A cluster of suburban Philadelphia counties and a rural South Jersey legislative district became overnight sensations last week as national political pundits painted a blue tsunami centered in Delaware County and a red glare around Cape May, mostly in shades of Donald Trump. While political prognosticators were quick to cast portents for the 2020 presidential election on these results, we think the snapshot taken on Tuesday is still developing. The only thing voters in these state, county, and municipal contests may have proven is that all politics is local, and many results can be chalked up to demographic shifts throughout the region. Those shifts may also explain the most refreshing change that this election signaled: an apparent fatigue with establishment party organizations.
In Philadelphia, former Democrat-turned-Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks decisively won an at-large City Council seat. Her victory demonstrated a deep grassroots hunger for someone and something other than the standard product of the city Democrats’ increasingly creaky machine. The fact that Brooks will occupy a seat held by Republicans for decades also suggests the city GOP’s profound distress; party chair Mike Meehan’s description of the entire election cycle as “preposterous" sparked calls for his resignation from the dwindling ranks of the faithful.
There was more bad news for traditional Republicans in the historically GOP-dominated but increasingly blue Delaware, Chester, and Bucks Counties in Pennsylvania, where Democrats took control of the principal governing bodies in all three. Although transplants from the city and immigrants from Asia have long been helping turn Delco bluer, evidence of demographic and other changes in the electorate was especially dramatic in Upper Darby. Barbarann Keffer, a first-term Democratic member of the township council, unseated Republican Mayor Tom Micozzie, who had served since 2009. And three openly LGBT Democrats — Meredith Hegg, David Neill, and Damien Warsavage — were elected to the Upper Darby school board.
In Chester County, where until two years ago no Democrat had won countywide office since the Civil War, a 7,000-voter GOP registration edge was not enough to save the well-regarded Republican incumbent Matt Holliday from losing the prothonotary’s office to Democratic challenger Debbie Bookman. Democrats were triumphant in other county races as well, including taking control of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners for the first time since 1983.
But results in the 1st Legislative District in South Jersey’s Cape May and Cumberland Counties, a traditionally conservative area, made different headlines. Democratic incumbents for a state Senate and two state Assembly seats in the 1st District all lost to GOP candidates, one of whom, Assemblyman-elect Antwan McClellan, will become the first African American in history to represent the district, which Trump carried in 2016. And other GOP candidates fared far better elsewhere in the Garden State than their counterparts in, say, Virginia did.
With voters willing to take a chance on upstarts like Brooks, McClellan, and the three LGBT newbies in Upper Darby, this election delivered many “firsts.” We’ll be more excited for what that portends for the region, and the country, if those “firsts” include many more young people registering to vote — and a record-breaking voter turnout in 2020.