The 2020 elections showed one tried and true way Republicans can still win in Pennsylvania. But with former President Donald Trump still looming over the party, will they follow it next year?
The wins by Auditor General Tim DeFoor and Treasurer Stacy Garrity showed that Republicans can still compete in Pennsylvania’s critical suburban regions. Those campaigns could serve as a GOP road map for even bigger victories in next year’s nationally watched races for governor and U.S. Senate. DeFoor and Garrity won many of the swing voters who rejected Trump, enough to make the difference between his narrow loss and their close wins.
In populous Chester County, for example, DeFoor got 45% of the vote and Garrity 44%, compared to about 41% for Trump. While that’s a seemingly small gap, in such a large county it meant 9,500 additional votes for Garrity and almost 13,000 for DeFoor. A similar pattern repeated across Philadelphia’s four suburban collar counties, where Garrity won 19,300 more votes than Trump and DeFoor topped him by nearly 37,000 — despite having fewer voters in their races.
Holding down their losses among moderate, suburban voters allowed the pair to follow a well-worn path to Republican victory.
But to the dismay of some GOP strategists — and the hope of Democrats — much of Republican politics continues to revolve around Trump, his many false election claims, and his vendettas against enemies real and perceived.
“This idea that you’re going to play as far to Trump as you can, that’s not a winnable strategy,” said David Dix, a strategist who worked for DeFoor last year and has aided both Democrats and Republicans. “For Republicans who were able to make the  campaign about something more than Donald Trump, for them they were very successful.”
Yet as long as Trump looms as the GOP’s dominant figure, candidates know his voters will be critical in their primary elections. Two of the biggest Republican names in the mix for governor, State Sen. Doug Mastriano and former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, have clashed over who is closer to the former president. In the Senate race, the top candidates have mixed broad appeals with signals of their Trump bona fides.
“No Republican statewide candidate can win either a primary or a general election without the support of the Trump base,” said Tim Murtaugh, a senior adviser to Barletta and former Trump campaign spokesperson. “Thinking otherwise ignores reality.”
Other Republicans see great opportunities to win both contests — but caution that they need to avoid the divisiveness that defined Trump.
“If you perfectly replicate what Trump got in 2020, you lose,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican strategist who worked on an independent expenditure group supporting DeFoor.
While Trump racked up huge vote totals in rural areas, he was sunk by deep losses in the suburbs around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, as some longtime Republican voters rejected him but stuck with the GOP down-ballot.
“There is no path to being a governing party in Pennsylvania without winning suburban communities,” said Mark Harris, a Republican strategist who worked on Garrity’s campaign. His firm has previously advised State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie), who launched a gubernatorial campaign last week by pledging to avoid culture wars and promoting his history of winning in a swing district.
Even in some counties where Trump scored solid wins — such as York, Lancaster, and Cumberland— DeFoor and Garrity won larger percentages of the vote than him, an indication of those areas’ growing suburbanization, analysts in both parties said.
“It shows that a lot of people who didn’t like Trump but were Republican-oriented came back to the GOP,” Nicholas said.
That’s a warning sign for Democrats, who have come to count on suburban votes. And it suggests that while some in both parties have downplayed the importance of swing voters, they can still make a difference in a state as closely divided as Pennsylvania.
“There is clear evidence in the suburbs that there’s a bunch of Republicans who were like, ‘We’re Republicans, we’re not voting for Donald Trump.’ But that’s different from saying, ‘We’re no longer Republicans,’ ” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist who worked on former Treasurer Joe Torsella’s campaign against Garrity.
Nicholas also noted the Pennsylvania election law that took effect last year, which eliminated the option for voters to back all the candidates in one party by pulling one lever. Amid President Joe Biden’s win, that likely aided down-ballot Republicans, he said, even as many in the GOP have decried the law because it also expanded mail voting.
Trump did have unique strengths. He racked up huge victories in post-industrial regions thanks to his appeal to many one-time Democrats. In Luzerne County, in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Trump secured almost 57% of the vote, compared to 53% for DeFoor and 52% for Garrity.
Other Republicans, including Garrity and DeFoor, benefitted from Trump’s appeal in rural and post-industrial areas, said Nick Trainer, a former Trump strategist now working with Barletta. The key to winning, he said, is aligning with Trump’s base while maintaining a distinct brand.
”You can be supportive of President Trump and also do your own thing, and those are the folks that are most successful,” Trainer said. “Democrats are going to run against Trump anyway, so trying to separate yourself only hurts you with your own party faithful.”
But those rural and post-industrial results also reflect how Trump’s appeal hasn’t fully transferred to other Republicans. And those regions are shrinking, while the suburbs get bigger.
“Maybe Republicans will be able to win in 2022, but in the long-term trends, unless they’re able to reverse them, you’re going to see a concentration of Democratic votes where population growth is happening,” said Ben Forstate, a Democratic data analyst.
Other Republicans who have tried to mimic Trump’s approach have fallen flat. Gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner and Barletta, as a Senate nominee, tied themselves closely to Trump in 2018 and got crushed.
“There’s no evidence that anyone not named Donald Trump can build the sort of rural margins in the extreme that he can,” Harris said. But there are many Republicans, he said, who have won by staying relatively close in the suburbs.
Of course, recent history shows predictions are dicey. There are plenty of surprise results that have defied expectations or precedent, and some strategists in both parties argue that exciting, brash candidates — even if they’re polarizing — are stronger.
Key aspects of Garrity’s and DeFoor’s victories also may not apply in 2022. Balaban noted that the auditor and treasurer races were overshadowed by the presidential campaign. There will be far more scrutiny on the gubernatorial and Senate races, expected to be among the most fiercely contested in the country.
And individual candidates matter. Garrity ran an Army prison camp in Iraq and earned two Bronze Stars. DeFoor benefitted from a long track record in government that aligned with the auditor role, including serving as Dauphin County controller.
As a woman and a Black man — DeFoor is the first person of color to win a statewide row office — the two also may have had appeal beyond the GOP’s increasingly white, male base of support.
And the 2022 races will surely encompass a broad set of issues. It will be a first referendum on Biden, and Democrats face a balancing act between the party’s progressive wing and their efforts to hang onto swing voters.
That gives hope to Republicans, who argue that Democrats’ leftward lurch cost them down-ballot in 2020 and gives the GOP another opening in a state decided by tiny margins.
“By and large,” Harris said, “in most elections both teams show up and then you’ve got to win over the middle of the playing field.”