Thousands of Pa. Democrats join GOP; no one seems sure why

Julian Routh
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — A significant number of voters in Western Pennsylvania are leaving the Democratic Party to become Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterms, a trend that’s taken shape over several years and has both parties split on what the reason for the pattern is.

From Jan. 1 to July 25, more than 8,100 Democrats changed their voter registration to Republican in Allegheny County and the adjacent Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties, according to Pennsylvania Department of State data.

Less than a third of that number – 2,500 – made the change in the opposite direction, and Republicans have held a similar advantage in persuading independents and third-party registrants to come aboard.

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It’s part of a statewide trend that’s seen upwards of 38,000 Democrats switch parties this year, while only about 12,000 former Republicans are now Democrats.

Republicans say this is all part of their plan: cash in on what they see as Democratic elites failing their longtime voters, becoming too radical for the mainstream and making the GOP seem like a safe haven for commonsense policies.

But Democrats still hold a considerable registration advantage statewide, and some party members insist that the new GOP registrants are less a symbol of a Republican crossover appeal and more an indicator that many Democrats who had already been voting for Republicans for years are just now making the switch official. They say that there’s no reason to panic because the results won’t look any different in November.

The reality is somewhere in the middle, said Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University and a leading political analyst in Pennsylvania.

In counties in the southwest like Washington and Westmoreland, working-class voters have been showing up for Republicans since Donald Trump’s rise in 2016, when, in both counties, Democrats had a registration edge. But now, Republicans make up a majority of the electorate there, and in the old mining and mill towns, voters think the Democratic Party is getting too progressive, Madonna hypothesized.

In the suburbs, longtime Democrats are more likely to be concerned about inflation and the economy, Madonna added – but it’s too soon to see if the registration numbers are a warning sign for the party’s chances.

“You have to look at the trend underway for several years in these working-class counties. Go look at the voter registration out there in the southwest. Go look at the numbers – that now have more Republicans registered than Democrats,” Madonna said. “That’s a huge change.”

Carlotta Barnes, from York, putting out "Vote Here" signs outside of the Goode Elementary School polling place in York, Pa on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

In Washington County, 906 Democrats have changed their registration to Republican this year, while just 173 went from Republican to Democrat.

Dave Ball, chair of the Washington County Republican Party, said there’s been a steady beat of voters who were Democrats all their lives because their parents were Democrats and now realize that their values align more with the GOP.

Ball said there was a big influx of former Democrats in 2016, and it’s continued this year – when, under President Joe Biden, a lot of people “don’t like what they see,” he says, with the economy, inflation and immigration, for example.

“I think the prevailing mood is: It’s OK to be a Republican,” Ball said.

According to an analysis by Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Democratic registration advantage across the state in Pennsylvania checked in at around 550,000 in 2006, surged past the 1 million mark when Barack Obama was running for his first term as president and is now back to a pre-Obama advantage of barely 540,000.

In Allegheny County, more than 3,700 Democrats have converted to Republican this year, according to state data. That’s more than double the 1,577 former Republicans who’ve become Democrats.

Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said it’s indicative of how far left he thinks the Democratic Party has moved. There’s no secret Trump was able to tap into blue-collar workers who felt Democrats had left them behind years earlier, DeMarco said – and the trend continues now.

“I would like to thank the Democratic Party and their failed policies for helping drive longtime Democrat voters to the Republican Party,” said DeMarco, who also sits on Allegheny County Council.

But to Bethany Hallam, the progressive Democrat who serves as an at-large Allegheny County councilwoman, it’s apparent that people have been voting against their own party for years and just haven’t changed their registrations. That’s what’s happening here, she said.

“I don’t believe we will see actual voting trends changing,” Hallam said. “The registration trends are changing to match how people have been voting for years.”

No alarm – yet

Democrats aren’t sounding the alarm yet on their midterm prospects in Pennsylvania, where U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman and gubernatorial torchbearer Josh Shapiro both hold double-digit leads over their Republican opponents, a Fox News poll released Thursday found.

In the Senate race, Fetterman leads Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiothoracic surgeon and TV celebrity, 47% to 36% in the latest Fox poll, while Shapiro is beating state Sen. Doug Mastriano in the gubernatorial contest 50% to 40%.

But even with the latest poll, Hallam has warned that Democrats, as a whole, need to embrace a more effective messaging strategy. The average voters vote in their own interest, she says, and the Democrats’ messaging is “trash.”

While Democrats like Hallam are pushing their party to change, Republicans are vying to convince voters that the Democratic Party has changed too much – a tactic they tried in 2020 that led to down-ballot successes.

DeMarco, whose committee has pushed TV advertising in the past that’s deemed the Democratic Party out of touch with its roots, said it’s simply a strategy to register as many Republicans as possible, no matter where they come from. He noted that since the voter rolls were cleaned in the first quarter of 2020, Republicans have gained over 10,000 registered voters, while Democrats have garnered an additional 3,300.

“It’s not turning red, right,” DeMarco said of Allegheny County, “but I think that I would be able to use it as evidence of a shift based upon the work we’ve been doing as a party here – letting people know there is a party here that stands up for their principles and values.”

Asked about the polls showing the party’s two top-of-ticket candidates trailing by double digits, DeMarco noted that the election isn’t for another 100 days. Oz just went up on the air with his first ad, and once voters get to know Mastriano, they’ll see he’s an “intelligent, reasonable guy” who wants to pry government off the backs of Pennsylvanians, DeMarco said.

Hallam countered that it’s not Democrats who are too radical but Republicans. Outlawing abortion, defunding education and denying climate change is radical, she said – and Democrats need to respond by being the party of working people and commonsense solutions.

The Democrats’ flaws won’t push people to vote Republican, Hallam said, but instead discourage them from voting altogether. And Madonna said that right now, Republicans are more motivated to vote, though the dynamics are beginning to change.