Momentum is a valuable asset in many of life’s endeavors. In sports, business, and entertainment, success can foster optimism and excitement, often creating opportunities for additional achievements. Momentum doubtless applies to politics, too — especially for the Republican Party in this midterm year. In Pennsylvania, the GOP clearly has the upper hand in what remains an electoral battleground.
A Republican resurgence couldn’t be better-timed in the Keystone State, where for the first time in more than a half century there is both an open governor’s seat and an open U.S. Senate seat in the same year. Open seats and a favorable election cycle keep state Republicans optimistic about the party’s November prospects. But momentum by itself doesn’t guarantee success. Indeed, momentum can be broken by one’s missteps — or by the superior performance of one’s opponents. Both possibilities are in place in Pennsylvania, where Republicans — in spite of the favorable political climate — could still fail to capitalize.
For now, all signs indicate a Republican advantage in Pennsylvania’s midterms. In recent years, for instance, the GOP has narrowed Democrats’ registered-voter advantage statewide and enjoyed considerable success in back-to-back elections. Notably, this resurgence coincided with Donald Trump’s failure to carry Pennsylvania in 2020. While the former president lost the state in 2020, his fellow Republicans won statewide offices that the party hadn’t held in decades. And Republicans like Bucks County's U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1, won districts carried by Joe Biden. Republican fortunes continued to surge in 2021, with the party claiming victories in a state Supreme Court election and other statewide judicial races.
Republicans’ Pennsylvania electoral success, moreover, pairs with other promising signs. The nature of political cycles, for example — with a first-term Democrat in The White House — indicates that 2022 favors Republicans. In addition, in the previous two midterms following Democratic presidential victories — 1994 and 2010 — Republicans dominated at the polls. The cyclical tailwinds behind state Republicans are magnified by the poor standing of Biden and Gov. Tom Wolf, both Democrats with plummeting approval ratings.
The Keystone State’s political landscape likely explains the extraordinary level of interest among Republican candidates in seeking their party’s nomination in the gubernatorial and Senate races. For both offices, the prospective candidate fields are huge, indicating Republican excitement — but also posing some risk. The crowded primary battles will be costly and may produce winners who capture only a modest plurality of GOP voters.
The impact of Trump on the outcomes may prove significant. While he could boost the chances of candidates who win his support in the primary, deep connections to the former president may be a liability in the general election. Though Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016, for example, his acolytes — former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a current gubernatorial candidate, and Scott Wagner, a former state senator — were crushed in 2018 statewide races. Trump himself failed to repeat a state victory in 2020 while other Republicans flourished. A scenario where an energized group of “Trump voters” helps carry candidates to victories in the GOP primaries could reduce the party’s chances in the fall by leaving Republicans with less-than-optimal general election offerings.
Another potential momentum stopper for the GOP is the opposition. In the past, the path to statewide success in Pennsylvania has often run through the center. If Democrats end up with more centrist candidates facing polarizing Republicans emerging from fractured primary fields, the Democrats could overcome the headwinds they’re facing this year.
For example, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who won in 2020 when Republicans swept other state office races, will likely cruise to his party’s gubernatorial nomination without burning much of his financial resources or having to move to the left on policy matters to win over progressives.
Montgomery County's Shapiro has already crafted policy positions that appeal to union members and working-class voters who remain an essential part of winning coalitions in Pennsylvania. It’s less clear who will emerge from the Democrats’ Senate primary, though front-runners Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman could both pose matchup problems for the GOP. Lamb, in particular, would be problematic, as he mirrors Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr., who has cruised to victory in three Senate elections since 2006.
Last November’s elections, largely successful for the GOP in Pennsylvania, provided a case study of how the party’s current momentum in the commonwealth can be undermined. In the Lehigh Valley’s Northampton County, a political bellwether, Republicans saw a generally strong night diminished by a decisive defeat in the county executive race. In that election, incumbent Democrat Lamont McClure cruised to victory at the same time that Republicans were winning other contested races in the county. McClure, a centrist Democrat, deserves some credit for the win, but his opponent, Steve Lynch, may have had more to do with the lopsided result. With a Trumpian rhetorical style and a culture warrior persona, Lynch lost many suburban voters who were casting votes for Republicans across their ballots.
Northampton County is a reminder that even when momentum is in your favor, success is not guaranteed. This year, Republicans have the political winds at their back in Pennsylvania, but candidates still matter in electoral battlegrounds.
Christopher Borick is director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. He lives in Nazareth, Northampton County. This piece first appeared at www.realclearpolitics.com.
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Op-Ed: Can the Pennsylvania GOP ride a Republican wave?