Pennsylvania Democrats got their most important job done in 2020. On just about everything else, they flopped. Big time.
Joe Biden won the critical battleground state. But the incumbent Democratic treasurer? Defeated. The open seat for state auditor general? No dice. Flipping either of the GOP-held congressional districts Democrats targeted? Nope. Taking over the state House? Not even close.
So now Democrats are searching for the path forward as redistricting looms this year before high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate in 2022. Even as the Republican Party faces its own messy identity crisis, the 2020 election has left some Pennsylvania Democrats in deep introspection.
“It’s not surprising to me why we lost: We underestimated [Donald Trump’s] power and control, which we seem to do over and over again,” said Jamie Perrapato, executive director of the grassroots Democratic group Turn PA Blue, which organized in state legislative races.
“Now people realize we still have a lot of battles ahead of us,” she added. “We’re not really sure how to fix them.”
Biden’s Pennsylvania win was largely fueled by big support in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other cities, as well as gains outside his native Scranton and the huge margins in Philadelphia that Democrats need to win statewide. But the party’s down-ballot losses in the same suburbs that drove Biden’s victory suggest his coalition might not be a reliably Democratic one.
Meanwhile, the party’s grassroots is increasingly defined by an ascendant left focused on issues like systemic racism, income inequality, and climate change. That wing has long been wary of what activists see as Democrats’ myopic focus on white suburban swing voters, often at the expense of Black and brown people in urban areas.
But there’s internal tension over the party’s response to violence that followed last year’s racial justice protests, which some centrist Democrats believe fueled the belief that liberals are indifferent to public safety and controlled by a woke speech police.
And some Democrats continue to emphasize the need to connect with white voters in rural and postindustrial areas, who voted for Trump in historic numbers in both 2016 and 2020.
“A great benefit for us in the past four years for unifying Democrats was Donald Trump,” said Gratz Washeni, the Democratic chair in Monroe County, in the Poconos region. “He’s the best recruiter we ever had. So now, without that bogeyman in the room, the burden is on us now to perform.”
Enter John Fetterman, the progressive lieutenant governor who launched his campaign for U.S. Senate last week. Fetterman wants to legalize marijuana — he waves a pot flag outside his office in Harrisburg — and supports Medicare for All, the signature program backed by Bernie Sanders. He’s centering his campaign around the labor union way of life, a message he’s betting will resonate with rural white voters and working-class Black Philadelphians alike.
“I’ve been warning Democrats ... that while Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are critical, the small counties are also important,” Fetterman said. “It’s never urban vs. rural. It’s got to be urban and rural.”
Some Democrats say that Fetterman is too liberal to win a competitive general election and that the lesson from last year and the 2018 midterm elections is that the path to victory runs through the state’s populous suburbs — where moderate, left-of-center candidates with broad appeal can trounce the GOP. U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, an Air Force veteran and businesswoman who was first elected in 2018 and is also considering a Senate run, fits that profile. And many Democrats are eager to see state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County Democrat who won the most votes of any candidate on the ballot en route to his reelection, run for governor, as is widely expected.
For now, Democratic activists are focused on building the party’s infrastructure: boosting voter registration, fighting GOP efforts to make it harder to vote, and recruiting candidates to run for local office. The biggest electoral prize this year is a seat on the state Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 5-2 majority. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, is reaching the mandatory retirement age.
Jason Henry, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said Democrats spent much of last year educating people about the new mail voting law. Now they’re registering new voters and organizing in both communities of color and white rural areas.
“We have to go out and invest and build up our county infrastructure,” he said. “Just showing up and getting there and showing the people across the state that we give a damn about them is really important.”
Trump is out of office, but running against Trumpism will likely be a strategy for Democrats for years to come. In Washington, House Democrats have signaled they will defend their narrow majority partly by branding the GOP as the party of QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that Trump was elected to defeat a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
In central Pennsylvania, Democrats are already organizing against U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Trump ally who has pushed his false claims of a stolen election and was one of just 17 Republicans to oppose a resolution condemning QAnon.
» READ MORE: How Joe Biden won Pennsylvania
“If they’re not willing to separate themselves from insurrection, that’s a fundamental problem,” said Colleen Guiney, chair of the Delaware County Democrats. She noted that almost all House Republicans from Pennsylvania voted to throw out the state’s election results, and dozens of GOP state lawmakers supported that effort.
“Voters are going to see the connection,” she said.
Henry said the GOP remains a unifying force.
“Whether or not you come from the Sanders wing or the [Elizabeth] Warren wing or the Biden wing of the party, we’re all against what we saw” at the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, he said.
That doesn’t mean the debate between progressives and moderates will subside.
The party’s power has become increasingly concentrated in and around the state’s two biggest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In local and state races, the left has ascended with the election of self-described democratic socialists like State Sen. Nikil Saval of Philadelphia. State Rep. Jessica Benham, a 29-year-old activist, joined an already progressive Pittsburgh delegation in Harrisburg this year.
Many think the energy those candidates draw could extend statewide and will be key to growing the party’s strength.
Continuing to elect progressives “is imperative” to Democratic growth statewide, said Hannah Laurison, executive director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, a statewide umbrella group of progressive organizations.
“I think we’re seeing that in the discussions about what the COVID relief bill needs to include,” she said. “People are really hurting in this moment, and I think that any Democrat who sticks to the more centrist path ... is making a huge mistake.”
Nicolas O’Rourke, Pennsylvania organizing director of the left-wing Working Families Party, cautioned Democrats against focusing too heavily on the suburbs and said they should embrace an agenda that will mobilize Black voters.
“Ultimately when Black people, particularly Black women, turn out to vote, they deliver victories in statewide and national races,” he said.
Candidates who reflect the party’s progressive cities can help build the Democratic coalition, said State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat who is also considering a Senate run.
“This idea that Black folks can’t win statewide or progressives can’t win statewide or young people can’t win statewide, that’s based on no data,” Kenyatta said. “We’ve had very few run. So, it’s not about these labels of progressive or moderate. What people want is someone who will do something.”
In places like central Pennsylvania, where there was less ticket-splitting, Democratic activist Nicholas Sones said the party’s strategy should trend more moderate. Democrats spent heavily against Perry but came up short.
“[November] was a gut punch,” Sones said. “What happened was simple. We had a candidate at the top of the ticket in Joe Biden who was a moderate Democrat. This [district] is center-right. As much as we want to move it center-left ... if you’re going to have Democrats winning in central Pennsylvania, it’s going to be on a moderate message. It’s not going to be on a message of embracing democratic socialism.”
Democrats need to do better outside the Philadelphia region, and one key area is the south-central part of the state.
“A lot is going to depend on what happens in places like York and Dauphin and Cumberland and Lancaster and Berks, outside of the collar counties,” said Ben Forstate, a Democratic data analyst. Forstate said those areas could be the difference between Pennsylvania going the way of Illinois, now a Democratic stronghold, or Ohio, where Republican voters in more rural parts of the state overcame the Democratic urban centers.
Other priorities for Democrats include building on the successful use of mail voting, opposing Republican attempts to restrict voting, and fighting for new maps of congressional and legislative districts that don’t give Republicans built-in advantages.
“We have to not only fix the rules of our democracy in terms of making sure everyone can vote easily but also fix the rules that draw these maps in the first place,” Kenyatta said.
Whether it’s a statewide election or a local school board race, most Democrats agree the key to winning is to speak to local issues.
Several incumbent Democrats in Southwestern Pennsylvania districts that Trump won managed to hold on by centering their campaigns on local concerns, like manufacturing jobs. They were also probably helped by incumbency: Few incumbent state lawmakers lost and no incumbent member of Congress lost.
Rogette Harris, chair of the Dauphin County Democrats, is already looking ahead to the next chance to unseat Perry in 2022. Eugene DePasquale, the former state auditor general who lost to Perry, hasn’t ruled out a rematch. But Harris said a candidate who reflects the growing diversity of the district might be stronger.
“If we notice Congress as a whole, we see a lot more women running, people of color, we see a different type of candidate that is winning and I think people might be sick of voting for the same old, same old,” said Harris, who is the only Black Democratic county chair in the state’s 67 county parties.
She noted that Perry’s district includes three majority-minority cities, including Harrisburg.
“So why couldn’t a candidate that looks like me do well?” she said. “It’s just changing the mind-set.”
Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.