And then there were none.
Well, almost none.
Pick your descriptor: bloodbath, annihilation, massacre. No matter how you slice it, Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs – one of the critical epicenters of presidential campaigns – got their derrieres kicked in unprecedented fashion.
We’ve got a lot to cover in this election post-mortem, so let’s get to it.
1) Large percentages of Republican delegations (state senators and representatives) in Delaware and Chester counties were wiped out, including longtime legislators such as Sen. John Rafferty. It is a net loss of at least 13 seats, with Bucks County Sen. Tommy Tomlinson holding a 100-vote lead (out of 109,000).
Why the shellacking? There is no single answer, as a combination of factors led to the GOP’s dismal showing. However, in numerous cases where the margins were tight, losses could have, and absolutely should have, been avoided. And it boils down to arrogance and laziness.
Take Representative Alex Charlton of the 165th (former Rep. Billy Adolf’s district). Of 31,000 votes cast, he lost by a mere 154. Sure, it’s easy to blame a polarizing Donald Trump for that defeat, but that would be inaccurate. Truth is, it’s no coincidence that Charlton lost after having little personal interaction with his constituents over the course of his term. For many, the last time they saw Alex was two years ago – during his last campaign. Ditto for defeated Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-26 of Springfield, and damn near all the Republicans who lost.
Newsflash, guys: there’s a concept called “door-to-door.” It may no longer be in vogue, and it involves effort, but it undeniably works. Here’s the thing, though: you can’t just do it in the run-up to an election. Instead, it needs to be part of the daily routine for the entirety of one’s term. That didn’t happen.
Not long ago, when a new family moved into Delaware County, its members were immediately greeted by local GOP officials with the message that Delco had lower taxes, better schools, and safer streets than places like Democratic Philadelphia – and a voter registration card was left behind so that people could become Republicans if they chose. There was consistent follow-up, and the “Machine” enjoyed immense success.
But now, most pols instead rely on “sophisticated” technology programs and “expert” consultants to get out the vote (Havertown’s Democratic State representative, Greg Vitali, is a notable exception, as he always pounds the pavement).
Sorry, but Facebook messaging, email blasts, and increasingly worthless mailers – virtually all of which hit the trash can in four seconds – cannot replace the inherent value of the personal touch: door-to-door, speaking engagements and coffee klatches, and greeting commuters on freezing train platforms at 5 a.m. Newsflash number two: tech is important, but cell phones and computer programs don’t vote. People do.
In allowing technology to supersede retail politicking, southeastern Pennsylvania Republicans made a fatal mistake. After all, in Charlton’s case, he didn’t actually lose by 154, but 77 plus one. Translation: in the 104 weeks that encompassed his term, he only had to “win over” less than one voter per week. Door-to-door would undoubtedly have accomplished that, and he’d be returning to Harrisburg instead of licking his wounds.
Lesson: the all-important first step for local Republicans to rebound is getting back to basics.
2) It is absolutely startling how many “die-hard” Republicans, who despise all-things-Democratic, shot themselves in the foot. Staying with the Charlton race (but applicable to the myriad races with razor-thin margins), there were large numbers of college students attending school outside their home districts who either didn’t vote or, more unforgivable, registered in Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways: blabbering that the Dems need to lose, yet allowing your politically like-minded children to throw away their votes elsewhere.
With little effort, this author thought of at least 30 such examples – meaning the real number is substantially higher. Translation: Those 30 votes constituted 20 percent of the total needed for a Charlton victory. Politically active parents bear responsibility for not having properly advised their children, but so too do the campaigns, since none made registering college students at home a priority.
Obviously, the opposite is also true: Democratic students attending college in red states and conservative parts of Pennsylvania are also wasting their votes. Given that the new norm is extremely close elections, every vote takes on unprecedented significance.
Lesson: Nothing trumps a highly organized campaign that executes a smart game plan.
3) The GOP continues to struggle in appealing to those outside its traditional coalition – especially poignant since much of that traditional base is changing, such as college-educated voters. So what must suburban Republicans do to compete? Three things:
• Personal interaction, as discussed.
• Run aspirational campaigns that connect with voters, especially targeting immigrants and adult children of immigrants. Once upon a time, immigrants (legal, of course) aligned themselves with the political parties most helpful to fulfilling their American dream. From providing physical and economic security, to laying out the path for each generation to outdo its parents, parties thrived when they genuinely appealed to voters.
For Republicans to get back in the game, they must reconnect with lost constituencies and make inroads with new ones in America’s rapidly changing landscape. That doesn’t mean they should sell out their principles, or abandon their beliefs. Quite the opposite: they need to figure out a fresh way to articulate their ideas with a platform that is, contrary to public perception, inclusive, tolerant and forward-thinking.
• Advocate detailed solutions to the problems that keep most people (Republican and Democrat alike) awake at night: reining in skyrocketing college tuition; reforming health care on the state level without the need to repeal Obamacare; curbing trial lawyers so that businesses can thrive without frivolous lawsuits; stopping the brain drain that sees children seeking careers in other states; and protecting kids from the hyper-sensitive political correctness that is robbing them of their innocence.
Lesson: Fail to address those issues, and Pennsylvania will be on its way to becoming the next Illinois – blue, bankrupt, and backwards.
4) Recruiting quality candidates cannot be overestimated. Sounds common sense enough, but once again, the Republicans fielded less-than-stellar candidates. And that’s being kind.
Granted, Gov. Wolf and Sen. Casey are relatively popular figures. Neither set the world on fire with their personalities, but incumbency has its advantages.
That said, Tom Wolf was re-elected for two reasons: the Republican-controlled Legislature did virtually nothing over the last four years – nothing. No tough votes. No holding the guv’s feet to the fire by making him veto popular bills. Nothing. So in the absence of such things, there was no impetus to change, and Mr. Wolf came across as the nice, albeit unexciting, guy in the governor’s mansion.
The second reason was that challenger Scott Wagner was perceived as an arrogant, rich, and even obnoxious – a Donald Trump clone without the charm and charisma. The result was a slaughter that helped seal the fate of all down-ticket Republicans. Let’s face it: when your top dog is dogging it so badly that it’s a moral victory to crack 40, you’re doomed as a party.
Ditto for former congressman Lou Barletta, who ran the worst statewide campaign since Lynn Swann’s “swan song” debacle against former Gov. Ed Rendell. There was no cohesiveness, no organization, and no strategy in Barletta’s buffoonery. He should have stayed in Congress. Enough said.
Lesson: Do something right, or don’t do it at all. In race after race, Dems recruited dynamic women, experienced business people, former military officers and intel operatives, and dynamic women. The Republicans recruited, and nominated, the Keystone Kops. We can talk all day about the “Trump” factor, but you’ll never win the race if you don’t have the horses.
The next column will analyze the elections from a national perspective.