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G. Terry Madonna & Michael Young: Have we seen high tide for Republicans in Pa.?

| Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, 7:03 p.m.
Gov. Tom Wolf
Gov. Tom Wolf

From the Civil War until the mid-20th century, Republicans dominated Pennsylvania politics, gradually giving way to a shared power two-party system. But by the early 21st century, Republicans had re-established control over state politics, coming to control the state Legislature by overwhelming numbers as well as the state’s congressional delegation.

As recently as four years ago, the GOP controlled the governor’s office, maintained unchallenged control of both houses and dominated the state’s congressional delegation, holding three of every four seats. Few if any political parties outside the southern states have enjoyed such a hegemony lasting as long as Pennsylvania’s GOP.

But now the party may be facing long-term decline after some 160 years of party ascendancy.

Evidence for that conclusion is abundant.

Exhibit A is the recent abysmal record of state Republicans in winning the governorship. Tom Wolf’s 2018 victory now means Democrats have won four of the past five gubernatorial elections. Moreover, Republicans are simply not nominating the caliber of gubernatorial candidates they once did. Both of the last two (Tom Corbett and Scott Wagner) have only faintly resembled earlier GOP icons like Bill Scranton, Dick Thornburgh or Tom Ridge. Wagner in particular was an inept nominee, raising questions about the party’s ability to recruit the kind of candidates that used to win gubernatorial elections regularly despite large Republican registration deficits.

But gubernatorial futility is not the Republicans’ sole problem. Closely related is the party’s inability to win Pennsylvania’s “independent” statewide offices: attorney general, auditor general and treasurer. The last Republican to win attorney general was Corbett in 2008. The last Republican treasurer was Barbara Hafer (2000), who actually left office as a Democrat. The last Republican auditor general was that same Republican-turned-Democrat, Barbara Hafer, in 1997. Before her, no Republican had held the office since Charles Smith in 1957. The GOP’s virtual freeze-out from these offices means the Republican bench for higher state offices is inevitably leaner, while the offices themselves exercise considerable influence over state government policy.

Equally troubling for state Republicans is their steady erosion of support in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs. Loss of Republican strength in the suburbs traces back to former Gov. Ed Rendell (2003-11), a popular former Philadelphia mayor. But the carnage in the suburbs has accelerated under President Trump. This year, the Philly suburbs comprising a third or so of all voters gave Wolf an astounding 320,000 more votes than his opponent. In the wider election, suburban voters flipped some 12 state House seats and four state Senate seats from Republican to Democrat, while adding some three congressional seats to the Democratic column. This represent a long-term abandonment of the once-solid Republican vote expected from suburban voters.

Last but certainly not least among Republican worries is Trump’s anemic approval rating in Pennsylvania. Real Clear Politics reports his average national approval rate at a mere 42.6 percent. Approval rates matter more when the president is also on the ballot as he is expected to be in 2020. If his popularity doesn’t improve heading into 2020, it will be difficult for Republicans to bounce back.

So, have we seen high water for a once-dominant party now showing some cracks in a façade of invulnerability? If demographics are destiny, Republicans are in trouble, anchored in a constituency of mostly white, lesser educated, older voters — while their support is hemorrhaging among women, minorities, more educated, younger and suburban voters. Women voters are an especially acute problem for Republicans with exit polls from the recent gubernatorial election showed Democrat Tom Wolf winning a stunning 65 percent of the female vote while ticket mate Sen. Bob Casey won 63 percent.

But, betting against a party that has made an art form of reinventing itself for some 160 years may be a bad bet. Certainly, Pennsylvania Democrats have regularly demonstrated their talent for rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory. Hoping for Democrat ineptness, however, is not going to solve the deep problems confronting the GOP. Republicans must do that themselves.

G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author and former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State.

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