by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young
What a difference a few years can make! Earlier this decade (2001) we wrote an article that resonated widely with observers of state politics. It was entitled "The Endangered Democrats" and described the travails then savaging the Pennsylvania Democratic party. A paragraph from that article captures its flavor:
State Democrats have been in an electoral freefall for most of the past decade. Although nominally the majority party in the state...the Democrats can't seem to win an election. In fact, since 1992 only one Democrat has won a statewide non-judicial race. The scope of the debacle is breathtaking. Democrats now control a single statewide office while Republicans control virtually everything else. The governor and lieutenant governor are Republican. So, too, are the attorney general and the state treasurer. Ditto the state legislature - a slim majority in the state House and an overwhelming majority in the state Senate are Republican. The congressional delegation is now majority Republican...and both U.S. senators are Republican.
We went on the speculate, only slightly tongue in cheek, that state environmentalists may soon have a new cause because Democrats were becoming endangered species in the state.
Today it's the Republicans who seem on life support and the Democrats who thrive. That difference was starkly underscored last week when five-term U.S. Senator Arlen Specter abruptly left the GOP. Specter's party switch, obligatory GOP denials notwithstanding, was a body blow to Republicans hoping to recover their electoral footing in a state they once dominated.
But bad as the Specter defection was, it is only the latest setback for Republicans in a lengthening list of mishaps and reversals.
The new century has been a veritable feast for state Democrats. They control the governorship, the congressional delegation, two of the three statewide row offices, two of the three appellate courts, one chamber of the state legislature, and now, for the first time since the 1940's, both U.S. senators are Democrats. Altogether Democrats have won 14 of the past 19 statewide elections - a string of victories that completely reverses the Republican domination established a decade earlier.
Republicans in Pennsylvania have become the Pennsylvania Democrats of a decade ago - a party on the ropes with uncertain prospects and huge challenges lying ahead.
But why has the GOP fallen so far so fast - and can it recover?
Five underlying factors seem critical in explaining what is happening:
Can the GOP recover? Undoubtedly!
Will it recover? That's less certain.
The party still holds onto much of its base in central Pennsylvania. And pockets of old "Reagan Democrats" still survive in the southwestern part of the state. Then too Republicans continue to hold the state Senate - a significant locus of power in Pennsylvania.
But these loyal outposts are not likely to be enough to outweigh the surging Democratic support in eastern Pennsylvania. What state Republicans most lack is a coherent message that galvanizes Pennsylvanians deeply concerned about the state's economic challenges. The party still has another time or two at bat, but time may be running out for them. Indeed, the next two election cycles - governor in 2010 and president in 2012 - augur as the most important series of Pennsylvania elections since the New Deal years.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is a Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner at Michael Young Strategic Research. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2009 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.