The 2020 election showed a tried and true way that Republicans can still win in Pennsylvania. But with former President Donald Trump still hanging over the party, will they follow him next year?
As Trump lost critical condition, other Republicans have won major victories to grab statewide rank offices and make gains in the state legislature.
The victories of Auditor General Tim DeFoor and Treasurer Stacy Garrity have shown that Republicans can still compete in critical suburban Pennsylvania. These campaigns could serve as the GOP’s roadmap to even bigger victories in next year’s nationally watched races for the Governor and the US Senate. DeFoor and Garrity won many swing voters who rejected Trump, enough to make the difference between his weak loss and their narrow wins.
In populated Chester County, for example, DeFoor got 45% of the vote and Garrity 44%, compared to about 41% for Trump. Although this is a seemingly small spread, in such a large county it meant 9,500 extra votes for Garrity and nearly 13,000 for DeFoor. A similar pattern repeated itself in the four suburban Philadelphia counties, where Garrity won 19,300 more votes than Trump and DeFoor topped him by almost 37,000 – despite there being less. voters in their races.
Continuing their losses among moderate suburban voters allowed the pair to follow a clear path to Republican victory.
But to the dismay of some GOP strategists – and the hope of Democrats – much of Republican politics continues to revolve around Trump, his many mock elections claims, and vendettas against real and perceived enemies.
“This idea that you’re going to play as far as you can with Trump is not a winnable strategy,” said David Dix, a strategist who worked for DeFoor last year and helped both Democrats and Democrats. republicans. “For the Republicans who knew how to  campaign on something more than Donald Trump, for them they were very successful. “
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Yet as long as Trump emerges as the dominant figure in the GOP, candidates know his voters will be critical in their primary elections. Two of the biggest Republican names among the gubernatorial contenders, State Senator Doug Mastriano and the former Representative of the United States. Lou Barletta, have clashed over who is closest to the former president. In the Senate race, the top candidates mixed broad appeals with signals of their good faith Trump.
“No statewide Republican candidate can win a primary or general election without the support of the Trump base,” said Tim Murtaugh, senior advisor to Barletta and former spokesperson for the Trump campaign. “To think otherwise ignores reality.”
Other Republicans see great opportunities to win both contests – but be careful to avoid the divide that has defined Trump.
“If you perfectly duplicate what Trump got in 2020, you lose,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican strategist who worked on an independent spending group supporting DeFoor.
While Trump racked up huge vote totals in rural areas, he was overwhelmed by heavy losses in the suburbs around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg as some longtime Republican voters rejected him but remained loyal. to the negative vote of the GOP.
“There’s no way to be a ruling party in Pennsylvania without winning suburban communities,” said Mark Harris, a Republican strategist who worked on Garrity’s campaign. His cabinet now advises State Senator Dan Laughlin (R., Erie), who launched a gubernatorial campaign last week pledging to avoid culture wars and promoting his story of victory in a neighborhood swing.
Even in some counties where Trump had strong victories – like York, Lancaster and Cumberland – DeFoor and Garrity won higher percentages of the vote than him, an indication of the growing suburbanization of those areas, analysts from both parties said. .
“It shows that a lot of people who didn’t like Trump but were Republican-oriented came back to the GOP,” Nicholas said.
This is a warning sign for Democrats, who have come to rely on votes from the suburbs. And this suggests that while some in both parties have downplayed the importance of swing voters, they can still make a difference in a state as divided as Pennsylvania.
“There is clear evidence in the suburbs that there are a bunch of Republicans who have been like, ‘We’re Republicans, we’re not voting for Donald Trump. “But that’s different from saying, ‘We’re not Republicans anymore,’” said JJ Balaban, a Democratic strategist who worked on former treasurer Joe Torsella’s campaign against Garrity.
Nicholas also noted Pennsylvania’s election law that came into effect last year, which eliminated the ability for voters to support all candidates of a single party by pulling a single lever. In the midst of President Joe Biden’s victory, it likely helped Republicans vote, he said, although many GOP members decried the law because it also expanded postal voting.
Trump had unique strengths. He has achieved huge victories in post-industrial regions thanks to his appeal to many former Democrats. In Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, Trump won nearly 57% of the vote, compared to 53% for DeFoor and 52% for Garrity.
Other Republicans, including Garrity and DeFoor, have taken advantage of Trump’s appeal to rural and post-industrial areas, said Nick Trainer, a former Trump strategist now working with Barletta. The key to winning, he said, is to align with the Trump base while maintaining a distinct brand.
“You can support President Trump and also do your own thing, and these are the most successful people,” Trainer said. “The Democrats are going to run against Trump anyway, so trying to split up only hurts you with your own party supporters. “
But these rural and post-industrial results also reflect how Trump’s appeal has not been fully transferred to other Republicans. And these regions are getting smaller, while the suburbs are getting bigger.
“Maybe Republicans can win in 2022, but in the long term trends, unless they are able to reverse them, you’re going to see a concentration of Democratic votes where population growth is occurring,” he said. said Ben Forstate, a Democratic data analyst.
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Other Republicans who have tried to emulate Trump’s approach have fallen flat. The gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner and Barletta, as a candidate for the Senate, tied themselves closely to Trump in 2018 and were crushed.
“There is no evidence that someone who isn’t called Donald Trump can build the kind of rural fringes to the extreme,” Harris said. But there are a lot of Republicans, he said, who won by staying relatively close in the suburbs.
Of course, recent history shows that predictions are risky. There are plenty of startling results that have defied expectations or precedents, and some strategists from both parties argue that exciting and brash candidates – even if they are polarizing – are stronger.
Key aspects of Garrity and DeFoor’s victories may also not apply in 2022. Balaban noted that the auditor’s and treasurer’s races have been overshadowed by the presidential campaign. There will be much more control over the gubernatorial and Senate races, which are expected to be among the most fiercely contested in the country.
READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans target Tom Wolf, not Biden, as they seek to win 2022 governor’s race
And individual applicants matter. Garrity ran an army prison camp in Iraq and earned two Bronze Stars. DeFoor had a long experience in government that aligned with the role of auditor, most notably as Comptroller of Dauphin County.
As a black woman and man – DeFoor is the first person of color to win a statewide row office – the two may also have had an appeal beyond the GOP’s increasingly white male support base.
And the races of 2022 will surely encompass a wide range of issues. It will be a first referendum on Biden, and Democrats face a balance between the progressive wing of the party and their efforts to hold on to swing voters.
It gives hope to Republicans, who argue the Democrats’ left turn cost them a ballot in 2020 and gives the GOP another opening in a state ruled by tiny margins.
“Overall,” said Harris, “in most elections both teams show up and then you have to win in the middle of the playing field.”