With Republicans on the cusp of sweeping statewide judicial races in Pennsylvania, the GOP is finding more reasons to smile a year away from a high-stakes election in which the state’s voters will pick a new governor and a new U.S. senator.
Republicans could be considered favored in both contests next year. The party of the president almost always loses seats in Congress in midterm elections, and a Republican has always replaced an outgoing Democratic governor in Pennsylvania’s modern political era.
On Tuesday, Republicans delivered historic vote counts for court candidates.
One Republican campaign strategist, Christopher Nicholas, pointed to a slate of countywide victories in Bucks County, a political bellwether north of Philadelphia, as well as other pickups in Philadelphia’s suburbs where Democrats thrived while former President Donald Trump was in office.
“You can’t say, ‘as goes the Bucks County controller’s race, so goes the state,’” Nicholas said. “But, when you look at that, it bodes well.”
Pennsylvania’s race for U.S. Senate is expected to be among the nation’s most competitive next year.
Meanwhile, its governor’s office is one of eight on ballots next year where a Democrat is serving in a state either won by Trump last year or in a presidential battleground where President Joe Biden beat Trump.
On Tuesday, Republicans won open seats on statewide appeals courts, including a marquee race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. They won with the strongest vote totals perhaps ever.
About 30%, or about 2.6 million, of Pennsylvania’s 8.7 million voters cast a ballot in the state Supreme Court race, the upper range of turnout in recent odd-year elections.
The losing Democrat in the state Supreme Court race, Maria McLaughlin, drew more votes than any of the party’s candidates did in 2015, when Democrats swept three state Supreme Court seats.
But three of this year’s winning Republican court candidates blew past the highest vote total amassed by other court candidates in recent decades, and perhaps ever.
Bucks County flipped. Last year, Biden beat Trump there. This year, Republicans in statewide court races won there.
The county’s Republican Party chair attributed the GOP’s strong performance there to national issues, including voters’ concerns over the rising price of gas, “defunding” police, retail supply chain interruptions and immigration.
“They’re unhappy, and when they’re unhappy they come out and vote,” county GOP chair Pat Poprik said.
Poprik also singled out concerns over salacious books in public schools and the curriculum in schools that Republicans have inflamed with a debate over teaching critical race theory.
It helped bring out many times the number of volunteers, Poprik said.
“The schools are getting out of control,” Poprik said. “Parents don’t know what their children are being taught and schools won’t tell them.”
The National School Boards Association says critical race theory — which holds that racism is systemic in America’s institutions — is not taught in K-12 public schools, but, in recent months, conservatives have made it a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.
John Cordisco, the county’s Democratic Party chair, also blamed critical race theory and the national issues pushed by the right.
But Democrats should not engage in a debate about critical race theory, Cordisco said. He expects the issue will evaporate since the people talking about it don’t understand what it is, he said.
Rather, to be successful next year, Democrats need to get a unified message from Washington and an infrastructure bill on Biden’s desk, he said.
“Twelve months is an eternity in politics,” Cordisco said. “So we’ll see the supply chains open up, prices stabilize and get an infrastructure bill in place, and it’s a different conversation 12 months from now.”
Democrats especially emphasized passing an infrastructure bill.
“And when we deliver, all the process stuff will be forgotten and people will see all the positives that will make their lives better, like child care, paid family and medical leave, home care for seniors and people with disabilities, making prescription drugs more affordable, affordable housing, the expanded Biden child tax credit, and more,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia.
Sharif Street, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s vice chairman, said things that will help Democrats are fixing up schools with infrastructure dollars and turning the corner on COVID-19.
“We have to win on the substance, we have to win on the fact that we have better plans for the American people and the way we can do that is actually by executing,” Street said. “That is the way Democrats will win, is through execution.”