The unexpected wave of support in Pennsylvania for President-elect Donald Trump has Republicans hoping it signals a deeper, long-term shift to the GOP in the battleground state, though the election underscored growing political dichotomies that may defy that trend.
Republicans expanded control of the state Legislature despite a strong Democratic Party registration advantage.
Meanwhile, the state’s growing geographic divide played a forceful role in the election. Trump was boosted by staggering defections of Democrats across more conservative northeastern and western Pennsylvania, while Republican voters in increasingly liberal southeastern Pennsylvania turned against him.
Democrats’ defections helped Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton and become the first Republican presidential nominee to capture Pennsylvania since 1988.
For some, his victory signals a more permanent change.
“It shows the state is trending,” said Rob Gleason, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. “More than trending: It is Republican.”
Marcel Groen, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party chairman, said that Pennsylvania remains a “purple” state and that Trump didn’t necessarily change its politics. Democrats still won three statewide races — for treasurer, auditor general and attorney general — and Republicans cannot count on another such embrace by middle- and working-class voters, Groen said.
“The Trump-Hillary race was its own phenomenon, frankly, and is not likely to be repeated,” Groen said. “The pendulum always swings. … When (Trump) doesn’t deliver, they will keep looking. Our job is to give them answers and we will.”
Mark Harris, a campaign consultant to Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who narrowly won re-election, said Trump and Republicans still need to demonstrate they deserve to stay in power in Washington.
“There’s no such thing as a permanent majority,” Harris said.
The election highlighted longer-term trends in Pennsylvania.
In the past decade, Democrats added 300,000 registered voters, while Republican registration was flat. Democrats’ biggest gains were largely in southeastern Pennsylvania, though they hemorrhaged voters in western Pennsylvania, losing more than 100,000.
Conversely, Republicans lost a similar number of voters in southeastern Pennsylvania — about 100,000 — and added about 60,000 voters in western Pennsylvania.
That shift, Harris said, shows there is “basically no real Democratic Party outside of Philadelphia.”
During that decade, Democrats won 22 of 37 statewide elections, largely thanks to dominance in lower-profile races for state Supreme Court, auditor general and treasurer. Republicans dominated legislative and congressional elections, running on district maps they drew to maximize Republican victories.
When the new Legislature is seated in January, Republicans will hold 156 of 253 seats, 26 more than a decade ago. In 2007, Democrats represented 51 districts west of the Susquehanna River. In January, it will be 32.
Pennsylvania Republicans also play a key role in keeping the U.S. House in GOP hands. Republicans hold 13 out of 18 Pennsylvania seats. A decade ago, Democrats held 11 out of 19.
That Republican dominance could wane.
A new Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court could give Democrats more muscle in drawing legislative districts, and Democrats could get even more say in drawing congressional districts if Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf wins a second term in 2018.
Gleason acknowledged that GOP-drawn district maps contribute a certain amount to GOP majorities. But a much bigger foundation, he suggested, is a Democratic Party that lost touch with middle- and working-class voters who may be registered as Democrats but vote Republican.
“They call them Reagan Democrats,” Gleason said. “We’ve been winning Democrats in the west and southwest for years. That has creeped into the northeast and the northwest. … We’ve become the populist party.”
Winning back those voters after ignoring them in the presidential election won’t be easy, said Jim Burn, a former state Democratic Party chairman.
“This lack of engagement has kicked the Democratic Party back a couple decades and it’s going to take time to get it back,” Burn said. “But I’m not prepared to say that Pennsylvania is in the Republican column just yet.”