The Political Evolution of Southwest PA
BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. – Not many years ago, Joseph DiSarro recalls, you could go out to grab coffee on Murtland, Ave., not far from his office at Washington & Jefferson College, at 6:45 or 7:00 in the morning and be the only customer in sight.
But drilling in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation has changed all that.
“Now the trucks are parked everywhere – you can’t even get a spot. Drilling has had a tremendous impact on the economy, and it will have an impact on the politics,” said DiSarro, a political scientist who has followed developments in this region of southwestern Pennsylvania since moving here in 1977. “We’re experiencing a political realignment in Washington County. I think the election results from 2014 demonstrate that this is serious.”
The economic changes from drilling have been significant, but they are only the latest sign of a political transformation in this corner of the state, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 3-to-2 margin.
Signs of this realignment – specifically, a shift from the region’s Democratic roots to a Republican ascendancy – have been under way for several years, as this author has documented in dispatches for PoliticsPA from southwestern Pennsylvania periodically since 2009.
Bolstered by voters’ disaffection with the national Democratic Party’s stances on social issues, guns and the environment, and aided by a pro-Republican redistricting map in the state, the GOP has managed to win all but one of the region’s congressional seats and has gained ground in lower offices.
Even though Democrat Tom Wolf ousted incumbent GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014 — and even though the Democrats maintain a near-stranglehold on statewide offices — the results of this November’s election may represent a turning point in this transition.
- In the 46th state Senate district — which includes most of Washington and Greene counties and a sliver of Beaver County — Republican Camera Bartolotta, a political novice, knocked off incumbent Democrat Timothy Solobay, 53 percent-47 percent.
- In the open 32nd state Senate district, which includes portions of Fayette, Westmoreland and Somerset counties, Republican Patrick Stefano defeated state Rep. Deberah Kula, 57 percent-43 percent.
- In the 46th legislative district – which includes portions of Washington and Allegheny counties — Republican Jason Ortitay ousted Democratic incumbent Jesse White, 56 percent-44 percent. White had not even faced a challenger in 2012.
- GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus, whose district stretches from Beaver County east to Cambria County and had been competitive for several election cycles running, sailed to a second term, 59 percent-41 percent.
- Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who’s more friendly with labor than most of his GOP colleagues, didn’t even get major-party opposition in 2014.
- Corbett lost his reelection bid by a 55 percent – 45 percent margin, yet managed to win Washington County, 52 percent-48 percent, and Westmoreland County by a whopping 57 percent-43 percent margin.
As J.D. Prose of the Beaver County Times summed it up in his post-election coverage, “Beaver County, long the home of labor strength and true-blue Democrats, now has two GOP state senators, two GOP state representatives, and a Tea Party-backed Republican congressman who easily won the county.”
Prose noted that more Republican straight-party ballots (9,910) were cast than Democratic ones (9,183) in the county.
What became clear in 2014 is that “the national Republican wave was a local wave in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Jon Delano, a political analyst with KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council agreed. “The trend manifested itself first at the top of the ticket, but has now moved down to statewide and state legislative races,” Patti said.
Patti said that southwestern Pennsylvania “may be registered Democratic, but that means little. They are pro-God, pro-life, pro-gun, moderate on the environment, moderate on tort reform, and are not anti-business. They are pro-labor and don’t see that as incompatible with these other considerations. Like Ronald Reagan, they believe they aren’t leaving the Democratic Party – they believe the Democratic Party at the top of the ticket has left them.”
Jack Manning, an Independent who ran for Beaver County Commissioner in 2011 and who chairs the county’s economic development task force, said Republicans have shown they can overcome the region’s embedded Democratic registration edge. In 2014, “the Republicans put up better local candidates and were much better financed,” Manning said.
This can be seen in the arc of several of the races noted above, where the Democratic candidate held leads until late in the contest, said Mike Butler, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic consultant who has worked with Sen. Robert Casey, state Treasurer Rob McCord, and former Rep. Jason Altmire.
Solobay and White both had personal issues to overcome. Solobay had many conservative positions in tune with his district, but he faced intense fire over his high ranking in payment of legislative per diems – the reimbursements for food and travel expenses while the legislature is in session. A group affiliated with GOP state Sen. Scott Wagner, spent at least $434,000 against Solobay late in the contest highlighting the per diems.
Making matters worse, Solobay’s name came up in the investigation of a man shot to death in 2011. Police confirmed that he was not a suspect, but the revelation proved to be a distraction, observers said.
Meanwhile, White had to deal with revelations that he had surreptitiously bullied commenters who backed shale extraction. He apologized, but the damage was done.
“The word did not get through to the establishment Democrats that they needed to work on their campaigns,” said Kirk Holman, a former Republican official and political observer in California, Pa. “A week before the election, people told me that (Solobay) had nothing to worry about. There may not be a fundamental swing to the Republican Party yet, but there is a competitiveness that was not present here before.”
The rapidly advancing energy boom has sped up the process of realignment, observers here said. In this once-sleepy corner of the state, landowners have signed mineral leases and out-of-state energy companies have flooded the region with business and jobs. To the extent that there’s an environmental downside to the drilling, it hasn’t yet taken precedence in local public opinion, observers say.
“The Marcellus Shale is a game-changer, just like the heavy industry that came before it,” said Larry Maggi, a Democratic commissioner in Washington County for more than a dozen years. “It has literally changed Washington County’s economics. It has opened up opportunities that have never existed before. Instead of exporting of our kids, our youth are staying here.”
One of the emblematic changes from the energy boom is a transformation in the role of organized labor. Labor has historically been strong in the steel and coal sectors, but those are declining; unions are significantly weaker in the growing, shale-related sectors.
“Labor is still a force, but not nearly as strong as it was, due to the shrinking manufacturing roles,” Manning said. “There is a strong but aging demographic that is active in voting, but not nearly as powerful as in previous decades.”
And to the extent that unions are closer to the national Republican Party than the national Democratic Party on resource-extraction and environmental policy, winning the backing of labor is no longer a slam dunk for Democrats.
“In southwestern Pennsylvania, private sector organized labor — Teamsters, boilermakers, electrical workers, carpenters — are often helping Republican candidates behind the scenes, if not overtly,” Patti said. “Corbett enjoyed a good deal of support in southwestern Pennsylvania private-sector organized labor. Business leaders are correspondingly moderate and often not particularly anti-union.”
Meanwhile, the region is sorting itself out ideologically to an unprecedented degree, observers said.
Pittsburgh and swaths of surrounding Allegheny County suburbs “are trending more and more blue,” and the exurbs are becoming more and more red, said Eric Hagarty, deputy campaign manager for Wolf and campaign manager for Bill Peduto, who won Pittsburgh’s mayoral race in 2013.
With tech-related growth spawned by Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, young people are flocking into the Pittsburgh area, instead of out of it, for the first time in decades, said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-area native who ran the pro-Wolf FreshStart PAC in 2014 and was a consultant for former Democratic Rep. Mark Critz, who lost to Rothfus in 2012.
In his first run for governor in 2010, Corbett narrowly won Allegheny County, but this year he lost it by 60,000 votes. And Peduto won the mayoral race running as an unabashed liberal.
“Pittsburgh has been a Democratic city as long as anyone can remember, but it was a union town full of Democrats with a conservative streak, especially on social issues,” Governing magazine wrote recently. “Now Peduto is helping to reshape Pittsburgh into an assertively liberal city, one whose leaders talk about green energy, inequality and economic justice.”
In Allegheny County, Obama won 57 percent of the vote in 2012 – a result that contrasted strongly with his performance elsewhere in the southwestern region. In Washington County, Mitt Romney won 56 percent of the vote. In Greene County, Romney got 58 percent, in Fayette it was 54 percent, in Westmoreland it was 61 percent and in Beaver it was 53 percent.
Political observers agree that, for a variety of reasons (including his race) Obama has been a drag on downballot Democrats in western Pennsylvania. A big question is whether the Democrats’ potential presidential candidate in 2016 – Hillary Clinton – could win back some of the voters who defected to Obama’s opponents in 2008 and 2012.
Bolstered by the residual popularity of former President Bill Clinton and her center-right views, Clinton swamped Obama here in the 2008 Democratic primary. There’s broad agreement that she would improve upon Obama’s numbers locally if she runs, perhaps aiding downballot Democrats in the process.
“I know President Clinton is still hugely popular here,” Maggi said. “I do think Hillary Clinton could do well.” Her best shot at winning the region outright would be if the Republicans nominate a candidate too far to the right, Maggi and others said. “Most of us are middle-of-the-road here,” Maggi said.
But it will not be a slam dunk for Clinton, DiSarro added. “Voters will have to decide, ‘Do I vote for someone I really like and respect, or whose husband did a great job a number of years ago, or do I vote my interests?”
The result may hinge on whether losses up and down the ballot in 2014 shake Democratic officials in southwestern Pennsylvania out of their slumber, Holman said.
“The Democrats will have to do a better job of delivering their message, getting voters out and not simply assuming they can do things as they did 30 years ago,” he said. “The Democrats had become so complacent and had been running such formulaic campaigns that some forgot how to do it right.”