Despite forecasts of a national red wave, Pennsylvania Democrat nominees for governor and U.S. Senate have double-digit leads in a battleground state that Joe Biden carried by just over 1 percent against Donald Trump.
If Republican candidates like gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano and U.S. Senate contender Dr. Mehmet Oz are going to have a chance in November, they have to keep the margins close in the Delaware Valley counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery.
“Those counties are vital not just in this election but in every election in large part because of the large number of people who live in those communities,” Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, told DVJournal. “These suburban voters used to be solidly Republican and now are more Democrat in their voting habits.”
Yost added, “Republicans can win if they really run up the numbers in the rest of the state, but it’s a lot easier if they do better in those counties.”
In the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, the state’s Democrat Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, part of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, has consistently held a double-digit lead in the polls. A new poll from the Center Street PAC gives Fetterman a 47-to-30 percent advantage.
A recent Fox News poll shows Democrat Attorney General Josh Shapiro with a 10-point lead, 50 to 40 percent over Mastriano in the race to replace term-limited Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf.
Trump, who in 2016 carried Pennsylvania by a razor-thin margin, endorsed both Oz and Mastriano during the Republican primary.
A post-primary analysis by the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College called urban and rural the “central dividing line” that was evident in both party primaries, but starker on the Republican side.
“Mastriano’s support mirrors President Trump’s support during his 2016 primary win in Pennsylvania: underperforming in the state’s large central and fringe metros and overperforming in the state’s less dense rural communities,” the analysis said. By contrast, the analysis found Oz “overperformed in the large central and fringe metros, while underperforming in the less dense communities of the state.”
Of Democrats, the analysis says: “Fetterman’s support among Democrats was much stronger in smaller, less densely populated communities than in the large central and fringe metros where Conor Lamb did a bit better. Still, he won convincingly in each community type.”
In the general election, a big part of the problem seems to be the state GOP doesn’t have the strongest nominees, both faring poorly in the Philadelphia suburban counties where Trump and Toomey held their own.
“A conventional conservative Republican rather than a MAGA Republican might fare better,” Matthew Kerbel, a political science professor at Villanova University, told DVJournal.
“For Mastriano, his problem is ideological. Voters are turned off by a candidate who can be positioned as extreme,” Kerbel said. “Oz has more of an authenticity problem. Stressing that he is from New Jersey plays into doubts people already had. Fetterman comes across as genuine. He’s certainly a liberal, but he has a demeanor that is blue collar, which minimizes his ideology.”
Delaware and Montgomery Counties are more closely aligned with Philadelphia while Bucks and Chester counties have rural areas and are more politically diverse, said Dan Mallinson, a public policy professor at Pennsylvania State University. Still, he said, the counties are much bluer than before.
“People come to the eastern part of the state out of New York City and New Jersey as those areas have become more expensive to live,” Mallinson said. “The general movement is in line with Democrats. A lot of wealth has come into that area, which used to be aligned with Republicans as the pro-business party. But now the Democrats have a lot of wealthy people in their party.”
On the flip side, Mallinson predicts both races will tighten, noting a sizeable number of Democrats changing their registration to Republican, though many have been voting Republican for a while before the registration change. Moreover, most elected Republicans in the state seem to be warming a bit to Mastriano.
“Mastriano and Shapiro remind me of the 2016 presidential race,” he said. “The Republicans had an outsider and the Democrats had an established, experienced heir apparent. That doesn’t always work out so well for all the talk we heard about Never Trumpers. We’ll see what happens with Mastriano.”
Pat Poprik, chair of the Bucks County Republican Committee, believes voters will vote their pocketbooks.
“For decades, the Philadelphia suburbs have been a bellwether for the national political environment,” said Poprik. “Bucks County, in particular, has always been the focus of statewide and national attention for its ‘swing’ status. For any candidate to be successful statewide, they must perform well here in our region. We believe that historic inflation, rising gas prices, and higher food costs are driving suburban voters to reject the failed Democrat policies that have led us here. By offering an alternative vision for our commonwealth and our country, Republican candidates will succeed in November.”
And Liz Preate Havey, the Republican chair for Montgomery County said, “Twenty years ago a successful Republican statewide candidate had to win convincingly in the southeast in order to offset large Democratic wins in the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With huge Republican growth outside of the southeast region, it is no longer necessary for Republicans to win the Southeast. However, Republicans still need to remain competitive in the suburbs to win statewide and thus still need to appeal to suburban voters.”
While neither Biden nor Trump is popular in the state now, Trump’s favorable rating in the state is 44 percent compared to Biden at 42 percent, according to the Fox poll. So, while Democrats wouldn’t likely want to jeopardize their leads by bringing in Biden to stump, the two lagging Republicans may have nothing to lose from a Trump appearance to excite the base, should their fortunes not reverse.
The poll found more than half of voters did not think Oz was familiar enough with Pennsylvania to represent the state, while fewer than a quarter were worried about Fetterman’s health after he had a recent stroke. Still, Oz leads 10 points among rural voters. That doesn’t quite compensate for the 23-point Fetterman lead among suburban voters near the population centers of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties.
In Pennsylvania, as well as the rest of the country, the top issues for voters tend to advantage Republicans.
For Pennsylvania voters, the top concern is inflation, and most disapprove of how Biden and Democrats have handled rising prices. Democrats say abortion is their top issue, but only 14 percent of Keystone State voters agree.
More than half say their financial situation is worse than two years earlier, while more than one-third said it’s the same and just 10 percent say they are doing better.