They rejected Trump, but stuck with Republicans down-ballot. Meet Pa.’s ticket splitters
Across Pennsylvania, and especially in populous areas like the Philadelphia suburbs, voters sent mixed signals and down-ballot Republicans far out-performed Trump.Listen 4:12
When Loren Frasco voted this year, she threw Democrats a curveball.
Frasco, 60, lives outside Doylestown and works as a paralegal. She’s a registered Democrat, but her ballot often ends up looking a little idiosyncratic. This year, she voted for Joe Biden, Democratic congressional candidate Christina Finello, and Demoratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro. But then she went on to vote for Republicans for auditor general and treasurer.
“I don’t like voting straight,” she said. “I like the idea that there’s people from both sides of the aisle in government. I just wanted to have some checks and balances.”
Frasco is a fairly flexible voter — she previously voted for Republicans John McCain and, once, George W. Bush.
But this year, at least, she isn’t alone as a ticket splitter. Across Pennsylvania, and especially in populous areas like the Philadelphia suburbs, voters sent mixed signals and down-ballot Republicans far out-performed Trump.
Going into the election, Democrats assumed Biden’s expected strength in Pennsylvania would translate to gains elsewhere.
Political analysts had speculated that Democrats could flip at least one legislative chamber away from longstanding GOP control, likely by ousting moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, which have been steadily turning bluer. And Democratic strategists talked about an increasing possibility of making inroads in smaller suburbs, like the ones outside Harrisburg and Lancaster.
It didn’t happen. Instead, voters appear to have split their tickets at unusually high rates — voting for Biden, but then Republicans — or no one — in smaller races.
Why split a ticket?
Turnout was high across the state, for Democrats and Republicans.
Biden racked up big margins in the Philly suburbs and Pittsburgh, improved Democratic numbers in those smaller cities and suburbs across the state, and flipped back two counties that Trump had turned red in 2016.
Down-ballot races tell another story.
Provisional votes are still being counted, but it appears State House Democrats picked up one seat and lost four. One of those losses was Frank Dermody, who has served as minority leader for ten years and was first elected to represent a district north of Pittsburgh in 1991.
It’s still unclear if Democrats will lose a state Senate seat. Going into the election, Democrats held all three row offices — Attorney General, Auditor General and Treasurer — but now lost two. The ouster of Treasurer Joe Torsella marks the first time since 1994 that an incumbent Democrat has lost reelection for a statewide office seat.
Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, which is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, remains completely unchanged.
“People were kind of thinking that this was going to be a change election,” said political analyst Ben Forstate. “And it wasn’t — for almost everybody besides Donald Trump.”
Forstate also works for PA United, a Western Pennsylvania group that organizes for progressive Democrats. And he — and just about every other Pennsylvania Democratic strategist — is now trying to figure out exactly why voters came to reject Trump, but not the Republican party.
Jim Hagan, 68, of Chalfont, Bucks County, has a simple answer.
His distaste for Trump did not extend to others in the GOP.
“Although I voted for Mr. Trump in the previous election, I was very dissatisfied with his performance,” he said. “I think he completely dropped the ball on the COVID thing.”
Hagan is a longtime Republican. He’s retired now, but his old job in the chemical industry allowed him to do a lot of international travel. Lately, he said, he has mourned what he sees as a loss of U.S. standing on the world stage.
This cycle, Hagan said he voted for Biden and one other Democrat: Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who kept his seat.
“I like the way he does the job,” he said of Shapiro. “He’s very professional at it. He doesn’t seem to play partisan politics in the job, and I thought he was very proactive in doing the right thing for the people of Pennsylvania.”
Analysts are still sorting out whether there are comprehensive explanations for the unusually high numbers of ticket splitters. With provisional ballots still being counted and official certification of the election likely delayed due to a slew of lawsuits from the Trump campaign, it might be a while before there are concrete answers.
There are several popular theories, though. This was the first general election since the state legislature did away with automatic straight-ticket voting, which means many voters likely had to individually select their choices for the first time. Mail voting increased sharply, and it’s possible some voters forgot to fill out races on the back side of their ballots. Democrats, by and large, appeared to do less door-knocking than Republicans.
Plus, Forstate noted, returns in at least some counties showed higher turnout for the presidential race than down-ballot ones, which means some voters must have voted for president, but kept the rest of their ballot blank.
“There was undervoting, crossover voting, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface,” Forstate said.
The power of constituent service
One example of a race that saw strikingly different results up and down-ballot is Pennsylvania’s 151st Congressional District in Montgomery County.
Republican Todd Stephens has held the seat for a decade, and races have grown tight in recent cycles as the suburbs have gotten bluer, and Democrats have more aggressively tried to flip the two remaining GOP districts in the county.
This election, Trump lost Montgomery County by 26 percentage points — even bigger than his loss there four years ago. But Stephens, who won by just about 1,000 votes in 2018, almost tripled his margin of victory this year.
“I think it makes sense,” Stephens said of out-running Trump. “We no longer have straight-party voting in Pennsylvania. The voters are looking at each race independently. So just because they reject Donald Trump’s policies at the top of the ticket, doesn’t mean that they don’t embrace the things that I’ve been doing down at the bottom of the ballot.”
One of those things that Stephens highlighted was his work “over many years, though a couple different legislative sessions” getting refunds for constituents in Horsham who had to pay surcharges to get PFAS cleaned from their drinking water.
Those refund checks went out shortly before the election. And they had Stephens’ name on them.
Democrat Jackie Evangelista, 45, mentioned those checks as one of the things Stephens had done that won her vote. As owner of the diner Hatboro Dish, she also applauded his work lobbying to keep businesses open in Pennsylvania during the coronavirus shutdown order.
“There wasn’t a question about whether I would vote for Todd because he’s helped me along the way. He’s given me his cell phone number, if I ever needed anything,” said Evangelista, who also voted for Biden.
Stephens’ Democratic opponent, Jonathan Kassa, ran on a similar, moderate platform to the GOP incumbent, centering gun control and more funding for public schools.
In campaign ads, he stressed Stephens’ conservatism, estimating that he “voted with Republicans 90% of the time.”
He’s still working through what went wrong, but says he thinks there’s just a disconnect between the way voters think about up and down-ballot candidates.
“When we do voter contact efforts, people say, ‘Well, Todd’s such a nice guy,’ and we say, ‘Well, yeah, he is a nice guy, but look at what he’s doing in Harrisburg,’” Kassa said. “When he’s here in the district, he’s doing a favor for you and your family, but when he’s in Harrisburg he’s voting with the Republican leaders.”
Democrats’ failure to pick up seats in places like the liberal-leaning suburbs, and losses in more conservative districts, like Dermody’s, have already kicked off a tug-of-war in the caucus over the direction its political priorities should take.
Emily Skopov, a Democrat who had been trying to flip the seat in the Pittsburgh suburbs vacated by former House Speaker Mike Turzai, failed to win for the second cycle in a row. She tweeted that she blamed at least part of her loss on slogans adopted by some Democrats such as “defund the police,” which she called “offensively poor messaging” while noting she still supports police reforms.
Some of Harrisburg’s most progressive Democrats hit back. Summer Lee, of Allegheny County, responded on Twitter that while Democrats “lick their down ballot wounds and point fingers every direction except inwards, let me make one thing clear: I will not abide white democrats blaming Black organizers and activists who are fighting to end police violence for your losses.”
A version of this conversation is playing out on the national level, too, as Democrats in many states assess why their candidates underperformed expectations.
A few of those races were in Pennsylvania. In Bucks County, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick squared off against a formidable Democratic challenger in what was pitched as a competitive race.
Instead, Fitzpatrick won handily, with about 57% of the vote. Trump lost Bucks County with around 47% of the vote.
To keep his seat, Fitzpatrick was aided by support from both Democrats and Republicans, including Mary Schultz, of Montgomeryville.
Schultz, 51, used to be a Republican but switched parties and twice voted for Barack Obama. This year she voted for all Democrats — except Fitzpatrick.
She felt she had to. When she had problems with her mailman over the last couple years, she reached out to Fitzpatrick’s office and they looked into it.
“I’m a very loyal person,” she said. “My husband is like, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to vote for Fitzpatrick’ … and you know I understand his points. It was my vote and I chose to vote my way … I would have felt guilty if I had not voted for him.”
Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.