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Suburban voters in Pennsylvania rejected Trump — but not the Republican Party

Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania was fueled in large part by winning an overwhelming majority of votes in the Philadelphia suburbs. But his gains in the suburbs did not lift his party down-ballot.

Trump-Pence and Biden-Harris campaign signs on Election Day in Doylestown, Pa. Joe Biden improved on Hillary Clinton's narrow victory in Bucks County. But the Republican congressman prevailed in his race.
Trump-Pence and Biden-Harris campaign signs on Election Day in Doylestown, Pa. Joe Biden improved on Hillary Clinton's narrow victory in Bucks County. But the Republican congressman prevailed in his race.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

It was a plea for help, or maybe, he insisted later, a joke. “Suburban women,” President Donald Trump said at a Pennsylvania rally last month, “will you please like me?”

They delivered their answer, and it was a resounding no — at least in Pennsylvania, which helped deliver Joe Biden the presidency, and certainly outside Philadelphia.

Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania was fueled in large part by winning an overwhelming majority of votes in Philadelphia’s four collar counties, along with strong performances in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. But defying expectations among Democrats and even some Republicans, Biden’s gains in the suburbs did not lift his party down-ballot.

GOP congressmen representing districts outside Philadelphia and Harrisburg held onto seats Democrats thought they could flip. Despite a huge spending advantage on the airwaves, Democrats fell well short of taking the state House.

And the party lost at least one statewide row office election, for auditor general. It could still lose another: As of Saturday, incumbent state Treasurer Joe Torsella, who has aspirations for higher office, narrowly trailed Republican Stacy Garrity.

“It’s pretty clear that the Republican message on the economy, on police funding ... worked,” said Mark Harris, a GOP strategist based in the Pittsburgh area. “The far left in their party, which is increasingly ascendant, has a political message that’s just toxic to Democrats in suburban communities.”

» READ MORE: 6 takeaways from Biden’s win over Trump in Pennsylvania

Biden was beating Trump by more than 283,000 votes in the Philadelphia suburbs as of Saturday — a 50% increase over Hillary Clinton’s 188,000-vote edge in 2016 and double President Barack Obama’s margin in 2012. Democrats had hoped suburban voters would see rank-and-file Republican politicians as dangerous Trump enablers who needed to be swept out en masse.

But the results suggest there was a limit to the appetite for change among a polarized electorate.

“We hit a big, giant red wall,” said Jamie Perrapato, executive director of Turn PA Blue, a grassroots group that worked on state legislative races. She and other Democrats said high GOP turnout made it even harder to win in Republican-drawn districts.

The scale and scope of the losses quickly ignited a fierce debate in the party over whether Democrats had done enough to beat back Republican charges that they supported calls to “defund the police,” as well as other liberal policies Biden had a national platform from which to distance himself.

The results in Pennsylvania were consistent with national trends, as the GOP was favored to keep its majority in the U.S. Senate and defied expectations that Democrats would expand their House majority.

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

One reason Biden did so well in the suburbs was because of Republicans who just couldn’t stand Trump. Some Biden voters interviewed this week said they split their ticket.

“It was more of a vote against President Trump than for Biden,” said Jeff Matthes, 40, of New Hope, in Bucks County. Matthes, a self-described centrist Republican who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said he also voted for Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who has survived multiple elections in a battleground district by campaigning as an independent.

“I want someone voting independently, not just because of their party,” Matthes said.

Donna Hasson, a 60-year-old Republican from Doylestown, said she voted for Biden even though she’s concerned about his age and health.

“But I really don’t care for Trump at all,” said Hasson, a nurse who backed Clinton in 2016. “So, I went with the person that I had to vote for, unfortunately. ... The last four years listening to President Trump, I just cannot listen to him for another four years.”

There was broad support for Biden in the suburbs, where Trump’s 2016 victory spawned a wave of new activism that started with the 2017 Women’s March and grew into grassroots political organizing. Scores of political newcomers, many of them women, won elections at the federal, state, and local levels. And there were Black Lives Matter marches across the region this summer.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that Trump’s warning to “suburban housewives” that Biden would “abolish” the suburbs and endanger their communities with low-income housing simply didn’t resonate.

“You saw the kind of comments that Trump made about suburban women as though they’re a monolith, and we are not," said Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We’re diverse obviously in age and generation, but we’re diverse in color, ethnicity and faith. Obviously there’s some that don’t agree with me — but the majority was, they really trust the truth. They’d like somebody to speak to them. They’d like somebody to protect lives and livelihoods. They like somebody with decency. That’s really the bottom line.”

Montgomery County, a Democratic stronghold, delivered Biden a 130,000-vote advantage over Trump — up almost 40,000 over Clinton’s margin there four years ago.

“It’s been four very, very long years of a hate-filled, nasty, liar-in-chief,” said Lori Morrissey, 60, of Towamencin Township, who rallied outside the county courthouse in Norristown on Wednesday in a protest against Trump’s efforts to halt the counting of mail ballots.

Morrissey, a retired project manager in the tech industry, said she worked the polls on Election Day and had been distributing campaign literature and phone banking. “He’s such an evil person that I made a decision I’d do whatever I could to help get him out,” she said.

But even in Montgomery County, Republican State Rep. Todd Stephens was leading Democrat Jonathan Kassa as of Saturday in a district Clinton carried by 14 points — and where Biden almost certainly did better.

Biden also got a boost beyond the party’s core suburban power centers, making inroads with voters in predominantly white upscale communities where a big share of the electorate have college degrees. For example, in central Bucks County, he won historically Republican towns that Trump had carried in 2016 like Upper Makefield, Warrington, and Warminster, according to unofficial results. As of Saturday afternoon, Biden had 198,000 votes in Bucks and a 4-percentage point lead over Trump there. Clinton won the county by less than 1 point in 2016.

Yet Republicans like State Reps. Wendi Thomas and Todd Polinchock won reelection in central Bucks districts where Biden made inroads. And the GOP defeated State Rep. Wendy Ullman, who was elected in a neighboring district in the 2018 Democratic wave.

Even though Biden won by big margins in the suburbs, Trump still got hundreds of thousands of votes there. Plenty of those voters revere the president.

Harold and Susan Cooperstein, of Bensalem, own a seafood wholesaler business. Susan Cooperstein, 76, said she disapproved of state government-imposed restrictions during the pandemic and credited Trump for “keeping the country open.”

Still other Trump voters said they didn’t particularly like the president but approved of his job performance. Brian Moseley, a 39-year-old small business owner from Devon, said Trump had done a good job on the economy.

“Personally, I don’t like the man," said Moseley, a Republican. “I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. But I do like that he sticks to his views.”

Beyond the Philadelphia region, Biden’s margins also improved in the Harrisburg suburbs of Cumberland and Dauphin Counties, and in Allegheny County, where he appeared to outperform Clinton in traditionally Republican parts of Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs.

Pennsylvania Democrats' path to a majority in the state House ran through districts in these counties. They needed a net gain of nine seats. But as of Saturday, the GOP was poised to retain a comfortable majority, if not expand it. And Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry defeated state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in a suburban Harrisburg district where Democrats spent millions of dollars on advertising.

The “bloodbath,” as some Democrats put it, led to finger-pointing in the party. Some moderate Democrats in suburban districts suggested progressives had enabled the GOP to paint the party as hostile to law enforcement.

“We’re marching and protesting ourselves into permanent legislative minorities across the country,” Nichole Remmert, the campaign manager for a Democratic state House candidate who lost in a suburban Pittsburgh district, wrote on Twitter.

Progressives countered that the moderate wing was ignoring police violence against Black people.

Interviews with voters suggested some of the Republican attacks had landed, even in Democratic areas.

Mark Terry, 57, said his construction business has done well under Trump. He lives in Bensalem, , where Democrats have a voter registration edge but have struggled to win local elections — including on Tuesday, when Republican State Rep. K.C. Tomlinson fended off a challenge from Democrat Howie Hayes, a plumber.

Terry said he’d been a Democrat until Trump ran in 2016. “We believe in the American way. Children need to be taught American values,” he said. Asked about Biden, Terry’s wife, Maryann, said: “He’s not even a Democrat anymore. He’s a far-left socialist.”

Staff writers Ellie Rushing, Maddie Hanna, Michaelle Bond, and Anna Orso contributed to this article.