Pennsylvania is not really “a Democratic stronghold”

A few days ago, Talking Points Memo posted a story about Allyson Schwartz, one of the Democrats running to unseat incumbent Pennsylvania governor, and the man who slow-rolled the Jerry Sandusky investigation so it wouldn’t cost him in the 2010 governor’s race, Classy Freddie Blassie Tom Corbett.

I can't believe I got these two confused. Obviously Corbett is the shiny jacket?
I can’t believe I got these two confused. Obviously Corbett is the…guy…um…in the shiny jacket?

Whoever wins the Democratic primary has a good shot at unseating Blassie Corbett (damnit!) in November, on account of how three years into his term most Pennsylvanians have realized that electing this clown in the first place was a terrible mistake. Schwartz, who’s been in the US House since 2005 and was an honorary co-chair of the “Democrats would be way better if they were mostly just like Republicans but cool with gay people” think tank Third Way, seemed like the highest profile primary candidate going in to the race. However, she’s been eclipsed by a businessman from south-central PA named Tom Wolf, who leads in polls for both the primary and the general election (Corbett is in trouble no matter who wins the primary, but Wolf is outpolling him by nearly 20 points in a recent Quinnipiac poll, though they don’t seem to have released crosstabs so it’s hard to analyze that result). However, Wolf is still relatively unknown, and as he starts to take some frontrunner heat, Schwartz is trying to reposition herself away from her unappealing (for Democratic primary voters, at least) Third Way-roots; she left that group in January over its ridiculous attack on Elizabeth Warren, and now she’s actually running on, rather than away from, her vote for Obamacare. That was the point of the TPM article.

But that article perpetuates an idea that Democrats and their supporters should probably stop taking for granted, which is that Pennsylvania is a reliably Democratic state. Their specific wording is, “the state is regarded as a Democratic stronghold,” but it’s not, except at the Presidential level, where it hasn’t gone Republican since 1988. When it comes to statewide office, though, and control of state government, PA is at best a 50/50 proposition. Of the last six elected governors of PA (which excludes Republican Mark Schweiker, who served out the remainder of Tom Ridge’s term from 2001-2003 after Ridge went to the White House and then Homeland Security), which goes back to 1971, three were Democrats and three were Republicans. Each of those administrations (the Schweiker thing complicates this a bit) served a full two terms and then was succeeded by a governor from the other party. Of the last 10 elected PA governors, which takes you back to 1955 (PA governors were limited to one term prior to 1968), the score is 5-5, and the pattern of 8 years of one party followed by 8 years of the other party still holds.

What about other statewide offices? Of PA’s US Senate seats, one has been Republican since 1969, not counting the few months when Arlen Specter pretended to be a Democrat in 2010, and the other has been traded back and forth since Republican John Heinz (who was first elected in 1977) died in 1991, from Democrat Harris Wofford for four years to Republican Rick Santorum for 12 years and Democrat Bob Casey, Jr., since 2007. PA tends to elect Democratic State Treasurers and Auditors General, but Republican Attorneys General. Democrats in PA have a voter registration edge of about a million people, but because those Democrats are highly concentrated in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, that edge only rarely translates into control of the state General Assembly, and even more rarely into control of the State Senate. As far as PA’s US House delegation is concerned, forget about it. Republicans won 13 of 18 House races in PA in 2012 despite losing the overall popular vote there.

So while I realize that presidential elections are the only ones that Democratic voters seem to care about, and PA is a reliable Democratic vote where those are concerned, it is not a reliably Democratic state when it comes to just about everything else. And since PA gubernatorial elections happen in off years, not presidential years, there’s no reason to believe that Allyson Schwartz, or whoever wins the Democratic primary, will have any built-in party advantage against Corbett in November.


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