Downtown Washington, Pa. (Louis Jacobson for PoliticsPA)
WASHINGTON, Pa. — In this corner of Pennsylvania, Democratic fortunes have been waning for a decade or two. Yet Democrats in Southwest Pennsylvania say they saw some early signs that 2022 was going to be a good year for their party – at a time when most people in the national political discussion were expecting significant Republican gains.
“At a Labor Day event in Westmoreland County, you could feel the enthusiasm,” said Marty Marks, a Democratic consultant in the region who often works with labor unions. “People were coming up for yard signs. We’d never run out before.”
For Larry Maggi, a Democratic commissioner in Washington County, the signal came from the reactions he saw when the Supreme Court decided Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the ruling that enabled states to outlaw abortion.
“In Southwest Pennsylvania, we are very religious,” Maggi said. But even the devout Catholics they socialized with, and especially the women, “really took exception to Dobbs. Overwhelmingly, our circle voted Democratic this year. I didn’t think the issue would resonate here. But it resonated.”
And for Mike Mikus, another Pittsburgh-area Democratic consultant, the realization came when Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman seemed to be hitting paydirt with his attacks on his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, as someone with weak-to-nonexistent ties to the state.
After an Oz video in a grocery store describing his quest to assemble a “crudite” plate went viral among his critics, Mikus said he had to turn off the notifications on his phone so he wouldn’t be bothered at all hours.
“It felt like it was going to be a good year, but I didn’t want to say anything,” Mikus said. “I’m not living in bubble – I’m a sportsman’s club member and serve in the fire department, but I sensed no enthusiasm for either Oz or Mastriano.”
In the end, Fetterman won statewide by about a 5-point margin, and fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro prevailed in the gubernatorial race over Republican Doug Mastriano by about 14 points. Meanwhile, in a toss-up U.S. House district consisting mostly of Allegheny and Beaver counties, Democrat Chris Deluzio won a surprisingly comfortable six-point victory, and in a heavily blue open House seat that includes Pittsburgh, Summer Lee held it for the Democrats, even though her progressive positions may have contributed to her relative underperformance.
While neither Fetterman nor Shapiro won every county in Southwest Pennsylvania, they generally held their own – and then some – in an area with the type of blue-collar demographics that has been unfavorable to recent Democratic candidates.
The 2022 results were clearly a disappointment to Republicans.
“If Republicans do not develop an organizational strategy for early voting, they will continue to lose races they should win,” said Republican consultant Mike Ward. “If we’ve learned anything in 2020 or 2022, it’s that election day is for 50 days, not one anymore. Message, candidate quality, and money is all secondary to an early-vote ground game operation.”
This marks the seventh consecutive election cycle I’ve written an election post-mortem for PoliticsPA based on my reporting in six Southwest Pennsylvania counties: Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland.
Over the full arc of these seven election cycles, the region’s voting patterns have moved away from the Democrats, with the exception of Pittsburgh-based Allegheny County, which has, if anything, become even bluer. Such developments have tracked the parallel paths of the two parties – the Democratic Party has become predominantly urban and suburban with a strong appeal to college-educated voters, while the Republican Party has become increasingly rural and attractive to blue-collar voters.
During these seven cycles, support for Democrats has zigzagged a bit in Southwest Pennsylvania rather than cratering entirely. For instance, Joe Biden fared better in most of the counties here two years ago than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
But while the long-term demographic patterns look grim for Democrats in Southwest Pennsylvania, 2022 amounted to one of those favorable zigs.
This year’s midterm election in Southwest Pennsylvania was “an overperformance for the Democrats,” said Jon Delano, the money and politics editor at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. “That was unexpected, given the general perception that this is Trump Country.”
Here, we’ll crunch some of the numbers from Election 2022 in this part of Pennsylvania.
Roadside campaign signs in Washington, Pa. (Louis Jacobson for PoliticsPA)
The Senate race
Fetterman clearly outpaced Biden in Southwest Pennsylvania; in county after county, the New York Times election page shows a forest of blue arrows depicting Fetterman’s improvement over Biden’s performance two years earlier.
Below is a slightly different set of numbers, one that offers a more apples-to-apples comparison than the presidential-to-midterm comparison used in the Times’ graphic. This one compares the Democratic share of votes in Senate races going back to 2010.
On the surface, this comparison doesn’t show Fetterman’s performance as world-beating.
Fetterman won solidly blue Allegheny, as expected, but he didn’t crack 45% in any of the region’s other five counties. And despite his service as mayor of Braddock in Allegheny County, he consistently underperformed Democratic Sen. Bob Casey’s showings in 2012 and 2018, and even that of Sestak 2010, in the region’s other counties.
However, experts here say that’s to be expected. “The Caseys are a political dynasty,” Marks said, referring to the current senator and his namesake father, who served as governor. Casey was also running in both elections as an incumbent. Meanwhile, the educational attainment divide between the two parties has changed a lot since Sestak ran 12 years ago.
In any case, observers here say that Fetterman managed to arrest any further Democratic decline in the region, at least for this year. Fetterman, they said, did everything he needed to do to position himself as more electable than Oz.
Fetterman “was able to define Oz early on as a carpetbagger,” Marks said. “It worked, and Oz never overcame that.” In addition, Oz’s wealth and multiple homes created distance with voters. “The negatives he picked up in the primary were ones he could never shake,” Delano said.
Meanwhile, Fetterman was able to provide a sharp contrast, said Mike Butler, a Democratic consultant. “Fetterman was able to show that he had spent time in the region,” Butler said. “He was rewarded in his belief that he could get some votes back” to the Democrats.
Fetterman’s hoodie-and-tattoo style also played well locally, Maggi said. Compared to the more buttoned-down Rep. Conor Lamb, who Fetterman beat in the Democratic Senate primary, “I was a little concerned about Fetterman,” Maggi said. “But I was pleasantly surprised about how well he did here. A Donald Trump Republican I know was excited about Fetterman — not about his policies, but how he appeared. He felt he was a working man. I heard that several times.”
Mike Mikus, Mike Butler, and Marty Marks in Washington, Pa. (Louis Jacobson for PoliticsPA)
The gubernatorial race
As for the gubernatorial race, Shapiro faced an even weaker Republican opponent than Fetterman did, helping him run strong in Southwest Pennsylvania.
In Allegheny County, Shapiro exceeded both of the victories by his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf.
In addition, Shapiro, like Wolf, won Beaver County, while maintaining Wolf’s significant improvements in Westmoreland County. Shapiro also replicated Wolf’s percentages in Washington County. Shapiro’s only disappointments were in Fayette and Greene counties, where the Democratic vote share has declined significantly since Wolf’s 2014 victory.
Shapiro also improved upon his performance in his 2016 and 2020 runs for attorney general. For the first time in one of his races, Shapiro won Beaver County.
Observers here credit both Shapiro’s approach and the shortcomings of his opponent, Mastriano, whose hard-edged conservatism seemed to hold little crossover appeal for voters.
Shapiro – who hails from Montgomery County in the Philadelphia suburbs – spent a lot of time in Southwest Pennsylvania, both as attorney general and as a gubernatorial candidate.
Shapiro “was in Southwest Pennsylvania numerous times, and Washington County at least four times I know about,” Maggi said.
Mikus recalled how as attorney general, Shapiro traveled to Washington County to hold a press conference in a misappropriated money case involving a funeral home. And Shapiro gained local credibility when he helped broker a major health insurance dispute between Highmark Health and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Delano said. Shapiro also has a daughter attending the University of Pittsburgh, making him a “Pitt Dad.”
Showing up regularly in Southwest Pennsylvania enabled Shapiro to “pick up a lot of good will,” Marks said. Even in the counties the Democrats were destined to lose, this helped him shave the GOP’s margins of victory, yielding electoral dividends.
By contrast, despite potentially favorable demographics, Mastriano kept a low profile in Southwest Pennsylvania.
Even when he did come to town, “Mastriano wouldn’t tell the press” to get the word out, Butler said. That was unwise, Mikus said, since a visit to a smaller locale almost guarantees media coverage, which is important for a campaign that was far outraised and unable to keep pace in television ad spending. Maggi said he’s only aware of one Mastriano visit to Washington County – “in a church basement with a limited crowd. Oz came a few times, but he never resonated either.”
Mastriano’s closed-off approach and Oz’s distance from the region hurt the GOP’s grassroots efforts, too, Mikus said. In his politically competitive home neighborhood near Pittsburgh, Mikus said, 2022 was “the first election I did not come across a Republican doing door knocking.”
Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi (Louis Jacobson for PoliticsPA)
One of the keys to the relatively strong Democratic performance in the region was differential turnout benefiting the Democrats.
Here’s a look at how the number of votes cast for Fetterman and Shapiro in the six counties compared to the number of votes cast for Biden in 2020, and how the number of votes cast for Oz and Mastriano compared to the number of votes cast for Trump two years ago.
The data show that the number of votes for Fetterman and Shapiro this year came close to the number Biden got in 2020 in each of the six counties, even though 2020 was a presidential year, when turnout tends to be significantly higher. In fact, in Westmoreland County, Shapiro won about 5,000 more votes than Biden had won in the county two years earlier. Shapiro also won more votes in Greene County this year than Biden did in 2020.
By contrast, the Republicans saw sharp drop-offs from Trump’s showing in 2020. The biggest came in Allegheny County, where Mastriano saw a 40% drop-off in votes from what Trump had achieved in 2020. The other counties saw more modest declines, but still substantial ones, for Mastriano compared to Trump.
This pattern of vote declines for Republicans when Trump is not on the ballot is something we also noted in the 2018 midterm results.
Maggi said he’s not surprised the data shows this, based on his own observations.
“A lot of the MAGA voters in the red, rural communities didn’t vote,” he said. Maggi recalls stopping at one local cafe on Election Day, wearing his “I voted” sticker. A man told him, “I only vote if Trump’s on the ballot.”
“I saw a lot of nods when he said that,” Maggi said.