As we race toward the halfway mark of the new decade, politics in Pennsylvania remains uncertain. Long the quintessential competitive two-party state, Republicans have now lost a record-setting six straight presidential elections back to 1988, while laboring under a registration deficit of 1 million voters. Nevertheless, they still control the governorship, one U.S. senate seat, both houses of the state Legislature and 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats.
Republican control of the governorship came in the 2010 tea party year. So did retaking control of the state house and winning a majority of the congressional delegation. It took a wave election to accomplish the first and some artful gerrymandering to accomplish the second.
But 2012 was not so kind to state Republicans. Instead, they lost the presidential election decisively, did not come close to defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and more ominously lost all three statewide row offices — attorney general, auditor general and treasurer — for the first time in state history.
These divergent electoral outcomes in the first half of the decade now become prologue to the second half of the decade. This year’s election followed by the presidential race in 2016 finds both major political parties nearing a crucial crossroad — one that could determine the course of state politics for decades to come.
Republicans, on the one hand, face a daunting challenge retaining the governor’s office while they must also defend their majorities in the General Assembly. In 2016, they must somehow avoid losing a seventh straight presidential contest while facing a tough challenge to retain U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s Senate seat.
Democrats, on the other hand, have their own set of problems. Obama’s pronounced unpopularity will weigh down the entire Democrat ticket in 2014, while possibly wrecking hopes to retain the White House in 2016. Worse, perhaps, the Pennsylvania electorate has long shown its preference to vote against the president’s party in midterm elections, hence the often referenced and frequently misunderstood “eight-year cycle.”
Finally, Democrats must deal with a paradox of state politics that has long bedeviled them: Republicans might have trouble winning statewide elections but they do just fine in state legislative races, controlling the state Senate, with one exception since 1980, and the state House since 2010. There will be no Democratic ascendancy if Republicans continue their dominance of the General Assembly.
At stake, then, midway through the decade is much more than an election or two. The larger question is whether Pennsylvania will return to its historical role as a competitive two-party state or continue on a path toward long-term, one-party dominance of state government.
There are at least four key forces playing out in 2014 that offer clues as to whether competitive state politics will survive.
• The looming Democratic gubernatorial primary. State Democrats have their best shot at defeating an incumbent governor in almost 50 years. Yet, it is not a slam dunk for them. The primary field is large, unwieldy and (largely) unknown. The chances for Democrats to do major damage to themselves and their eventual nominee are palpable as the chances of a fractious primary looms ever more likely. There are good reasons parties with contested primaries often lose the general election. If Democrats forget that lesson in May, they could be reminded of it in November.
• Continuing influence of the tea party. Tea party supporters were the GOP’s best friends in 2010, energizing the Republican base in the “wave” election that brought control of the governor’s office and the General Assembly. In 2014, they could become the party’s worst nightmare. Since the 2010 success, support for the tea party has plummeted among the electorate even while it has retained its core strength in the Republican Party. Pennsylvania historically has been a moderate state, occasionally “flirting” with extremists but ultimately rejecting them. Ominously for state Republicans, voters of both parties now seem to be returning to those moderate roots.
• The 2014 legislative elections. While most eyes will be rooted on the gubernatorial contest, the outcome of the legislative races may forecast more about the state’s political future. Republican control of the Senate is down to three seats. Nor can a less likely state House turnover be ruled out completely, even with favorable GOP redistricting. If the GOP loses the governorship, loss of either house would guarantee minority party status. Loss of both houses might cripple the party for a decade or longer.
• Emerging cultural issues. While elections matter most in the short run, issues trump all in the long run. A party consistently on the wrong side of public opinion is a party in deep trouble. In Pennsylvania, the GOP’s steady rightward drift on a variety of cultural issues has begun to drive its electorate in the voter-rich Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley suburbs toward the Democrats. But even for Democrats, the warp-speed change of public opinion on cultural issues challenges the party to adapt and evolve. Moving forward into the decade, issues like medical marijuana, gay marriage, gun control and the environment are poised to transform state politics. Neither party can avoid this new reality and survive.
Pennsylvania has experienced one-party rule but twice in its history. The first was early in the 19th century when Democrats dominated state politics; the second from the Civil War until the 1930s when Republicans held control. Neither era had produced virtuous politics nor enhanced Pennsylvania’s national power. Indeed, much of the state’s early reputation for corrupt politics comes from these periods of one-party rule. Some still may wish for another period of one-party rule; they should be careful what they wish for.