Much has been written about the loss of GOP support among suburban voters nationally. Southeast Pennsylvania is no exception to what we have witnessed nationwide, especially since Donald Trump’s entry into politics. After generations of Republican dominance in the four Philadelphia “collar counties” (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery), we have seen a steady — and more recently rapid — erosion for the GOP there.
Montgomery County, once noted by Ronald Reagan as the third most prominent Republican county in the nation, lost its courthouse in 2011 and has not been carried for a statewide GOP executive or legislative candidate since Arlen Specter in 2004. Republican dominance in Delaware and Chester counties, which had held their respective courthouses for generations, was lost during President Trump’s term of office, and a wave of Democrat legislative wins in state and federal legislative races have decimated the party’s power across the region.
While GOP dominance has been declining across the region since around the turn of the century, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and election dramatically hastened that trend. Highly educated suburban voters were often offended by Trump’s style and rhetoric, and the former President did little to bring them into his camp.
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Let’s look at the decline in GOP legislators from the SE PA (collar counties and Philadelphia):
|2003 GOP DEM Split
|2011 GOP DEM Split
|2019 GOP DEM Split
|2023 GOP DEM Split
We can see from the above that the Republican Party started to see losses in the decade leading up to Trump’s election in 2016. GOP incumbents who were holding on, were doing so by smaller and smaller margins. Trump’s election put that trend on steroids with widespread losses across the region for Republican state and federal legislators (and courthouses). The 2021 decennial legislative redistricting further undermined GOP legislative candidates in 2022.
Regional results for statewide races over the past two decades also show the trend of loss of Republican strength in the collar counties and the Southeast in general.
|Margin R (000’s) Collar Counties
|Margin R Including Philadelphia
|2000/ Santorum v. Klink
|2004/ Specter v. Hoeffel
|2006/ Santorum v. Casey
|2010/ Corbett v. Onorato
|2010/ Toomey v. Sestak
|2014/ Corbett v. Wolf
|2016/ Toomey v. McGinty
|2022/ Oz v. Fetterman
|2022/ Mastriano v. Shapiro
In the early part of this century, the collar counties were usually carried for Republican candidates statewide or at least kept the margins down. As we headed into 2010, we saw the erosion of Republican support for statewide candidates. That trend has been accelerated during the Trump and post-Trump era.
What are some of the reasons for this steady decline in GOP dominance in the Philadelphia suburbs?
1. Removing the “RINOs”
“The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.” —Ronald Reagan
As the Democrats and the media have moved the country to the left on cultural issues, GOP activists and committee people have moved to the right and have intensified their rhetoric. This was never more evident than in the Obama years as the GOP reaction to an almost $1 trillion stimulus bill and Obamacare gave birth to the Tea Party. Across Southeastern Pennsylvania, Tea Party activists ran for committee, sometimes challenging and defeating what they called “RINO” (“Republican in Name Only”) committee people.
This effort by conservatives to expel from the Republican Party candidates and activists who did not agree with the conservative wing of the party 100% of the time led to a steady erosion of qualified candidates, activists, and donors who either switched to independent, joined the Democrats, or left political life after feeling alienated. Indeed, during the last couple of decades, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of independents in the collar counties.
This trend has continued in the Trump era as MAGA Republicans are now increasingly running for and winning committee seats and leadership spots in the Republican committee. The result is a GOP committee and activists who (i) are far to the right of the electorate and even Republican registered voters and (ii) eschew more moderate and often more electable candidates.
2. Statewide GOP Nominees appeal to rural and Western Pennsylvania, but not Southeastern Pennsylvania.
As the influence of Southeastern Pennsylvania GOP County chairs and elected officials has waned, due to the region’s electoral and courthouse losses, the power base in the Republican Party in Pennsylvania has shifted toward the West. This has resulted in a loss of prowess by Southeastern Pennsylvania GOP Republicans in the candidate endorsement and nominations process.
This was notable in the last two gubernatorial elections where the party endorsed candidates that were seen as too conservative for southeastern Pennsylvania voters. Most notably, State Senator Doug Mastriano’s nomination for governor — a MAGA republican running on a platform that included outlawing abortion with no restrictions and avoiding traditional fundraising channels and mainstream media.
As a conservative, I sympathize with the desire to elect a candidate that will fight for limited government, an originalist view of the Constitution, etc. But candidate quality also matters. As one of my county chair predecessors used to tell me, “Let’s nominate the most electable conservative.”
Political leaders of bygone days understood this and would recruit and support electable candidates even though those candidates were not necessarily in lockstep with conservative orthodoxy. In statewide politics, Southeast political leaders and donors generally ensured an endorsement of candidates who had more appeal to their region and, to the extent an endorsement could not have been secured, would have had the ability to “clear the field” and rally around a candidate with broader appeal. The nomination process now rests with polarized activists who distrust strong party leadership and who have never had the opportunity and responsibility to win elections or govern.
We can also see this waning Southeastern Pennsylvania influence in the retirement of Senator Pat Toomey who once was seen as a conservative firebrand and is now deemed by many in the GOP to be too moderate to be worthy of an endorsement. Ironically, Toomey has been a consistent voice for many hot-button GOP issues such as smaller government, lower taxes, charter schools and pro-life views.
3. Abortion Politics
In the ‘90s, abortion increasingly became an issue as the evangelical right gained prominence in the counties. We saw this especially in Chester County where there were regular committee battles between pro-life and pro-choice Republicans. By the end of the ‘90s, the pro-lifers had won these battles and had largely chased out of the Republican Party the pro-choice Republican activists.
Prior to this change, pro-life and pro-choice Republicans would trade off between their candidates. For instance, at the local level during the endorsement process, each side would get one of their own, in a compromise to achieve endorsements and nominations. This was never more evident at the state level than in the nominations of Tom Ridge for Governor and Rick Santorum for U.S. Senate in 1994. Each side feeling that they got their candidate in a compromise, allowed the party to unite.
Once the Republican Party effectively became a pro-life party, with almost all the committee spots on the local committees and at a state committee dominated by pro-life Republicans, there was no longer the need for such a bargain to achieve unity. So, to be endorsed, a candidate had to be solidly pro-life.
This had the effect of alienating many suburban Republican women (and younger voters) who started to defect from the party, first in their voting and ultimately in registration.
4. Harrisburg Votes
“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” —Otto von Bismarck
The insistence by conservative rural and western Pennsylvania legislators to vote on hot button issues such as abortion, traditional marriage, and gun rights often worked to undermine SE PA state legislators. Often, these votes were symbolic since they would be vetoed by a Democratic governor, but with the growing influence of rural and western PA legislators, these bills were brought up by leaders for a vote.
The result was a no-win situation for suburban Republicans. They could vote for these bills, and alienate moderate voters, or vote against them and alienate their conservative base and party activists and committee people.
Democratic challengers effectively used these votes against the Republican incumbents at election time. The result was not only to weaken those Republican incumbents, but also to effectively brand the Republican Party as out of touch or too extreme with more moderate suburban voters.
5. Demographic Changes
As businesses began to move out of Philadelphia into suburban office parks, such as the Great Valley office park in Chester County or Conshohocken in Montgomery County, businesses began to lobby for higher density housing and apartments to house workers for their growing businesses. As a result, county and local elected officials put in place policies that steered apartments and higher density housing into certain suburban corridors. This had the effect of moving more Democrats into these counties, resulting in dramatic voter registration changes.
The Philadelphia Republican Party managed to maintain one of the last bastions of an organized Republican machine in big city America up until about twenty years ago. Up until that time, it had managed to elect a few district council members, five state representatives and a state senator, mostly concentrated in the Northeast section of the city, and occasionally was able to get a municipal judge elected.
The Philadelphia GOP now has just one state representative and no state senators, and the party, with City GOP registration at about 11%, is in serious risk of losing this year’s at-large council races to the progressive Working Families Party, an outcome that even many Democrat leaders in Philadelphia don’t want to see.
The lack of a strong and viable Philadelphia GOP has negative results on statewide and suburban GOP results. This can be seen in the decline in GOP committee members and activities to do the hard work of getting out the vote and registering Republicans and monitoring the polling locations.
Also, there has been a wholesale and continuous failure of the GOP to communicate a cohesive and well articulated message about the numerous glaring failures of Democratic policies — in education, crime and the economy to name a few. As a result, Philadelphia voters are not being given a reason to vote Republican or for any reform and suburban voters, relying only on complacent media for their information about the city, do not see the effects of exporting those same failed policies into the suburbs.
Finally, as voters flee the city to move into suburban communities with better schools, lower taxes and less crime, they maintain their habit of voting for and registering as Democrats. This is a common refrain that I hear from suburban Republican committee people who welcome new neighbors moving in from Philadelphia and the inner-ring suburbs only to find that they will register as Democrats.
There are, of course, a number of other factors and nationwide trends that have been in play in the Philadelphia suburbs; gay marriage and other cultural issues that played well among more educated suburban voters, ethnic and social diversity, reaction to what is seen by suburban voters as racial injustices, what some conservative pundits will call “white guilt,” and a national and local media that is at best, left-leaning, if not outright hostile to Republican candidates and platforms.
All of this raises the question: what, if anything, can be done to reverse these trends? That’s a topic for another day.
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