Republicans held a smart, enthusiastic, well-organized leadership conference here last month that drew presidential candidates and party rock stars, plus edgy, informative panels for grassroots activists. But they will need a lot more than that to cross Pennsylvania’s finish line in the 2016 presidential election.
Oddly, Republican fortunes might rest in state Democrats’ hands — and the way things are going for Democrats, that just might work out.
Democrats have dominated this all-important electoral state for five presidential cycles; this is one of three states of which a candidate must win two (the others are Ohio and Florida) in order to clinch the presidency.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell’s charisma and political skills are legendary among Democrats, and the party is eagerly preparing for what promises to be a premier national convention in this city next year.
Yet below the surface, the state party is in shambles. With the exception of two county officials on either side of the state — Montgomery’s Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro, Allegheny’s Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald — the Democrats’ statewide bench is weak, and so is their morale.
Consider the following four factors:
Down-ballot bench — Last year’s midterms and a special state House election in the spring boosted the Republicans’ lower-chamber ranks to 120, a 36-seat advantage over Democrats. Republicans also expanded their majority to 30 members in the state’s 50-seat Senate.
Pennsylvania Democrats led the nation in trouncing Republicans in 2006’s historic wave election, but their power didn’t last long. By 2010, their majority in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation was wiped out; by 2012, Republicans held 13 seats to Democrats’ five.
Scandals — Two statewide-elected Democrats, darlings of the party just 18 months ago, have fallen from grace rather abruptly.
Former state Treasurer Rob McCord pleaded guilty to extortion earlier this year in federal court; his forced resignation came less than a year after his unsuccessful campaign for his party’s nomination for governor.
Then there is Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
The first Democrat and first woman to be elected as the state’s top cop has run her office like a script for a really, really bad soap opera. The drama with the former political golden girl, who was carried into office by the Clinton machine, has escalated over two years, leading to a statewide grand jury recommending that she be charged with obstruction of justice, official oppression, perjury and contempt in connection with documents allegedly covered by grand jury secrecy rules being leaked to a Philadelphia newspaper.
Trouble at the top — It’s not uncommon for a party chairman and a governor to not get along, but usually that only occurs between opposing parties. The fault lines between Democrats state Chairman Jim Burn and Gov. Tom Wolf are epic and reminiscent of an escalating schoolyard spat.
Wolf despised Burn so much that he created his own shadow state party when he successfully ran for governor; Burn stubbornly refused to budge, and he retained the support of state committee members.
Under Burn’s leadership, the party won one presidential election but lost a U.S. Senate seat, a governor’s race, historic majorities in the state Legislature and the majority in the congressional delegation.
Divisive campaign — For a guy who came within 2 percentage points of beating Republican Pat Toomey for a U.S. Senate seat in an exceptionally good year for the GOP, former Congressman Joe Sestak of Delaware County sure doesn’t get much love or support from establishment Democrats, either in Washington or in the state.
If kitchen sinks could run for office, the national party probably would have asked one to do so by now; it has asked Montgomery County’s Shapiro, Allegheny County’s Fitzgerald, and now, Wolf’s chief of staff, Katie McGinty, after Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski suspended his campaign for next year’s U.S. Senate primary because of legal troubles.
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Sometimes elections are won on message; sometimes candidates get swept up by a tide that’s beyond their control, winning or losing their jobs in the wave.
Pennsylvania has been elusive for Republicans in modern political campaigns. If they win it next year, it may be because of having the right candidate, or because of riding a popular wave — or it may be because of the disarray that Democrats can’t seem to pull themselves out from under, all across the state.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).