Alan: Everybody who’s on the ballot in 2020 is already thinking about next year, especially members of Congress and folks who will be involved in the presidential campaigns. The Trump campaign is putting their people in place all across Pennsylvania, particularly in areas where they need to duplicate the 2016 results. 

At the same time, we have county and municipal elections occurring across the state on Nov. 5. Personally, I’m looking at my county, Chester County, and other southeastern counties to see if the trend of Democrats winning where they never won before continues. In 2017 we saw Democrats in Chester County win courthouse seats for the first time. In 2018, a historic number of Democrats were elected to the State Legislature out of the Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, including Chester. By all indications, the county courthouse elections and commissioner elections in Chester County are going to be hotly contested and very close. At this point, I can see an outcome either way. 

If the Democrats win, that continues momentum, turnout and electoral success for Democrats. To me, that has nothing to do with 2020; that has everything to do with the Democrats’ surge continuing organically. 

T.J.:  Local elections are critically important; full stop, end of sentence. Yet, they get overlooked because voter turnout between a presidential election and an election for a county row office is dramatically different. But, if you subscribe to the notion, as I do, that all politics is local, I’m focused primarily on three areas. 

First, does the organic momentum continue for Democrats? We witnessed extraordinary turnouts and outcomes in what was considered the off-year election, in 2018. My hope, and my question, is: do those trends continue in our favor? 

Secondly, do left-of-center Democrats win general elections? We saw that, not only in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but also, in all corners of Pennsylvania in 2018. Not only did these Democrats prevail in primaries, oftentimes they defeated more traditional, or more moderate Democrats in the process. These results make me wonder if those messages will resonate with voters in general elections. The answer to that question is critically important as we continue forward to the presidential election next year. 

And then, finally, the most important question for me is, can Democrats all peacefully coexist? Republicans dealt with this roughly a decade ago, in 2010, with the rise of the Tea Party Republican. Those men and women typically reflected more strident views of the Constitution and landed far more right of center than traditional, John Heinz, Tom Ridge, or Rockefeller Republicans. Democrats are experiencing a similar phenomenon on the left. 

Can we coexist? The Republicans sent us the roadmap. It’s littered with potholes that I hope we can avoid, but it’s a lot easier to hope than actually avoid them. Our success or failure will impact the presidential election, starting with the primary. 


T.J. Rooney: If I were Sanders or Warren, I’d make darn sure that I was invested somehow in these local races. It’s going to affect the narrative.

But, we won’t have to wait until next year to figure it out. People will start interpreting Nov. 5’s results before the clock strikes midnight. These elections are important on their own, but they also serve as the tea leaves others try to extrapolate into messages, ideas or outcomes that can be relevant down the road.

Alan: I am fascinated by T.J.’s point about the two camps within the Democrat Party. The more moderate Democrat tends to do well and win elections in counties like Chester, Montgomery and Bucks. Then there are those more progressive or socialist Democrat candidates that have won in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even in some other towns and counties. There’s at least one very progressive candidate in Chester County who is actually forcing some moderate Democrats to consider what’s happening inside their party in addition to what’s good for their district.  

Having gone through this as a Republican, and having seen a lot of good moderate Republicans step out of the political arena, I’m fascinated to see if the Democrats can handle it better. 

At the same time, you can’t help but watch the people who are in federal and state offices now, who will be on the ballot next year. Congressman Scott Perry’s (R) seat has already been designated as one of the 10 most likely seats to flip in the country.  And even the Pennsylvania Senate has three seats that will be very competitive in Erie, Delaware and Perry Counties. The outcome of those elections could very well affect the balance of power for the first time in a long time. What happens in the fall hints at the outcome for the 2020 federal and state elections.

T.J.: This year, my party is in a spirited debate about who the Democrat nominee will be for president of the United States. The conversation, when you whittle it all down, is about electability. With the rise and success of the further left-of-center candidates, who can win places like Bucks County and Chester County? Do they prevail, or do they not? Whether the voices that are further left of center and have been most vocal actually translate into local votes is the big question. It would be highly unusual for voters to go from Republican to extreme liberal in one fell swoop. But, make no mistake, the outcome in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Montgomery Counties, and certainly in the City of Philadelphia, will be interpreted with a national lens. 

Alan: In one of the Chester County races for county commissioner, the Republicans will attempt to cast one Democrat as a very progressive, left-wing Democrat. Can someone who is made to look that far left succeed in a county that’s traditionally centrist? It will be interesting to see if that messaging works, or if the election really becomes about local, organic party turnout and the opportunity to have a historic outcome for Democrats in the courthouse race.   

T.J.: If I were a forward-thinking, progressive supporter of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, I would do everything I possibly could to make sure those left-of-center candidates prevail. But will these candidates play in the local elections? If they don’t there are only two Democrat presidential candidates that can win Pennsylvania: Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. Old T.J. is not the only one thinking these thoughts. If I were Sanders or Warren, I’d make darn sure that I was invested somehow in these local races. It’s going to affect the narrative. If you want to be on the right side of a positive narrative, you better make sure these candidates win. 

There’s a lot of hoping and praying and speaking going on. I want to see who actually does the doing – getting their hands dirty, making investments, turning out voters, and winning elections. It’s one thing to have these big lofty theoretical debates and discussions about this stuff; it’s another actually to do it.

If the presidential hopefuls don’t get involved and the candidates associated with their policies don’t win, then their race, which is already very difficult in a state like this, is going to be twice as hard.

Alan Novak (alan@rooneynovak.com) is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and T.J. Rooney (T.J.rooney@rooneynovak.com) is a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. They are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and policy debates.

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