What the Pa. GOP really lost in 2015
By G. TERRY MADONNA
And MICHAEL YOUNG
Much attention has focused on the Democrats historic sweep of Pennsylvania’s judicial offices in November’s recent statewide election – in particular the unprecedented victories in three open Supreme Court races.
It has been pointed out that the court’s new 5 to 2 Democratic majority will shape future judicial decisions for a generation or longer.
Moreover, the coming decade’s always-fierce political apportionment process, so long dominated by Republicans, will be critically influenced by Democratic control of the Supreme Court.
All of these consequences of November’s off-year contest have been fully noted and generously discussed.
Much less noted and hardly discussed is the enormous change the court elections will have on the rapidly approaching 2016 presidential election cycle.
The 2015 court races almost certainly will affect elections in Pennsylvania from the presidency down the ballot to the “row offices.” Only state House and Senate races along with most congressional elections likely will be immune.
But how does a trio of state court races in 2015, imply such significance in 2016?
The short answer: the Democratic court victories are forcing a reappraisal about how “blue” Pennsylvania has become in national elections.
That in turn is raising hard questions about how seriously Republicans should (or will) fight to win Pennsylvania in 2016.
From the perspective of recent presidential election history, Pennsylvania has become very blue indeed, with national Democrats winning Pennsylvania in the last six presidential elections.
The Democratic tilt notwithstanding, Pennsylvania has remained a hotly contested “battleground “state in at least five of these six elections.
Indeed, most of the six elections have been close. Except for Obama’s 2008 victory, no Democrat has won the Keystone State race with more than 52 percent of the vote.
In the parlance of contemporary politics, Pennsylvania remains a “competitive two party state,” despite the string of Democratic wins.
However, some political observers believe that now has changed.
To them, Democratic sweep of the state court races in 2015 suggest close competitive statewide races in Pennsylvania may be over – and Pennsylvania may have become a “safe” state for Democrats running statewide in a presidential election year.
Party registration margins support this conclusion. Democrats enjoy an 800,000 active voter registration edge over Republicans, although many of these voters only “come out” in presidential years.
Equally problematic for Republicans is their ebbing strength in the Philadelphia suburbs together and Lehigh Valley.
These voter-rich regions have been slipping away from the Republicans for two decades.
The GOP’s failure to win a presidential election in the state since George H. W. Bush’s 1988 victory owes much to the loss of those two regions of the state.
Since then, Republican victory in a presidential year has been improbable, but in Pennsylvania still possible. Both national and state politicians are now drawing the conclusion that the 2015 judicial election results have moved improbable to impossible.
If this calculus becomes the received wisdom, national GOP resources earmarked to win Pennsylvania in 2016 will dry up, as will electoral attention to this perennial battleground state.
In short GOP strategists won’t seriously contest Pennsylvania’s winner-take-all electoral vote, while the presidential campaign itself will largely skip the Keystone State.
If this happens, “down ticket” races will be dramatically affected with normal Republican turnout severely depressed by the lack of a presidential battle in Pennsylvania.
No race below the presidency will be more affected than the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Pat Toomey (R) and the winner of the Democratic Senate primary scheduled for April 2016. Pennsylvania’s Senate contest is one of the top rated senate races in the country and one of a handful likely to determine control of the U.S. Senate. Millions of Super Pac dollars will pour into the state, perhaps $40 million in total spending in the race, and all of it needed to help Toomey overcome expected Democratic advantages in 2016.
Especially threatening to Toomey is the increasing polarization pervading the electorate, which translates into more straight party voting among Democrats and Republicans.
But with the Democrat’s 800,000 voter edge, any increase in straight ticket voting is ominous for Toomey.
That will be particularly important in the counties located in the Philadelphia suburbs and the Lehigh Valley, both large reservoirs of swing voters.
The same forces threatening Toomey augur auspiciously for Democrats in the so-called row offices, Attorney General, Treasurer and Auditor General – now all held by Democrats.
Normally the huge Democratic voter registration edge combined with presidential year turnout favors Democratic victory in these relatively low profile offices (Albeit the GOP monopolized the Office of Attorney General until 2012).
But in 2016 there is a twist. Democrats now have to defend two row offices that have been mired in scandal: State Treasurer and Attorney General – the latter involved in an ongoing legal soap opera that may end in the Democratic incumbent removed from office.
Despite possible problems in the row offices, a Democratic wave seems likely if Republicans do not contest the presidential race in Pennsylvania.
If this happens, GOP statewide candidates up and down the ticket may encounter the most challenging electoral conditions faced in a half century.
This is what the GOP really lost in 2015.
Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College; Young was professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University. They can be reached, respectively, at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.