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HARRISBURG — It was supposed to be a historic year for Pennsylvania Democrats.
Riding the “blue wave” of 2018 and further gains in local elections the next year, the party hoped it would deliver the state to former Vice President Joe Biden, sweep the three statewide row offices, and flip the GOP-controlled legislature. Democratic groups from inside and outside the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make it happen.
By Friday, those dreams had evaporated.
While it looked increasingly likely the state would break for Biden — though the race hadn’t yet been called — there wasn’t a lot of other good news for Democrats. Republicans had not only held the majority in the state House and Senate, but were poised to possibly gain seats.
For the first time since 2008, Republicans claimed a row office through an election, with Republican Tim DeFoor winning the auditor general race. And the GOP also held onto congressional seats in the Philadelphia and Harrisburg suburbs Democrats had considered to be within reach.
“These results are clearly disappointing for any Democrat here in Pennsylvania,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist in Pittsburgh.
So why didn’t Biden’s apparent success in the state have coattails for state candidates? While political strategists and candidates warned it was still too early to assess the full extent of the damage, and uncounted ballots could change the picture, they offered a number of theories for why Democrats came up short — from ticket-splitting to a backlash against coronavirus restrictions, to Trump over-performing his turnout expectations.
Matthew J. Brouillette, a prominent conservative linked to political action committees that spent millions boosting GOP candidates, said the results were a “complete repudiation" of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his COVID-19 lockdowns and policies.
Wolf and the legislature have clashed frequently this year, after Wolf in the spring ordered the temporary closure of businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Fights over limits on bars and restaurants, high school sporting events, and crowd sizes continued into the fall, with some Democratic lawmakers breaking with the governor.
But public health experts widely credit Wolf’s moves for slowing the spread of the virus this summer and reducing hospitalization rates and the number of deaths.
J.J. Abbott, a former press secretary to the governor, said he didn’t think the results represented unhappiness with Wolf, but rather district maps that favored Republicans. Flipping the chambers required historic voter turnout in favor of Democrats and significant grassroots organization.
Abbott thinks Democrats got the latter, but not the former. Biden got more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, but Trump also bested his vote totals from four years ago, as turnout surged across the board.
“It’s clear that folks underestimated the level of turnout that the president would generate this time,” said Abbott, now the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Commonwealth Communications. “And he was able to build an even bigger coalition of voters than in 2016.”
This was also the first presidential election in Pennsylvania without a straight-ticket voting option, which lawmakers eliminated as part of the 2019 election law that also greatly expanded mail voting.
Ticket-splitting — when voters pick a candidate from one party at the top of the ballot but candidates from the other party in down-ballot races — was also a factor, both Mikus and Brouillette said. Statewide, Biden had received about 3.3 million votes as of Friday, about 300,000 more than Nina Ahmad, the losing Democratic auditor general candidate.
Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs appeared to benefit from this, Brouillette said, but so did Democratic incumbents in Trump-friendly districts, like Rep. Frank Burns of Cambria County.
“I think it likely cut both ways,” Brouillette said.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, was not surprised by the results for two reasons: Elections tend to favor incumbents, and it’s not unusual for row office candidates to garner less support than presidential hopefuls at the top of the ticket (although Democrat Josh Shapiro outperformed Clinton when he was first elected state attorney general in 2016).
“In many ways, it was sort of status quo,” Madonna said.
Shapiro defeated Republican challenger Heather Heidelbaugh to win reelection, according to the Associated Press. The AP late Friday had yet to declare a winner in the race for state treasurer, in which incumbent Democrat Joe Torsella trailed Republican challenger Stacy Garrity.
The AP had also called 17 of 18 congressional races in Pennsylvania for the incumbent. In the remaining race, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, in the Pittsburgh suburbs, was leading.
Republican state Sen. Tom Killion campaigns in Aston, Pa., in August.
In the legislature, Republicans in both the House and Senate were poised to keep their majorities, based on races called by the AP. Democrats flipped one seat, as Sen. Tom Killion, a moderate Republican from Delaware and Chester Counties, lost to Democrat John Kane. But Republicans were up in one other closely watched Senate race and scored a victory in another Friday evening.
Of the House races not called by 5 p.m. Friday, six were Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia suburbs. Democrats failed to flip any of the seats they had targeted in Allegheny County, according to AP projections.
Tension over down-ballot Democratic failures went public Thursday. Emily Skopov, who lost her campaign for an open Republican-held state House seat in the Pittsburgh suburbs, while responding to a tweet that accused progressive lawmakers of tone-deaf messaging, described herself as “a casualty/collateral damage of this offensively poor messaging.” Skopov later apologized for her “offensively poor choice of words.”
State Rep. Summer Lee (D., Allegheny) said white Democrats shouldn’t blame Black organizers and activists for their losses.
“You did NOT lose in your suburbs where you’ve allowed racism to fester because ‘defund police’ or ‘progressive messaging,’ ” she wrote on Twitter. “You lost because the Democratic Party has no down-ballot strategy, no message that resonates w/the masses, no field strategy, no vision.”
Democratic state House candidate Emily Skopov in Allegheny County in September.
Mikus, the Democratic strategist in Pittsburgh, said the law enforcement issue and accusations of wanting to “defund the police” was a common attack from Republicans this year. He said Biden, as a presidential candidate, was in a better position to push back on those kinds of attacks than low-profile legislative candidates.
“Joe Biden was able to wade through some of the trickier national issues,” Mikus said.
In a few of the races still not called, Democratic incumbents trailed, including House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, who represents parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties.
State Rep. Leanne Krueger (D., Delaware), the chair of the political arm for House Democrats, acknowledged that Republicans appeared likely to keep their majority. She pointed to many provisional ballots still uncounted that could potentially turn the tide in some races. Democrats haven’t conceded in some of the races that were called against them.
But, no matter what, she thought Democrats deserved credit for helping at the top of the ticket.
“I absolutely believe that our candidates contributed to putting Joe Biden over the top,” Krueger said. “Aggressive races at the bottom of the ballot drive turnout up to the top of the ticket like nothing else does.”
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