INDIAN HEAD, Pa. – Nestled in the valley between Chestnut and Laurel ridges, this tiny village once included a state-funded relief camp for jobless men during the Great Depression; it housed, fed and employed them for 40 cents an hour (before the government deducted a daily 85-cent maintenance fee).
It began a generational dependence and an allegiance to Democrats that lasted for 80 years and kept Republicans out of office in Saltlick Township and Fayette County.
Democrats’ registration is overwhelming here, dwarfing Republicans’ by more than 41,000 voters. So it’s no surprise that they win every seat from the top down in this area along stunning Indian Head Creek – that is, until recently.
The last Republican presidential candidate to easily carry this county was Richard Nixon, until Mitt Romney handily beat Barack Obama here in 2012. John McCain’s 2008 win here over Obama was by less than 90 votes – and if you count liberal counterculture-hero Ralph Nader’s numbers, Democrats still ruled electorally that year.
Unlike some other counties surrounding Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the rural population of this southwestern Pennsylvania county is never going to swing a statewide election. But while no one was looking, it has started to vote for Republicans in state and county elections.
The story buried by the national media’s fixation with Hillary Clinton’s next move is the solid bench that Republicans have been efficiently building – not just in Democrat-blue Pennsylvania, but across the country – since her husband left office in 2000.
Even in "blue" New York you can look at a county such as Ulster, which went for Obama by 23 points but where the county legislature is 12-11 Republican. It’s a pattern that pops up all over the state.
"The presidency is one election, and Democrats and Republicans have basically been alternating it for the better part of a decade now," said Sean Trende, elections analyst at RealClearPolitics. "But it is the GOP that is ascendant down-ballot."
Trende explains that, in 2010, Republicans won around 54 percent of state house and senate seats nationally; the number fell slightly in 2012, to 53 percent of state senate and 52 percent of state house seats.
"Part of the disparity comes from the fact that not all the state senate seats were up in 2012," he said. "But overall, Democrats pay the same penalty in state legislative districts that they pay in congressional districts" – their coalition has become too geographically concentrated to function well in legislative races.
Clearly, the GOP connects with voters, given its down-ballot strength, said Trende: "You can’t have total control of government in a near-majority of the states in the country without some ability to connect."
"While the pundits and the media pronounce on the divisions in the GOP and how these will ultimately wipe out the Republicans, I’ve been looking at some numbers and they look pretty good," Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said about the GOP bench.
He points to 30 out of 50 governorships controlled by Republicans, 233 U.S. House members out of 435, and 24 state governments controlled by both GOP governors and legislative majorities.
"So while Obama got a second term, the Democrats did second-rate in a majority of contests," he said.
Democrats had a once-in-a-lifetime candidate with Barack Obama. It remains to be seen if Hillary Clinton is the same; remember, she has been running for president essentially since 2004, when some Democrats floated her as an alternative to a weak John Kerry, and in her own right in her failed attempt of 2008 – and, basically, every moment since.
"Democrats have had a more difficult time finding well-known, emerging stars to replace their aging party leaders such as the Clintons," said Jeff Brauer, a Keystone College political scientist.
According to Schmidt, "Republicans are a divided but diverse party that seems to connect well, or its local candidates do, with municipal, county, and state voters."
And according to Brauer, the Republicans’ present strength at the state level could very well mean future strength at the national level.
"Party success at the state and local levels builds all-important party infrastructure for elections and creates a large pool of formidable future candidates for national office," he said.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]