By John Hinshaw
This was not the midterm election Pennsylvania Republicans were expecting. The New York Times reveals that voters in the Keystone State trended leftward, while across the border in New York, the opposite was true, despite the reelection of a Democratic governor.
As it stands, the state GOP is trying to assess what went wrong and what changes it could make to ensure that this does not happen again. Obviously, Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano was a flawed gubernatorial candidate, and he ran a stealth campaign that resulted in an historic shellacking. Mastriano barely won in Lancaster County, for instance, with a margin of 2.5%, a 14-point drop from President Donald Trump’s performance two years earlier. Other Republicans have blamed their woes on Trump – particularly on his insistence, embraced by Mastriano, that the 2020 election was stolen.
It’s worth recalling that Mastriano handily won his party’s nomination; if there had been a red wave in the Commonwealth, Republicans in the state legislature would have embraced his agenda, from right-to-life to right-to-work, from election integrity to the climate crisis. While a better messenger would help, the quality of candidates matters, too, as does the message of the party. That will be harder to change.
Throughout the country, voters rejected election deniers who ran for governor or secretary of state. Had this belief not become a truism among many of the party faithful, candidates like Mastriano would not have been nominated. The Inquirer quotes various county GOP leaders who lament one knock-on effect of that belief: Republican distrust in mail-in ballots. They observe that this makes getting out the vote harder to accomplish. Sheer self-interest should dictate that Republicans drop quietly their view that mail-in voting leads to voter harvesting. Whether they can do so is an important clue as to the direction of the party.
The demographics of Pennsylvania are rapidly changing. The party lost the state House majority because the southeastern part of the state is growing and moving away from the GOP. Voters under 30 voted against Republicans by nearly 40% in the U.S. Senate race. Unless the GOP regains control over the redistricting process (unlikely before 2032), the party should shift its messaging.
I see no evidence, however, that the party will shift its position on abortion, a top concern among younger voters. And it’s likely that the post-Dobbs political environment will continue to shape voters’ perceptions of the parties. Why should pro-choice voters trust even moderate Republicans on the issue when the leaders and majority of the party would pass what most see as extreme laws?
The most likely scenario is that the state GOP retains a grip on parts of the state that are older, whiter, more rural, and more evangelical. That provides a stronghold (the state Senate) to continue to hold Democrats at bay. But it’s also likely to reinforce the party’s ideological rigidity, complicating its ability to adapt to new realities.
An additional factor is that the more the GOP is aligned with its MAGA faction, the more it risks alienating or losing some long-time supporters. For example, I recently had dinner with a group of retired cardiologists. They confided that a few of their friends, rock-ribbed Republicans, voted for Democrat Josh Shapiro for governor because they thought Mastriano was too extreme or posed a danger to democracy. These kinds of moderate Republicans are undoubtedly a sliver of the GOP, but in a closely divided state, losing any segment of voters complicates the party’s task of rebuilding itself.
John Hinshaw is a professor of history at Lebanon Valley College. This column first published on RealClear Pennsylvania.