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Commentary By Charles F. McElwee

Pennsylvania’s No Longer America’s Least Eccentric State

The writer John Updike, a native son of the commonwealth, once described Pennsylvania as America’s “least eccentric state.” In the past, it rewarded moderate and oftentimes patrician Republicans and Democrats at the polls. But those votes reflected better days for working-class voters.

Donald Trump’s 2016 Pennsylvania victory — and Bernie Sanders’ pickups in rural, blue-collar counties in that year’s Democratic primary — confirmed many voters’ acute political disenchantment and their rejection of both party establishments. Following the COVID-19 era, their impatience with Pennsylvania’s centrist tradition has only intensified.

We saw the result on May 17: Many Republicans and Democrats embraced the most ideological or populist candidates and rejected moderation or incumbency. The primaries offer clues for the November general election.

On the Republican side, the still-unresolved Senate GOP primary reflects voters’ doubts about the populist credentials of Mehmet Oz, a celebrity surgeon, and David McCormick, recently CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund. If anything, regional voting patterns suggest that the candidates’ negative ads worked.

McCormick, who painted Oz as an inauthentic conservative based on his past comments and positions, carried most of Pennsylvania’s bounty of rural, Protestant, historically Republican counties. Oz, who attacked McCormick for his former company’s Chinese ties and offshoring jobs, performed best in post-industrial Catholic, traditionally Democratic counties that had experienced manufacturing decline. Trump’s endorsement of Oz helped in regions like northeastern Pennsylvania, where voters who had supported Barack Obama switched Republican to support the former president.

It was in conservative counties that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who touted a liberal populist message, had his highest share of the votes in the Senate Democratic primary. He won all 67 counties over Conor Lamb, who ran as a centrist Democrat and critic of his party’s leftward direction.

Lamb had attempted to replicate the statewide Democratic strategy of the past: an unassuming persona, deep political family roots, innumerable endorsements, establishment party backing, and an assurance of moderation. In the past, the playbook worked well, especially in 2006 for Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who hailed from a storied, anti-abortion political family and defeated incumbent Rick Santorum in a punishing midterm for Republicans.

Fetterman, who hails from a wealthy GOP family, aggressively campaigned in Trump-voting, conservative areas. He also spoke in a way and took positions — defending natural-gas fracking, for instance — that resonated with working-class Democrats. He also visited places like rural McKean County, where he commented at a local event, “Wherever people might feel they’ve been forgotten and marginalized ... that’s where someone like me needs to be.” He added: “Someplace like Smethport, Pa. ... these are places that should matter as much as anywhere.” Last Tuesday, McKean was among Fetterman’s best-performing counties.

Fetterman’s leftist populism will be tested in a general election against Oz or McCormick, either of whom will likely tout a mainstream populism akin to GOP Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s successful strategy in November. Fetterman has dismissed the “progressive” label, though he touts marijuana legalization (in a state confronting a fentanyl crisis) and takes an “activist” approach to criminal justice as Pennsylvania cities big and small grapple with crime.

And yet, for all the GOP’s advantages, the party is now preparing for the possible failure of GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a south-central Pennsylvania state senator who cultivated a similar but conservative populist following — albeit one that many GOP insiders fear will turn off voters in the general election.

During the pandemic, Mastriano positioned himself as a leading opponent of outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s dramatic COVID-19 restrictions, which included defining “essential” and “nonessential” businesses.

“For me and everyone else out there, every job and business is essential. I know when I was working as a janitor ... I needed that job,” said Mastriano in one of his many Facebook video posts.

He ran a religious-themed grassroots campaign. His support included the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Pennsylvania. “When we met him, he gave us the time of day when nobody else would,” the group’s co-chair told Spotlight PA.

In November, Mastriano, considered too polarizing a figure for a largely suburban state, faces Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Shapiro is running as a pragmatic centrist and a calming force against Mastriano, whom he calls “extreme” and “dangerous.” He is counting on the suburban coalition that delivered midterm pickups for the Democrats in 2018 and President Joe Biden’s election in 2020.

Republicans now have a broadened coalition that includes working-class voters who are changing their Democratic registration, but also many more centrist voters suspicious of their own party. Democrats rely on suburban voters, including independents and disillusioned upper-middle-class Republicans, but also on enthusiastic progressives, who espouse unpopular policy positions. Amid Biden’s plummeting poll numbers and dissatisfaction with Democrats’ ever-leftward lurch, midterm history is not on their side.

Either way, voters in the Keystone State appear to have little patience for the status quo. Pennsylvania’s no longer America’s least eccentric state. Expect surprising results in November.

This piece originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Charles F. McElwee is editor of RealClearPennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee. Adapted from City Journal.

This piece originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette