Biden is a Lone Bright Spot for Western PA Dems
There were no coattails for the president-elect as Republicans gained ground in the region.
I grew up in Carlisle in central PA, a place of divided loyalties, and I generally root for any Pennsylvania team (Go Birds, Go Bucs). So, I was happy to see so much national love for Philadelphia right after the election was called. Even here in Pittsburgh, where I now live, people danced to “Philadelphia Freedom” in the streets, and lifelong Penguins fans gleefully shared Gritty memes.
I didn’t want to spoil the moment. But now that a few days have passed I’ll say it: Pittsburgh added more to Joe Biden’s 2020 margin than Philly.
That’s right. Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh is located) grew Biden’s net margin over Donald Trump by 39,000 votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016 – a four percent improvement.
Meanwhile, Trump’s deficit in Philly was actually 4,000 votes less than it was in 2016 – a four percent improvement for him.
If you want to look at the numbers yourself, I collected the county-level vote totals and percent margins for 2020 and 2016 in this Google spreadsheet. Feel free to check it out.
Granted, the suburbs of our commonwealth’s two big cities paint the opposite picture. Biden gained 96,000 votes in the four collar counties around Philadelphia, while Trump actually gained 15,000 in the counties surrounding Pittsburgh.
Biden’s strong showing in Allegheny County is where the good news ends for Democrats. Here’s what else happened in western PA:
The GOP didn’t lose a single seat anywhere and picked up a huge one. House Majority Leader Frank Dermody of Allegheny County lost to Republican challenger Carrie DelRosso. It was the biggest incumbent loss in the state (other than the president).
Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb, who won by 13 points in 2018, squeaked in by just two points this year.
Meanwhile, a battle looms over provisional ballots as State Sen. Jim Brewster (D-McKeesport) is clinging to a 30-vote lead over GOP challenger Nicole Ziccarelli – out of 131,000 cast. Even if Brewster wins, the GOP will keep its 29-to-21 majority in that chamber.
The open seat of former House Speaker Mike Turzai stayed in Republican hands, contributing to a GOP net gain of a handful of seats despite pre-election forecasts for Democratic increases.
The results raise a big question: how much of our current realignment is permanent, and how much is driven by Trump himself? We’ve seen blue-collar, ancestral Democrats continue to move right, a trend that predates Trump but accelerated under the president. Will Romney Republicans – white-collar suburbanites – be a permanent part of the Democratic coalition, or was their ire limited to Trump?
I looked at one bellwether town to try to figure it out. McCandless Township is the center of the political pendulum in western PA. It’s a bedroom community in Pittsburgh’s North Hills and a longtime GOP stronghold. Here are the numbers:
2012: Romney won 59 percent of the vote over Barack Obama and carried every precinct.
2016: Trump won over Hillary Clinton by five points, 50-45 percent.
2018: Good results for Democrats – Gov. Wolf 57 percent, Sen. Casey 55 percent, Lamb 53 percent.
In 2020, a critical mass of swing voters handed a defeat to Trump here – but victories to several down-ballot Republicans.
Biden won McCandless over Trump by 5.5 percent, 52-46, making him the first Democrat to carry the Township since at least 1964 and possibly ever.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro did even better with 53 percent.
Lamb narrowly carried the township with 51 percent.
However, GOP challenger Stacy Garrity beat incumbent Treasurer Joe Torsella here by two points.
GOP Auditor General candidate Tim DeFoor won by 3.5 percent.
In one of the most-watched State House races in all of PA, Republican Rob Mercuri beat Democrat Emily Skopov in McCandless Township by three points.
My verdict? Romney Republicans voted more like temporary allies of the Democrats than permanent partners. That means that Pennsylvania Democrats are in for a challenging 2022 midterm.
Keegan Gibson Keegan Gibson is Special Projects Manager in Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.