Fresh off 2021 wins, Pa. GOP eyes a bright midterm. Can Democrats stop them?

‘If someone was surprised, they shouldn’t have been,’ Muhlenberg College pollster Chris Borick said

By: - November 4, 2021 3:04 pm

Democratic Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidate Maria McLaughlin campaigns in Philadelphia on Election Day, 11/2/21 (McLaughlin Campaign Facebook Page)

(*This story was updated at 1:10 p.m. 11/23/21 to accurately reflect the 2021 election results.)

1993. 2009. 2021.

What do all those years have in common? In every one of them, Democrats, with a freshly elected president in the Oval Office, suffered down-ballot defeats.

But regardless of the party in power, such losses are a regular part of American politics, noted Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick.

“If someone was surprised, they shouldn’t have been,” Borick told the Capital-Star.

Echoing results across the country, Pennsylvania Republicans won three of four statewide judicial races, retaining a key seat on the state Supreme Court that could allow Republicans to compete for the court later this decade — and which national Republicans hope could signal momentum to keep its U.S. Senate seat in GOP hands and flip Pennsylvania’s governorship.

“After Glenn Youngkin’s huge win [Tuesday] night in Virginia, Pennsylvania Democrats like [Attorney General] Josh Shapiro know they are in trouble next fall when they go up against a strong Republican candidate for governor,” Republican Governors Association spokesperson Chris Gustafson said in a statement.

And at the bottom of the ballot, Republicans also reversed some gains that had excited Democrats just four years ago.

In the perennial swing locale of Erie County, a Republican flipped the county executive’s office, beating Tyler Titus, a school board member and Pennsylvania’s first transgender elected official, by a wide margin.

In Lancaster County, Republicans flipped back a township commission in Manheim Township, a growing suburban municipality that was beginning to trend blue under former GOP President Donald Trump, Lancaster Online reported.

In Dauphin County, Democrats were again shut out of county row offices in a locale that has trended increasingly blue at the top of the ticket: Gov. Tom Wolf won Dauphin by 20 percentage points in 2018, President Joe Biden won it by eight in 2020 as he flipped Pennsylvania on his way to victory.

Republicans have a problem with suburban voters, Democrats have a problem with rural voters. Where does that leave Pa.’s balance of power?

And in the Philadelphia suburbs, Republicans flipped row offices in Bucks County, according to the Bucks County Courier Times and the Daily Local. Some races remain too close to call.

(*Editor’s Note: As of 11/23/2021, further ballot counting means that Republicans did not win any countywide races in Chester County.)

All these areas were critical to Democratic success in statewide races in the past four years, and their erosion now that Democrat Biden is in the White House cheered GOP operatives, such as Chris Nicholas.

Combining Republicans’ growing rural advantage with competitive numbers in the suburbs provides the party with a much clearer route to a statewide win.

For instance, Democratic Supreme Court candidate Maria McLaughlin won Chester County by 7.5 percentage points. Biden won the county by nearly 18 points. And in Bucks County, Republican high court nominee Kevin Brobson won the county by 2 percentage points, after Biden’s four point win there in 2020.

“You can’t say, ‘as goes the Bucks County coroner’s race, so goes whatever,’” Nicholas told the Capital-Star. “But those were the lower races on the totem pole. If Republicans are back to them being competitive … that is just a real help.”

Nicholas added that he expected those wins would help Republicans raise money and recruit good candidates in 2022. 

There are a few counter examples, though. In Allegheny County, Democrats made inroads in a few GOP-held suburban school boards, and not only kept but expanded their majority on county council.

One of those Allegheny County councilors fighting for another term was Anita Prizio, a former Bernie Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, who beat an incumbent to flip a suburban Pittsburgh seat in 2017.

While many Democratic members of the class of 2017 lost this year, Prizio won by 8 percentage points, according to unofficial results.

The unabashed democratic socialist has sponsored legislation to require paid sick leave for county workers, a policy that became law this year. She also championed an ordinance to force construction companies to limit emissions from their vehicles, which passed unanimously, and voted to set up a county wide citizen police review board.

Pointing to these concrete actions helped her campaign effectively despite the labels her opponent threw at her, Prizio told the Capital-Star. 

She was never “Councilwoman Anita Prizio” in attack ads, she noted, but “democratic socialist Anita Prizio.”

“Running as the safe candidate may not always be the best thing to do,” Prizio said. “I think there is this populist trend out there. It can go Trump, or it can go to more progresive populism.”

Her lack of fear of the labels showed during the campaign. When her establishment Republican opponent said she supported paid family leave, Prizio told WESA-FM in Pittsburgh that she thought her opponent had “a great idea,” and that “in some ways, I think [my opponent] and I are both socialists.”

Speaking to the Capital-Star on Thursday, Prizio noted that her opponent then called WESA-FM back to walk back her remarks. While Prizio’s opponent may have tried to enter the populist lane, Prizio’s positions already occupied it.

Outside of Democrats tactics, Republicans’ natural advantage in the 2022 midterm could also chip away based on their candidates, noted Muhlenberg’s Borick.

He pointed to his own Lehigh Valley. In Northampton County, another perennial swing county, Republicans made municipal gains. For instance, they lead in at least two county council races, according to the Morning Call of Allentown, likely reducing Democrats’ council edge down to a single seat.

But Democratic County Executive Lamont McClure defeated Republican Steve Lynch to win another term, Borick noted. McClure prevailed by 11 points, according to unofficial tallies. 

A hardline conservative who has frequently leaned into culture war debates, Lynch was in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, and appeared to threaten school boards that voted for mask mandates this fall.

Pa. GOP candidate says he’ll bring ‘strong men’ to intimidate pro-mask school boards

Since his apparent defeat,  Lynch took to Facebook, vowing in a rambling post that “this will all be investigated,” Lehigh Valley Live reported.

“He kept the Trump playbook to the very end,” Borick said. “He’s now saying, ‘how did all those other Republicans do so well?’ … You underperform because you are out of the mainstream of what was successful for Republicans, and so that’s their cautionary tale going forward to next year.”

Republicans might be hoping for a strong candidate, but if GOP primary voters back a “deeply flawed” candidate, Borick said, they could still lose races where they appear to be early favorites.

And on the converse, if Democrats have a strong candidate, they may be able to overcome the environmental factors working against them, Borick concluded.

For their part, Democrats such as gubernatorial hopeful Shapiro already has hit 18 counties of the state on a campaign kickoff bus tour, campaign spokesperson Will Simons said.

“Josh Shapiro is the top vote-getter in Pennsylvania history and he’s won tough races before because he’s shown up, listened, and gotten things done for Pennsylvanians – taking on the big fights, bringing people together, and holding the powerful to account, without fear or favor,” Simons said in an email.

Outside of statewide races, politicos noted another variable: The eventual shape of the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

Pa. Democrats’ constituencies are growing. How does that impact 2022?

For most of the 2010s, the parties competed in districts drawn by the GOP. But in the coming decade, Democrats will have a stronger voice in how the maps are drawn, through Wolf and the liberal majority on the state Supreme Court.

If Wolf and lawmakers cannot agree on a congressional map, or if the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission cannot draw the state’s 253 legislative districts, the courts have the authority to step in and draw the map themselves. 

The high court didn’t hesitate to do that in 2018, after it struck down the GOP-drawn congressional map as a partisan gerrymander, over the howls of protest from Republicans.

That majority was not changed by the GOP’s Supreme Court win, and so will be in place for the coming months as Harrisburg hashes out the districts.

However, a seat held by Chief Justice Max Baer, elected as a Democrat, will be up in 2023 when Baer reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75. 

GOP operative Nicholas, whose Eagle Consulting Group ran independent expenditures in favor of Republican judges this year, said flipping Baer’s seat on the high bench was key for the GOP, who have long chafed at rulings of the liberal court on everything from gerrymandering to labor laws.   

Then, in 2025, the three justices who flipped the court for Democrats in 2015 will be up for retention.

 Voters get a yes or no vote on a second 10-year term. These races usually attract little attention — four justices on the ballot for retention in 2021 each received almost two thirds of the vote on their way to a new term.

But Nicholas predicted that if the Supreme Court redraws the state’s congressional maps this year, it might elicit an anti-retention campaign by Republicans. In particular, Nicholas named Justice David Wecht as a top target.

Elected in 2015, Wecht was a vocal critic of partisan gerrymandering, and joined the majority to immediately redraw the congressional maps.

Such efforts are “few and far between,” Nicholas said. “But boy, that would be fun to go after Wecht.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.