A generation ago, Bill Clinton carried Pennsylvania by winning Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the former industrial areas in Northeastern and Western Pennsylvania. In 2020, Joe Biden also won the state, but his path to victory was quite different: he did well in the major cities and suburbs, especially the ‘collar counties’ surrounding Philadelphia. The Keystone State is often a key battleground because its demographic profile maps neatly onto the demographic shifts central to contemporary American politics.
Former factory towns which were once a bastion of Democratic support – such as those in Westmoreland, Fayette, and Washington counties – now overwhelmingly support Donald Trump and the Republicans, mainly due to the ‘diploma divide’ which sees high-education voters increasingly backing the Democratic Party while those with lower levels of education support the Republican Party. However, as Pennsylvania has large clusters of highly educated suburbs as well as many former factory towns, either party can plot a path to victory in the state.
Given that Democrats currently have the narrowest possible majority in the Senate, if Republicans can hold Pennsylvania and pick up just one more seat, they will take back control. However, if Democrats can flip Pennsylvania, they can likely pass even more of their agenda as they would no longer need to rely on support from the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
Polling data and expert ratings suggest Republicans are quite likely to retake the House which would put an end to most of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. But if Democrats maintain control of the Senate, they can continue to confirm judges and, at the moment, there are 87 vacancies on the federal bench, 44 of which have a nominee. If Republicans retake the Senate, they will likely confirm few – if any – of these nominees, making it harder for Biden to put his stamp on the judiciary.
In an era marked by Congressional gridlock, the courts have become crucial to setting many policies. And although everyone tends to focus on the Supreme Court, it hears only a tiny fraction of cases in the federal system as lower court judges make most of the key rulings. Should another vacancy open up on the Supreme Court, and Republicans control the Senate, there may be a repeat of 2016 when they blocked President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. So, even if Biden’s legislative agenda is stalled, if he can still confirm judges he can influence the direction of policymaking even after he leaves office.
The 2022 candidates are key to the race
Dr. Mehmet Oz, best known to most voters as a TV personality, narrowly won the Republican Senate nomination – thanks in no small part to Trump’s endorsement – while John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor and a 6 foot, 8 inch, bald, tattooed Harvard-educated iconoclast, easily won the Democratic nomination. Fetterman initially drew a commanding lead over Oz but, as the campaign heated up, the race has tightened considerably with Fetterman having only a tiny lead in the current polling average.
This change is down to Oz and his allies stressing the Republicans’ key issues of 2022 – the economy, especially inflation, and rising crime. Inflation is an issue in Pennsylvania as it is throughout the nation, while homicides and violent crime have increased in Philadelphia in 2022, despite declining elsewhere in the nation, making these potent issues. And given that voters trust Republicans more on these issues, that works in Oz’s favour.
Also, just days before the spring primary election, Fetterman suffered a stroke. For most of the summer, he did little campaigning except via social media and focused mostly on his recovery. When he resumed more in-person events, media coverage focused on the lingering effects of the stroke, especially his difficulty processing spoken language and the fact he requires closed captioning in interviews and debates. Doctors and disability rights advocates have stressed such help is normal and should be more accepted, but the focus on it has primed the issue in voters’ minds, making them wonder if Fetterman is healthy enough to serve in the Senate.
The governor’s race is also attracting considerable attention but mainly due to its Republican nominee. Current state senator Doug Mastriano easily won the Republican party nomination despite the efforts of a group of elected officials who attempted to prevent him from doing so by arguing his views were too extreme.
Mastriano’s views are certainly controversial as he is among those who supported former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania. Arguing there was fraud in the November 2020 election, Mastriano sponsored legislation to allow the state to appoint new electors, was in Washington during the 6 January insurrection, and continues to publicly doubt the veracity of the 2020 results.
As governor, he would be able to appoint the secretary of the commonwealth who certifies state elections, and has already said he would require all voters to re-register to vote in a move many legal experts say would violate the law. He would also be the person to certify the state elections so, if he became governor and then refused to certify a Democrat victory in the state in 2024, it could create chaos according to experts.
Abortion laws could be changed
Mastriano has called the separation of church and state a ‘myth’ and endorses the idea that America is a Christian nation and should be governed by Christians – an idea which scholars term Christian Nationalism. He is strongly pro-life and has pledged to end what he calls the ‘barbaric holocaust of abortion happening in our state’. Abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania for the first 23 weeks of pregnancy but if Mastriano becomes governor and Republicans continue to control the state legislature, that could change.
Mastriano’s Democratic opponent is attorney general Josh Shapiro, who has focused the race on Mastriano’s record, arguing he is too extreme to represent the state. Mastriano has trailed Shapiro in fundraising throughout the campaign and has consistently lagged behind in the polls but, if there was a polling miss akin to 2016 or 2020, Mastriano could narrowly win the race.
A final noteworthy issue is the speed with which Pennsylvania counts its mail-in ballots. In 2020, the state experienced it first election with a significant number of mail-in ballots and, with a new process and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the largest counties needed several days to process these ballots meaning the media did not project its results until four days after Election Day.
To help expedite this process, the state has given grants to counties to help them more efficiently counts mail-in ballots in 2022 but, given many Democrats tend to cast their votes through the mail whereas Republicans do so in-person, everyone should avoid drawing conclusions about the state of the race until most of the vote has been counted as early returns may disproportionately have just one type of vote or the other and may give a misleading picture of the outcome. Those watching the returns on TV should prepare for a long evening waiting for the final results.