Pennsylvania Democrats kept suburbs, gained rural voters
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — After Joe Biden eked out victory in Pennsylvania in 2020, Democrats in hugely consequential races for governor and U.S. Senate scored blowout wins by comparison in Tuesday's election.
They ran up the score again in leftward-shifting suburbs and cut losses in rural and exurban stretches where former President Donald Trump is popular.
Other Democrats on the ballot in the presidential battleground state won all three toss-up races for Congress and eroded GOP majorities in the state Legislature as the party outperformed expectations while supporting an unpopular Biden.
“That means that our side really came out,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. “It wasn't enough that you just shaved margins in rural counties. You had to have a big Democratic vote, as well.”
At rally after rally, Democratic voters reported being focused on beating back what they viewed as a Republican threat to ban abortion and — in a state still roiled by Trump's lies about the 2020 election — to permanently undermine democracy itself.
State spending records in races for governor and Senate fell as Pennsylvania reported its best midterm turnout in decades — and as Democrats continue to try to exorcise the demons of Hillary Clinton's loss there in 2016's presidential election.
Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, the state's two-term attorney general, and Sen.-elect John Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor, scored decisive wins, despite Biden's flagging popularity in the White House and sluggish turnout from Philadelphia, the state's largest city and a Democratic bastion.
They made up for it with another strong performance in the suburbs around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and better-than-2020 performances in deep-red rural and exurban areas.
“These are two state officials that people knew, they knew their work and they both went everywhere,” Casey said. “They went everywhere as elected officials, but they went everywhere as candidates, too.”
The Associated Press called the races for Shapiro and Fetterman early Wednesday. Before polls closed, some elections officials had warned that vote-counting could drag out for days in a close race without a declared winner.
Biden won by 1 percentage point in 2020 to bring Pennsylvania back into the Democrats' column and power Biden to the White House. With votes still being counted Wednesday, Shapiro was ahead by 13 points and Fetterman by 3 points.
In his victory speech, Fetterman credited his “every county, every vote” campaign strategy and slogan, emphasizing his aim at white, working-class voters who had fled the Democratic Party in recent elections and delivered massive margins for Trump.
Fetterman — a hero in national progressive circles — did it despite his politics, which Republicans, and even some Democrats, have warned are too left-wing for most of Pennsylvania. Many Democrats, however, have come to see the 6-foot-8, shaven-headed, tattooed and hoodie-wearing Fetterman as a way to reintroduce the party to the disaffected and working-class voters who flocked to Trump.
Shapiro — a veteran of traveling the state, both as a candidate and as attorney general — is buttoned-down and polished, unlike Fetterman, and took middle-of-the-road stances to emphasize outreach to Republicans.
Both were fundraising powerhouses who coordinated their campaigns well, shared resources and campaigned with down-ballot candidates, Democrats say.
The contrast against their opponents was stark. They went up against two political novices who were burdened with heavy political baggage and avoided each other on the campaign trail.
Republicans nominated a candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, a state senator and retired Army colonel who some party brass had warned was too extreme to win an election in the politically moderate state.
In addition to supporting a complete ban on abortion, with no exceptions, Mastriano drove off moderate voters with his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he was outside the U.S. Capitol with pro-Trump demonstrators and looked on as they attacked police.
For Senate, Republicans nominated Dr. Mehmet Oz, who moved from New Jersey into his in-laws' home in suburban Philadelphia to run in Pennsylvania.
Even with Trump’s endorsement, he barely survived a brutal primary campaign in which he was plastered as a Hollywood liberal elitist and struggled to connect with many Republican voters.
Trump had tried to prop up Oz and Mastriano with a rally Saturday on friendly territory in western Pennsylvania. But even there, in Westmoreland County, Oz and Mastriano saw far smaller margins of victory than Trump's nearly 30-point win in 2020.
Democrats now see a strategy to build on for future wins: making their presence felt all over the state, instead of trying to drive up margins in urban centers and friendly suburbs.
“Last night shows it makes it a hell of a lot easier,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic campaign strategist in western Pennsylvania. “And there's no discounting the weakness of Oz and Mastriano; they both were extremely weak. But in a midterm election, sometimes that doesn’t matter, which is why it was so important for Fetterman and Shapiro to build a strong operation.”
Shapiro's campaign underscored that Wednesday, saying that it “went everywhere” and was on track to score the largest margin for a non-incumbent candidate for governor since 1946.
It listed results from seven counties to demonstrate how Shapiro had improved margins over Biden’s in 2020, including by 20 percentage points in several counties.
“Shapiro campaigned heavily where other Democrats don’t often win,” Shapiro's campaign said.
It pointed to his campaign launch in Johnstown — in the heart of steel and coal territory once dominated by Democrats, now dominated by Republicans — and kicking off his bus tour in Erie, a traditionally Democratic county that Trump flipped in 2016.
“Josh’s historically strong performance held in counties across the commonwealth where Democrats often struggle,” the campaign said.