Pennsylvania’s Senate race is a bellwether for Democrats in 2022 and beyond

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic/Matt Rourke

Democrats’ midterm election prospects are daunting.   

They are defending razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate in a year when voters are pessimistic about the state of the country and the economy and are frustrated that the party has moved increasingly to the left.  

Democrats are also faced with a problematic internal chasm between progressives and moderates — a dynamic that plagued President Biden’s first year in office and is now a defining feature of Democratic Primary contests across the country.  

Consequently, there are two major questions heading into the 2022 midterms:  

First, will Democrats be able to turn around this unfavorable political climate by delivering on a more centrist — yet still forward-looking — agenda in order to win key toss-up races?  

Second (which will portend the answer to the first), will the moderate wing of the Democratic Party — that has a much broader national appeal compared to progressivism — ultimately prevail in primary contests?   

In the coming months, we will be able to answer both questions by focusing on one contest in particular: the Pennsylvania Senate race. The result of this Democratic primary will be a bellwether for the party’s national performance in November; and at the same time, the outcome of this general election will provide a strong indication of the party’s current and future political viability.  

Generally speaking, statewide races in swing states, especially without an incumbent, are often indicative of the current national political environment. The Pennsylvania Senate race fits the bill: it involves an open-seat — Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring — in a toss-up state that Joe Biden won in 2020 after Donald Trump carried it in 2016.   

Notably, the political power and tendencies of suburban voters in Pennsylvania mirror those of national suburban voters — an important parallel, as suburban areas are the “last remaining competitive areas left in the country,” per Doug Sosnik’s recent analysis.   

Indeed, elections — both nationwide, and in Pennsylvania — are won or lost in the suburbs. In 2020, the enthusiastic turnout for Democrats in the suburbs of Philadelphia propelled Joe Biden to victory in the state and helped him win the presidency, along with his strong showings in the suburbs of Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin.  

In 2018, suburban voters in Pennsylvania reelected Democrats in statewide races and secured upset wins for Democrats in local contests — a trend that illustrated the party’s strong performance nationally. 

However, in the 2021 elections, there was a shift toward the G.O.P in the Pennsylvania suburbs — similar to suburbs across the country, even in blue states. In statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as local races in New York’s Long Island suburbs, there was a demonstrable swing toward the G.O.P. that was driven by suburban voters defecting from Democrats.  

Why did this shift occur, and what can Democrats do to prevent it from continuing in 2022? 

Sosnik’s analysis provides critical insight. He notes that suburban voters’ main misgivings about the G.O.P. center on anti-Trump attitudes; while on the Democratic side, suburban voters dislike the “culture wars and identity politics” that are pervasive on the left, are concerned about rising crime, and aren’t looking for an expansive or intrusive federal government.  

Thus, in 2021, Democrats alienated suburban voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere because the party was viewed as being supportive of big spending plans, and as embracing — or at the very least, not discrediting — the identity politics and culture wars of the progressive wing.  

At the same time, these voters clearly view Republicans more favorably without Donald Trump. In Trump’s absence, Republicans found a viable model for a candidate with a suburban appeal: Glenn Youngkin, the newly elected governor of Virginia. Youngkin was thought of as a more moderate Republican who spoke to issues that suburban voters in particular care about: lower taxes, less government interference in schools and businesses, and lowering crime.  

In this sense, the general election for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat will ultimately be a dry run — and potentially a harbinger — for the 2024 presidential election. Indeed, the frontrunner in the G.O.P. primary in Pennsylvania — hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, who has a 9-point advantage over Mehmet Oz — is working to delicately balance, as Youngkin did, the Trump-wing of the party with the moderate side.  

Ultimately, if Democrats are unable to advance a national agenda this year that is centered on core moderate themes, Republicans will have a much better chance at winning the Senate seat in Pennsylvania, and of retaking control of Congress.  

That being said, Democrats’ ability to convincingly make this strategic shift to the center by November hinges in large part on the success, or lack thereof, of moderates in key primary races across the country. In a number of congressional races and some Senate races, moderate Democrats are facing primary challenges from the left, as is the case in the Pennsylvania Senate race.  

In Pennsylvania, the progressive Lieutenant Governor, Josh Fetterman, is in a close contest with Rep. Connor Lamb, who is backed by the establishment and is viewed as a more moderate, conventional candidate who has more crossover appeal to suburban voters.  

Put another way, while a Fetterman win would be a daunting indicator for the Democrats’ chances of retaining control of Congress in the general election, a Lamb victory would be an encouraging sign for the party.   

Indeed, Lamb winning would indicate that the Democratic Party is choosing to embrace a more moderate, effective and electable approach — and at the same time, would show that Democrats have a fighting chance to regain their footing among suburban voters in Pennsylvania, and across the country.  

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.

Tags Democratic Party Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Joe Biden Mehmet Oz Michael Bloomberg Pat Toomey Political ideologies political parties Political parties in the United States Politics of the United States Republican Party

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