheny County Council District 3 contains Democratic river towns, with Republican suburbs like West Deer, and emerging liberal areas like Fox Chapel. Incumbent Councilor Anita Prizio (D-O’Hara) won with 54% of the vote.

In District 3, turnout was more than 38%, six points above the average turnout figures for the county as a whole.

Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared

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