In the following edited exchange, former Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney and former Republican Chairman Alan Novak considered the national implications of last month's elections in the commonwealth, which saw several county governments change hands.
T.J. Rooney: This election demonstrated a shift in our parties' major bases of support. We saw, for the first time in modern history, the Westmoreland County Courthouse [outside Pittsburgh] taken over by Republicans. Conversely, the Montgomery County Courthouse was won by Democrats. I think this really tells the tale of Pennsylvania by telling the tale of two counties.
Alan Novak: I would agree with that. You have an east-west divide here that clearly shows the parties realigning - or, at least, election results that are counterintuitive. Western Pennsylvania has always been Democratic, blue-collar. Montgomery County and the Philadelphia suburbs have been considered white-collar, more affluent, and therefore staples for Republicans. Now we have two different results.
Rooney: The other story that Democrats need to pay attention to is the 12 [Democratic counties that changed] partisan control. To me, as a Democrat, that's troubling. Moreover, we've seen our party lose ground in voter registration. Democrats still have the numbers, but the map is changing before our eyes. Those results are disconcerting.
Novak: I look at these 12 county courthouses, and in some, particularly in northeast Pennsylvania, I see a bit of a correction: They shifted from Republican to Democrat; now they've corrected back to Republican.
But what would concern me if I were giving advice to the president is a "blue-green" problem. The Obama administration, with its [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations and proposed cap-and-trade legislation, tilts very green in terms of environmental protection. That's being perceived as a problem for blue-collar workers and for classic industrial jobs, which are the type of jobs that are concentrated in Western Pennsylvania.
Rooney: Organized labor all over Pennsylvania, and particularly in the southwest, is paying attention. They know that if these EPA regulations are implemented the way they've been proposed, there will be profound job losses. So the president needs to balance the environmental concerns of his base with the need to provide well-paying jobs.
One thing the president can absolutely not do is merely write off those counties in the southwest. The math isn't there. And that's vividly shown by the most recent election. Some Democrats seem to think Pennsylvania is locked down. Those people are way off base; there's a lot of work to be done.
Novak: Let's turn to Montgomery County, because there I see opportunity and strength on both sides of the presidential race next year.
There's been clear erosion from a Republican standpoint, particularly in national elections. Montgomery, with its now solidly Democratic courthouse, is the best example. That shift is an astounding, hundred-year historical event.
So what does that mean for national Republican politics? Is there any candidate that comes out of the tea party or out of that conservative base who can run well in Montgomery County? I would argue probably not.
National Democrats are probably looking at Montgomery County, Bucks County, and Chester County and saying, "Is this our opportunity to take Pennsylvania, by continuing to win those counties?" But that would be a strategy that I wouldn't advise right now, because if you look at the president's polling numbers, he's weak with independent voters. And more independent voters exist in those counties than in any other part of the state.
Rooney: The president's reelection team needs to understand that it comes down to intensity. The intensity now is not nearly as potent as it was four years ago. Four years ago, Democrats were able to coalesce around the "common enemy" in George W. Bush, which was then transferred onto John McCain. But now they need to be thoughtful.
It can't just be done with young voters or core voters. They've got to put together the Democratic quilt: You take all these groups and put them together. Sniping at each other and eating one another's lunch? That needs to be reserved for the Republicans.
Novak: Republicans have a knack for forming circular firing squads. We've probably overdone the debates. It's time to get to retail politics.
Even in a presidential election that's a referendum on the incumbent and the economy, if the alternative is not acceptable, then the incumbent wins by default. So Republicans have to look at a county like Montgomery and say, "What candidate do we run to get our Republican voters back?" Plenty of them defected to Obama in '08.
And, "What candidate do we run to get the independent voters who are going to decide this election?" The mistake Republicans make is, we think the conservative base is going to decide this election. Neither base is going to decide anything.
If there's a person who can win both Westmoreland and Montgomery Counties, that candidate wins Pennsylvania.
Rooney: No doubt about it.