Several states across the US held primary elections on Tuesday, but perhaps none has been more closely watched — or garnered more media attention — than the Pennsylvania election. In this Q&A, Thomas gifta native of Keystone State, explains why Pennsylvania is at the forefront of national politics and why all eyes should be on it to understand what could happen in the 2022, 2024 elections and beyond.
You are originally from Pennsylvania. What should those who don’t know the state know about its policies?
The joke about Pennsylvania (attributed to Democratic strategist James Carville) is that it’s “Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Alabama in between.” As with the rest of the country, urban areas tend to be heavily Democratic while the large rural portion of the state is predominantly Republican. As a “purple” state, “PA” (as we call it) is often seen as a guard rail for the country’s political development. In 2016 the state voted for Donald Trump, but in 2020 it voted for Joe Biden. Recently, it has also been at the center of controversy surrounding Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of vote-rigging. In my opinion, Pennsylvania is truly ground zero when it comes to understanding some of the key trends emerging in American politics, including polarization, distrust of Washington, and the unrelenting pull of Trumpism. That’s why Tuesday’s primaries were so revealing.
You’ve spent the last month on the ground in PA closely observing the primaries. What was your impression of Tuesday?
First, a confession: I’m from the “Alabama” part of PA – a small, mostly Republican city (Chambersburg) in the south of the state – so I’ll admit my perspective is a bit skewed. But at least here, what strikes me most is how much Trumpism is still the only game in town. The ongoing enthusiasm for MAGA cannot be ignored. America First signs are everywhere. Trump flags adorn countless homes. Just a few blocks from where I live, you can see a range of (let’s call it “aggressive”) home decor, from messages from “F&*k Biden” to “Trump 2024: He’ll Be Back.” “Trump 2020: The Sequel” is a popular bumper sticker in the area. Everywhere you look, it seems Republican voters are preparing for a fight — not just for 2022, but for 2024 as well.
Let’s talk about some specific breeds. First, what about the embattled Republican Senate primary?
For now, the race between former TV celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick is too close to call. No one is surprised that the fight has come to an end and could result in a recount. Polls predicted a close race and the amount of money and attention poured into the competition reflects its importance nationally. Oz earned Trump’s coveted endorsement, but the reality is that the whole race was about which candidate can “trump” the other. That goes for even McCormick — the buttoned-down, so-called “moderate” who has run ads with motorcyclists (wearing black leather jackets and bandanas) behind them proudly waving Trump flags. The third-place candidate in the race was “ultra-MAGA” Kathy Barnette, who was a far-right flamethrower during the primary.
On the Democrat side, the Senate primary was much more one-sided. What has happened there?
PA Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a 6ft 9in Harvard grad with a penchant for wearing black hoodies and oversized basketball shorts (and who also suffered a stroke just days before the election), went to the top – with ease. He beat out Conor Lamb, a mediocre, no-nonsense US Congressman with an excellent (and much more traditional) resume. Fetterman might be the most intriguing candidate Pennsylvania (and the country) has seen in a while. He doesn’t look like a “typical” politician, but his unpretentious, working-class “vibes” clearly resonated with Liberal voters. Although he supports Bernie Sanders and aligns himself (mostly) with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he has also taken more centrist positions on certain issues, such as B. Support for fracking in PA (a major problem in the state that angers environmentalists).
“20131105-092315” (CC BY-NC 2.0) from weaverphoto
Who won the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary?
As evidence of Trump’s dominance in Pennsylvania, GOP nominee Doug Mastriano (who happens to be from my home county of Franklin County) cleaned up Tuesday. He is a far right Republican – the “QAnon Dad” – who trades in conspiracy theories, attended the January 6 rally in DC and has arguably done more than anyone in PA to spread Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in 2020 . He is also a strong man anti-abortion advocate. Although many pundits are predicting that Mastriano is too right-wing to win general elections, I’m not entirely convinced. His November competitor will be Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who emerged from an unchallenged primary. Shapiro will be a formidable opponent. He has a long track record in Pennsylvania politics and is popular with Democrats across the board.
What is the key lesson from the PA primaries?
With some notable exceptions, Pennsylvanians seem fed up with “establishment” politicians. On the Republican side in particular, it is clearly impossible to run as an anti-Trump candidate and expect to win. While the time I’ve spent in a heavily Republican area over the past month might color my perspective, it feels to me like the energy is stronger among GOP voters than Democrats (a point that reflected in a much higher surge in Republican turnout on Tuesday). A lot can still happen before the midterms, but given national trends that show Biden’s unpopularity — combined with the fact that the party has historically performed poorly in non-power elections outside of the year — I’d be surprised if PA were a state where Republicans aren’t doing well. However, the looming debate over Roe v. Wade still put a spanner in the works for some races.
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Note: This article reflects the views of the author and does not represent the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Thomas gift – UCL
Thomas Gift is Associate Professor of Political Science at UCL, where he is Director of the Center on US Politics (CUSP).