Everyone is coming to Pennsylvania.
With midterms approaching and the commonwealth’s open U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races remaining highly competitive, national Republicans and Democrats view Pennsylvania as one of the country’s most important battlegrounds.
They view Northeastern Pennsylvania as especially key.
President Joe Biden made his second of three planned Pennsylvania trips on Thursday, delivering a speech outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. He’d already been to Wilkes-Barre earlier in the week, and plans to celebrate Labor Day in Pittsburgh this weekend.
Former President Donald Trump, who reportedly plans to run for the top office again in 2024, will also be in Pennsylvania this weekend for a joint rally touting the Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate. It, too, will be in Wilkes-Barre.
In the Senate race, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has been campaigning on his support for organized labor and legal marijuana, and has hammered his opponent, TV doctor Mehmet Oz, for only recently moving to Pennsylvania. Oz’s campaign has suggested Fetterman, who recently suffered a stroke, isn’t capable of being in the Senate and is too progressive.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for governor on his long political career and support for keeping abortion accessible, and on his opponent’s commitment to disproven election fraud theories. That opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, is running as a crusading outsider, focusing on culture war issues like whether trans women should play sports.
In the starkly divided commonwealth, elections are often won on the margins. Outcomes are determined by one party inspiring higher turnout, or by another winning over slightly more voters in a key area.
Democratic consultant Mark Nevins noted that while it makes sense for Biden to visit Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, places like Wilkes-Barre, or Biden’s hometown, Scranton, may make the biggest difference.
“There’s probably 45% out there for just about any candidate from either party, and so they’re really just fighting over 10% of the electorate that is undecided or willing to change their minds,” Nevins said. “Which is why I think you see President Biden and Trump in Northeast Pennsylvania, up in Scranton, up in Wilkes-Barre, because that’s an area where voters have shown a propensity for swinging between the two parties.”
GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas noted, this political dynamic in the northeast is relatively new in Pennsylvania — part of a conservative shift in formerly industrial, Democratic areas while the suburbs have gotten bluer. A decade or so ago, he noted, the Philly suburbs were the difference-makers in statewide elections. Now, “all roads lead to NEPA for a variety of reasons.”
Chris Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenburg College, added that of the many factors that determine who wins elections, historical voting patterns can’t be ignored. A president’s party often does badly in the midterms after his election, for instance. And Pennsylvania hasn’t elected governors from the same party consecutively since the 1960s.
“This certainly is an advantage for Republicans,” he said. “We like to alternate control.”
But he added, that doesn’t mean policy and candidates don’t matter.
The outcomes of these races could determine who controls the Senate, thereby shaping federal policy on things like climate change and funding social programs broadly, and within Pennsylvania could have huge implications for abortion accessibility and school funding.
It’s often hot-button issues like these, and not geographic tricks, that can make a real difference. Campaigns like to search for elusive swing voters, Borick said, but it’s just as important to make sure voters who already have a strong preference turn out.
“Republicans in this cycle, by a number of metrics, are more enthusiastic about the race than Democrats,” he said. “That often happens in midterms when your party is out of power. But since the Dobbs decision this summer [allowing states to outlaw abortion], Democratic energy seems to have increased among voters and has closed the gap.”
These visits by Trump and Biden, he said, are clearly designed to energize their bases even more.