Thirty years ago, Republican Sen. John Heinz — then Pennsylvania’s most popular public figure — died in a midair collision in Lower Merion. The crash that aviation officials deemed a “senseless accident” occurred when a helicopter flew too close to inspect the landing gear of the plane carrying Heinz.

The two aircraft collided over Merion Elementary School, where children were at recess on that spring afternoon. Seven people were killed: Heinz, age 52, and the plane’s pilot and copilot; two helicopter pilots; and two first-grade girls playing in the schoolyard. On the ground, crash debris injured five people.

The news was shocking. Heinz — beloved by working-class and suburban voters alike — was considered a future gubernatorial, or even presidential, contender. His tragic death undoubtedly altered state and national political history.

Pennsylvania’s political realignment arguably began after Heinz’s death. It took Donald Trump to solidify the shifting party allegiances among working-class voters, who long favored Democrats, and suburbanites, who traditionally voted Republican. Ironically, Heinz’s coalition of working-class Democrats in Pennsylvania’s northeast and southwest, combined with rural conservatives and suburban moderates, was also Trump’s winning formula in 2016. In 2020, Pennsylvanians — especially suburbanites — denied Trump an encore.

The state GOP’s future depends on winning the 2022 governor’s race and the Senate seat now held by the retiring Pat Toomey, whom Pennsylvania Republicans rebuked for voting to convict Trump in his impeachment trial. As Republicans face internecine conflicts, Heinz’s Senate years still offer lessons on winning this complex state. “Heinz walked the careful line of a moderate, garnering votes from both coal hamlets and college towns; if he had not been so skilled, he would have been called slippery,” said Tom Waseleski, a retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor.

As senator, Heinz took nuanced positions. When Reaganomics reigned, he called for fair trade to protect Pennsylvania’s steelworkers. A passionate advocate of senior citizens, Heinz strengthened entitlements. He was rewarded at the polls. In the 1988 election, Heinz won by 1.49 million votes — the widest winning margin in state history. On election night, Heinz said he had a “mainstream mandate.”

“He appealed to blue-collar people; he had a lot of respect for people who put on a hard hat and went to work every day,” said GOP strategist Tony Fratto, who volunteered for Heinz’s campaign. “At the same time, he had a really good understanding that it was important to have an environment for capital to finance factory-building,” added Fratto, a former Treasury Department official.

“Heinz’s legacy was that a powerful Pennsylvania Republican could be pro-labor and pro-environment while still being loyal to his party,” noted Waseleski, who met with Heinz on the day before his death.

An heir to the iconic food company — he was the richest member of Congress — Heinz could afford independence. But he was a patrician respected by the masses. His philanthropic family, moreover, remained committed to Pittsburgh — a rarity in many Pennsylvania communities. “A little-known thing about him: Even though he was born into privilege, that privilege never went to his head,” Mark DeSantis, an entrepreneur and former Heinz staffer, told me. “For him, he was about earning everything: the respect of his voters, staff, and colleagues.”

Pennsylvania has profoundly changed since Heinz’s death. But the state’s voters still typically elect candidates based on mainstream values. This was the case last November, when Pennsylvania narrowly elected Joe Biden — amid the COVID-19 crisis — while the GOP enjoyed down-ballot success.

In next year’s Senate race, both parties will confront the state’s shifting political realities. Democrats, for example, have alienated some working-class voters with inflexible liberal positions on issues like immigration and criminal justice. Throughout Pennsylvania, Trump signs and flags indicate that the 2020 election never ended for many voters, who felt denigrated by Democrats and media during his presidency.

But other Democratic positions — from seeming indifference to rising urban crime to pandemic school closures — are also alienating suburban voters. After all, most suburbanites want to elect centrist public servants, not leftist activists consumed by identity politics.

Republicans face their own challenges. In many working-class communities, for instance, voters are loyal to Trump, not the GOP. The party’s economic positions, moreover, don’t always resonate with these regions’ residents — particularly senior citizens. Meanwhile, in suburbs, Republicans continue to lose ground, especially in growing “eds-and-meds” towns.

Time will tell which party prevails in this politically split state, which is more divided now than when Heinz held office. To DeSantis, Heinz “represented what this state is: humble, hardworking, thoughtful, practical.” Next year, Pennsylvanians will decide which candidate best represents those values.

Charles McElwee is managing editor of the Commonwealth Foundation. He edits RealClear’s public affairs page on Pennsylvania. He is the 2020-21 John Farley Memorial Fellow, part of the Fund for American Studies’ Robert Novak Journalism Program. @CFMcElwee.