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Pennsylvania Flipped to Trump in 2016. Will It Flip Back in the Midterms?

Category: Political News,Politics

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Sandy Sinkovich, a retired X-ray technician, was a registered Republican until she switched parties during the Obama years. She plans to vote a straight Democratic ticket in the midterms. President Trump, she said, has “done nothing but destroy our country.”

Dave Sweeney, who services juice machines, registered as a Republican in 2016 after years of being a Democrat so he could vote for Mr. Trump in the primary. He is concerned about the migrant caravan and plans to vote party-line Republican.

“No, I’m not racist if I think you should work for welfare, you should work for food stamps,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Few states have reflected the changing political allegiances of the Trump era more than Pennsylvania, which was the most populous of the trifecta of Rust Belt states that Mr. Trump flipped in 2016. Along the way, Republicans claimed 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 House seats.

Now, two years later, the wheel is turning again. Because of weak Republican candidates at the top of the state ticket and redrawn congressional districts, Democrats are positioned for gains — maybe big ones — in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, including three or more women who could crash the state’s all-male House delegation.

The shooting of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday divided Pennsylvanians, as it did Americans, on whether President Trump’s fiery anti-immigration rhetoric may have fed into the violence. But in an election season when partisan attitudes were already well set, it is unclear whether the shooting would affect many votes. Congressional races around Pittsburgh are more settled than tossup districts elsewhere.

“I think this is not primarily a political issue, and I don’t think voters are thinking about it as a political issue,’’ said Mark Harris a Republican strategist based in Pittsburgh. “I know everyone is as outraged about what’s happened; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”

Looming just over the horizon: Democratic hopes that this year provides a reset, and Pennsylvania returns in 2020 to its alignment as a dependable blue state in presidential politics.

That prize is still a ways off, and by no means assured. Of more immediate concern is an array of highly competitive House districts that, on Election Day, could serve as a harbinger on the battle for control of the House nationally.

Democrats are expected to pick up at least two Pennsylvania House seats — and, in a blowout, as many as six — which would advance the party toward the 23 pickups it needs for a congressional majority.

Republican troubles begin with a failure to nominate candidates for governor and Senate with broad appeal to moderate voters. The incumbent Democrats, Gov. Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey Jr., have led in polls by double digits since the spring.

Their opponents — Lou Barletta, a conservative congressman challenging Mr. Casey, and Scott Wagner, a state senator running against Mr. Wolf — are divisive figures. Mr. Wagner, who once said if the state laid off 10 percent of its teachers they would not be missed, recorded a video boasting he would grind his golf spikes into Mr. Wolf’s face.

Both challengers have failed to raise much money or become competitive enough to attract outside spending.

Republican Party leaders in Pennsylvania openly worry that their lackluster statewide candidates will depress turnout, with significant fallout for congressional races, and perhaps the size of Republican majorities in the General Assembly in Harrisburg.

“There’s a lot of collateral damage that could come out of having a very weak top of the ticket,” Mr. Harris, the Republican strategist said.

The biggest blow, however, came when the Democratic-majority State Supreme Court threw out a Republican-gerrymandered map of congressional districts early this year.

The new map drawn by the court more closely reflects the state’s partisan equilibrium. Democrats are widely expected to flip two seats previously held by Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Both candidates are women: Mary Gay Scanlon, a lawyer, running in the Fifth District, and Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, competing in the Sixth District.

In addition, Madeleine Dean, a state representative, is the Democratic nominee in the newly drawn Fourth District, also suburban and an open seat. Much of it was previously represented by a Democrat.

“The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth are going Democratic, end of quote,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist who conducts the Franklin & Marshall Poll of Pennsylvania.

Another potential Democratic pickup, — and a possible fourth woman the state could send to Congress — is the Seventh District, in the Lehigh Valley. There, Susan Wild, a former Allentown city official, is doing well in polls against Marty Nothstein, a former Olympic cyclist.

Republicans are not without prospects of their own. Another race in the Philadelphia suburbs matches the freshman Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican and former F.B.I. agent, against Scott Wallace, a wealthy philanthropist.

The district is centered on Bucks County, a swing region that both Hillary Clinton and Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, carried in 2016. Mr. Fitzpatrick has won the backing of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and gun-control groups. His campaign signs boast he is “Ranked #1 Most Independent Freshman Congressman.”

But the congressional race stirring the most interest in the last days is in the 10th Congressional District in south-central Pennsylvania, where Representative Scott Perry, a conservative Republican, has suddenly found himself in choppy waters.

Mr. Perry is a member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus in the House. He was redrawn from a district Mr. Trump won by 21 points into one the president carried by nine, and has done little to appeal to independent voters. A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll showed him with a two-point edge over his challenger, George Scott, a Lutheran minister.

“It’s much closer than anyone thought it would be and much closer than it should be,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist who lives in the district.

Here, as elsewhere, many voters see the ballot as a referendum on Mr. Trump.

Jessica Kolaric, 46, who works with dementia patients, said that she did not know much about either congressional candidate but that she planned to vote for Mr. Scott, the Democrat. “Someone needs to hold Trump accountable and put him in check,” she said.

Mr. Trump’s 44,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania, like elsewhere in the Rust Belt, was the result of an unforeseen surge of blue-collar voters, who swamped the votes of college-educated voters in suburbia.

In March, the upset victory by a centrist Democrat, Conor Lamb, in a special election in a House district Mr. Trump had carried by 19 points set off a wave of punditry that “Trump Democrats” were returning to their ancestral party.

On closer analysis, Mr. Lamb’s win was largely because he galvanized suburban voters outside Pittsburgh.

Mr. Lamb has been redistricted into a seat where he now faces a Republican incumbent, Keith Rothfus. In September, the National Republican Congressional Committee canceled its advertising in support of Mr. Rothfus, a sign the national party believes his chances are slim.

But it is too early to write the obituary of the Trump Democrats of western Pennsylvania, particularly in terms of 2020.

An important bellwether is Erie County in northwest Pennsylvania, which Mr. Trump won in 2016 after decades of Democratic dominance.

Ryan A. Bizzarro, a Democratic state representative from Erie County, was shocked two years ago by how many of the Democratic households whose doors he knocked on favored Mr. Trump.

Mr. Bizzarro revisited many of the same houses this year. “I’m seeing many of the same Democratic voters who I spoke to in 2016, and who voted for President Trump, come back into the fold,” he said.

If a Democratic wave turns into more of a tsunami, the incumbent Republican congressman who represents Erie, Mike Kelly, could also be in trouble.

Still, even that scenario would not spell doom for Mr. Trump’s prospects in Pennsylvania in 2020. Mr. Madonna, the pollster, has a factoid he likes to drop into talks he gives around the state.

“There are three recent presidents who had a horrible first midterm,” Mr. Madonna tells audiences. “Reagan, Clinton and Obama. All three of them won re-election handily.”


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