Since World War II, the greatest GOP presidents — Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan — won the Keystone State decisively. Even Richard Nixon took every county statewide save Philadelphia in 1972, capturing 59 percent of Pennsylvania voters. And when elected in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt carried the state with the widest margin (68 percent) of any president since his party was formed in 1854.
Republican standard-bearers haven't wowed the state since 1988, and the same big-money consultants who engineered the campaigns of Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney seem ready to write off Pennsylvania again, seeking a road to victory through neighboring Ohio and, increasingly, Florida.
So while the Republican National Convention heads to Cleveland next July, establishment donors and pundits are waxing rhapsodically over two Floridians — former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio — who rank first and fourth, respectively, in the RealClearPolitics polling average for GOP contestants.
But consigning the Keystone State to Hillary Clinton in 2016 would render a blunder of the first order, especially as early polling shows Republicans matching her numbers statewide. Yes, it's theoretically possible for the GOP to eke out a narrow victory delivering Ohio and Florida while losing Pennsylvania; that was Karl Rove's too-clever-by-half minimalist approach with George W. Bush. Yet the last thing the country needs is another 51-49 percent squeaker election. After a generation of party-to-party see-sawing leaving no clear direction for a nation in decline, we need a landslide of Reaganesque and Ike-proportions.
Or echoing that of TR's. Perhaps the most popular of all Republican presidents, the Mount Rushmore figure didn't gain the people's trust by cozying up to Wall Street and bowing to elite opinion or the sycophant courts that codify it. No, as historian Daniel Ruddy explores in his latest book, Theodore the Great: Conservative Crusader, the Trust Buster's passion was making government responsive to the people, not to the "invisible government" of the "malefactors of great wealth," who had dictated policy to a compliant Congress since the end of the Civil War.
The Rough Rider not only built and maintained his party's congressional majority during two midterm elections but also, Ruddy argues, would likely have served a total of five terms had he not hastily promised not to run again after his 1904 victory. In contrast to today's GOP-controlled Congress, which seems all to eager to carry water for the big banks on regulation and for multinational corporations on trade, TR demonstrated daring independence from the plutocrats at every turn.
The 26th president not only busted the Northern Securities railroad monopoly but also delivered a follow-up punch to J.P. Morgan, setting the model of fair labor relations by mediating the Pennsylvania anthracite-coal strike. In his second term, Roosevelt challenged John D. Rockefeller by implementing utility-like railroad regulation while venting outrage at the Supreme Court's infamous Lochner decision, which voided commonsense state labor laws that allegedly violated rights imagined out of the 14th Amendment.
Given how the disparities of the late 19th century have returned to haunt a neglected Middle America, your great-grandfather's GOP under the Roosevelt surely beats the "stalwart" version that has struggled to endear the electorate since President George H.W. Bush broke from Reagan's winning playbook.
Replaying William Howard Taft's bad act after TR, Republican leaders overlook the insurgent Gipper's challenge to the powerbrokers: identify with and deliver economic tangibles to the average Americans whom TR affectionately called the "plain people."
Moreover, the "peace through strength" commanders-in-chief of the second half of the last century — Ike, Nixon, and Reagan — would never ignore the sixth most-populous state. All would grasp the upside: By winning Pennsylvania, other electorally rich states including Ohio, Michigan, and yes, Florida, would likely fall into the GOP fold like dominos. Maybe even New Jersey and Illinois.
In contrast, Bush 41's "kindler and gentler" policies, Bush 43's "compassionate conservatism," and Jeb's "reform conservatism" offer little to Northern states. Indeed, the Bush family model — which failed to deliver the Holy Grail of 4-percent annual-GDP growth during three terms, and created the first postwar presidency (43) to record zero net-job creation — doesn't resonate in Pennsylvania, a state waning from private-sector, family-wage job losses and a higher-than-average "U6" unemployment rate (11.6 percent), which includes frustrated part-timers and labor-force dropouts who still want to work.
Rather than pushing for more outsourcing deals and H-1B visas, pandering to non-citizens legal and illegal, or demanding budget austerity via Social Security and Medicare "reforms," the party needs a populist, America-first agenda. One that reboots U.S. manufacturing via balanced trade, develops and deploys a next-generation missile-defense system to protect our homeland and allies, and builds a transportation infrastructure fitting a 21st-century superpower. It should also require initiatives that employ only U.S. citizens and made-at-home materials, while fully securing the border and curtailing out-of-control immigration.
Reviving the older, yet proven GOP vision would not merely beat Hillary but also win the Keystone State. And restore a party that would make TR and Reagan proud.