Westmoreland election results show GOP strength, impact of straight party voting
Republicans Sean Kertes and Doug Chew cruised to victory last week to secure a new GOP majority on the Westmoreland County Board of Commissioners and, in doing so, finished more than 5,000 votes ahead of two better-financed Democratic incumbents.
Political observers said the Republican wins for commissioner and four other countywide races is a reflection of the continued strength of the local GOP along with a dwindling base of support for Democrats that, until a decade ago, had been Westmoreland County’s dominant political party.
“This is a Republican county. The Democrats outspent the Republicans and had more name recognition. The message is that this county has turned red,” said Tom Balya, a former Democratic county commissioner.
Balya was elected to four terms in office before retiring at the end of 2011.
His former chief of staff, Ted Kopas, was the odd man out this week. He finished last, just 235 votes behind incumbent Gina Cerilli, for the third and final commissioners seat.
Democrats, Balya said, before the election believed they were in a strong position to retain the courthouse majority the party won back from the GOP in 2015. But the results indicated those assumptions were wrong.
“I’m starting to think that 2015 was an anomaly,” Balya said.
Balya said split allegiances among Democrats and a solid base for Republicans, who supported both commissioner candidates despite their separate campaigns, made the difference on election day.
He said the vote totals reflect that a significant number of Democratic voters likely cast ballots for just Cerilli or Kopas.
It’s a practice called “plunking,” where voters have an opportunity to cast their ballots for multiple candidates but only vote for their one favorite.
According to the unofficial results, the four county commissioner candidates received a combined 151,877 of a possible 169,476 votes from the more than 84,700 ballots that were cast. That means there were about 17,500 potential votes that were not cast.
Four years ago, the number of under-votes exceeded 16,100 in the commissioners race that saw both Cerilli and Kopas win board seats.
Republican successes at the ballot box is not new. For more than a decade, the GOP won federal, state, countywide and local races.
Where Democrats were once the county’s dominate party and controlled every office at the courthouse, it’s now the GOP that occupies a majority of elected positions.
Republicans also now outnumber Democrats on the voting rolls. Democrats just two decades ago had a 3-to-1 edge in registered voters in Westmoreland County.
“Turnout was the major reason for the Republican success in 2019,” said Westmoreland GOP Committee Chairman Kerry Jobe.
A breakdown of voter turnout by political party was not available as of late last week.
The unofficial results reflect, however, that fewer Republicans split their tickets and voted for Democratic candidates.
Almost 14,000 voters cast straight party votes for the GOP candidates compared to 10,200 for the Democrats.
This year’s election is the last time voters will have that option. A new law enacted earlier this year eliminates straight party voting in Pennsylvania starting next year.
“I think that will hit us hard in Westmoreland County,” Jobe said. “I’m sure we’ll take note and it gives me the opportunity to tell candidates they are not protected by straight party voting and that they’ll have to make their case to voters.”
Straight party voting has been a popular choice of late among Westmoreland County voters. More than 28% of voters this year cast ballots using that option.
More than half of the voters who participated in last year’s gubernatorial election did so.
Jobe believes the GOP will most likely be impacted in gubernatorial and presidential election years by the loss of the straight party voting option. He said voters are more willing to split their votes in the years when local, county and school board races dominate the ballot, such as this year’s election.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .