Republicans' silver lining in Pennsylvania
Let's begin by observing that Donald Trump will lose Pennsylvania, barring a major judicial intervention. Even in the reddest counties in the commonwealth, Joe Biden is winning the mail-in vote: Democrats were incredibly successful in convincing their voters to cast their ballots by mail.
That is, however, one of the only successes for Pennsylvania Democrats in this election. In the state House, state Senate, and even the row offices the party has held cycle after cycle, Democratic candidates fared poorly. While everyone rightly focuses on the White House, the down-ballot success of Republicans may prove an even more important development for our politics in the long term.
For decades progressive commentators have salivated over a demographic glacier that would eventually clear a path to an enduring Democratic majority. Virginia was the first sign: solid red to battleground to solid blue in a single decade. Colorado, the Virginia of the Rockies with its well-educated and well-off suburbanites, was less red and now more blue. North Carolina seemed to be following the same trajectory, but has since stalled out in purple. Georgia, dominated by Atlanta the way Virginia is by the Beltway and Colorado is by Denver, may accelerate past the Tar Heel State. All of these states attract upwardly-mobile young people and the immigrants who serve them — both, perhaps, enduring Democratic blocs.
This analysis assumed that the Democratic Party that wins the New South could easily hold the Old Midwest. Donald Trump punctured that dream in 2016, but this week has pumped new life into it: The old Blue Wall is back. But, if Pennsylvania is any indication, it may be more vulnerable than ever.
Pennsylvania voters trust Democrats with their row offices, especially treasurer and auditor general (the law-and-order nature of the attorney general's office seems to attract more votes to Republican candidates). Since 1961, two Republicans have held either office: Barbara Hafer held both but switched parties in 2003, and R. Budd Dwyer famously ended his second term as treasurer in January, 1987, by shooting himself on live television. This year, pending the final mail-in tally, Republicans are poised to win at least auditor general and possibly treasurer. Importantly, both candidates are outperforming Donald Trump.
The row office elections tell us a lot about the true party affiliation of the electorate. Unless a candidate is otherwise famous or infamous, few voters are knowledgeable about the races: They vote on vague impressions from anodyne advertisements, the names of the candidates, and, most of all, which party they trust with boring government work. In 2020, despite the president's (apparent) narrow loss, the Pennsylvania electorate delivered a vote of confidence in the Republican Party that it has not received here in generations.
Compare this election to 2016: While Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania, Democrats swept the row offices by 3 to 6 points. Conventional wisdom has held that increases in turnout favor the Democrats, but Pennsylvania is telling a different story: New voters, at least in the time of Trump, mean new Republicans. The GOP outpaced the Democrats in new voter registrations in Pennsylvania this year, and while it didn't deliver the state to the president, it is signaling the strength of the Republican brand moving forward.
The flip-flop from 2016 to 2020 between the presidency and the row offices can be explained like this: Many registered Republicans voted for their standard slate and skipped over the president; meanwhile, new Trump voters and those who split their tickets four years ago are now fully paid-up Republicans. Around Pittsburgh, long-time Democratic legislators in working-class districts, including the House minority leader, who survived 2016 and 2018 lost their seats in 2020.
My favorite microcosm of Trump country is Burgettstown, a decrepit hamlet between Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio. In 2010 I worked for the Republican Party and was assigned to a state house challenger whose district included Burgettsown: He didn't even bother to campaign there and lost it two-to-one. Six years later, Donald Trump carried Burgettstown by 17 points, while Democratic row office candidates prevailed, as usual, by similar margins. This time, Trump won again by nearly 20 — but GOP row office candidates also carried the town. Burgettstown isn't a Trump Democrat town: It's a Trump Republican town.
Similarly, in Wisconsin, GOP Congressional candidates outperformed the president, and in Michigan the Senate candidate, John James, widely predicted to do worse than Trump, is closer to his challenger than the president is to Biden. Trump lost some suburban Republicans who otherwise voted for their party, while minting new Republicans across the Midwest. The result was a tight loss for the president due to the opposition he stirred up, but remarkable success for the party in races that, in the old dispensation, did not favor them.
Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are still anchored by major metro areas that will keep them from becoming reliably Republican states for the time being. But the Democratic dream of uniting the Blue Wall to the New South, despite this year's Electoral College map, is dead. And if Republicans can somehow satisfy aggrieved Trumpists and respectable suburbanites, they will have the upper hand from Philadelphia to Milwaukee and beyond.