G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young
As we race toward the halfway mark of the new decade, politics in Pennsylvania remains uncertain. Long the quintessential competitive two-party state, Republicans have now lost a record setting six straight presidential elections back to 1988, while laboring under a registration deficit of 1 million voters. Nevertheless, they still control the governorship, one U.S. senate seat, both houses of the state legislature and 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats.
Republican control of the governorship came in the 2010 Tea Party year. So did retaking control of the state house and winning a majority of the congressional delegation. It took a wave election to accomplish the first and some artful gerrymandering to accomplish the second.
But 2012 was not so kind to state Republicans. Instead, they lost the presidential election decisively, did not come close to defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and more ominously lost all three statewide row offices – attorney general, auditor general and treasurer-- for the first time in state history.
These divergent electoral outcomes in the first half of the decade now become prologue to the second half of the decade. This year’s election followed by the presidential race in 2016 finds both major political parties nearing a crucial crossroad – one that could determine the course of state politics for decades to come.
Republicans, on the one hand, face a daunting challenge retaining the governor’s office while they must also defend their majorities in the General Assembly. In 2016, they must somehow avoid losing a seventh straight presidential contest while facing a tough challenge to retain U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s senate seat.
Democrats, on the other hand, have their own set of problems. Obama’s pronounced unpopularity will weigh down the entire Democrat ticket in 2014, while possibly wrecking hopes to retain the White House in 2016. Worse, perhaps, the Pennsylvania electorate has long shown its preference to vote against the president’s party in midterm elections, hence the often referenced and frequently misunderstood “eight year cycle.”
Finally, Democrats must deal with a paradox of state politics that has long bedeviled them: Republicans might have trouble winning statewide elections but they do just fine in state legislative races, controlling the state senate, with one exception since 1980, and the state house since 2010. There will be no Democratic ascendancy if Republicans continue their dominance of the General Assembly.
At stake, then, midway through the decade is much more than an election or two. The larger question is whether Pennsylvania will return to its historical role as a competitive two-party state or continue on a path toward long term, one- party dominance of state government.
There are at least four key forces playing out in 2014 that offer clues as to whether competitive state politics will survive.
Pennsylvania has experienced one-party rule but twice in its history. The first was early in the 19th century when Democrats dominated state politics; the second from the Civil War until the 1930s when Republicans held control. Neither era had produced virtuous politics nor enhanced Pennsylvania’s national power. Indeed, much of the state’s early reputation for corrupt politics comes from these periods of one-party rule. Some still may wish for another period of one party rule; they should be careful what they wish for.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://politics.fandm.edu. 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 © 2014 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.