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Pennsylvania’s Key Election Contests Are Too Close for Comfort
Outcomes in the Keystone State will determine the shape of politics to come in America
We’re seeing just how important Pennsylvania is for America’s political future this week, spotlighted by competing visits from President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
Later today, President Biden will deliver a speech outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in what’s being billed as a “soul of the nation” prime time address about what’s at stake for America’s democracy. It’s the second of three planned trips to Pennsylvania in the span of a week. Biden was in Pennsylvania on Tuesday to talk about his efforts to bolster law enforcement and fight guns and crime, and he’ll return for a Labor Day event in Pittsburgh that will include the Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.
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For his part, Trump travels to northeastern Pennsylvania on Saturday to appear at a rally with GOP candidates in what Trump’s “Save America” political action committee called “the entire Pennsylvania Trump ticket,” an indication of just how much Trumpism continues to dominate the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.
The 2022 midterm elections are just 9 ½ weeks away, a lifetime in politics, especially in a place like Pennsylvania where the statewide political pendulum can swing from blue to red dramatically in a short period of time. For example, the 1991 special U.S. Senate election saw a +50-point swing in the span of a few short months.
With good reason Biden and Trump are focusing on Pennsylvania: the outcomes in U.S. Senate and House races could help decide which party controls Congress in 2023-2024. Who wins the governor’s race could impact how the 2024 elections are managed at a time when Trump and some of his backers continue to question the legitimacy of the 2020 elections.
What happens in Pennsylvania this fall will offer indications about broader national political trends within both parties and what it means for America’s broader political trajectory.
A negative mood among PA voters concerned about the economy
A couple of recent public opinion polls conducted over the past few weeks offer a snapshot of the mood and leading concerns of Pennsylvanians. The two polls, one by Emerson College and the other by Franklin & Marshall College, were conducted in the wake of Biden’s most recent legislative victories this summer, including passing a major investment in America’s ability to compete economically in the world as well as the Inflation Reduction Act, a measure to address rising health care costs for some Americans that pairs big investments in clean energy along with tax policy shifts.
Key points that stand out from these two polls:
The overall mood remains strongly negative among voters. Fully six in ten (61 percent) say things in Pennsylvania are off on the wrong track, and only one quarter (27 percent) say things are on the right track, according to the Franklin & Marshall College poll. This negative mood has dominated all of 2022.
The top concerns are focused on the economy, including jobs, inflation, and taxes. Economic worries topped the list of concerns at 44 percent, followed by abortion access (14 percent), crime (10 percent), and health care (9 percent), according to the Emerson College poll.
Biden’s job approval rating remains underwater. A majority of Pennsylvanians disapprove of the job Biden is doing, with 57 percent disapproving of Biden’s job performance in the Emerson survey and 51 percent saying he is doing a poor job in the Franklin & Marshall College poll.
Increased concern about abortion access. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion appear to have an impact, with the Franklin & Marshall College poll finding increased support for abortion rights since its May poll. Fully 89 percent support some form of abortion rights, with 52 percent saying it should be legal under certain circumstances and another 37 percent saying abortion should be legal under any circumstances.
Majority support for more laws that regulate gun ownership. The Franklin & Marshall College poll finds that 55 percent of Pennsylvanians support more laws to regulate gun ownership, with 41 percent opposing more regulations on guns. Support for new gun laws is down more than 15 points from the spring of 2018 when it topped 70 percent.
A snapshot on the key U.S. Senate and Governor’s races: closer than you may think
On the GOP side, the general election in the two key statewide races feature two candidates Donald Trump supported in the Republican primary fight this spring, showing that his style of politics still casts a long shadow in the Republican Party. Mehmet Oz, a television personality, is running for Senate, and Doug Mastriano is currently a Pennsylvania state senator and retired military officer.
The Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and Governor both currently hold positions in state government, with Senate candidate John Fetterman serving as the current lieutenant governor and Gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro as the sitting attorney general.
The Franklin & Marshall College poll finds a surprisingly large number of undecided voters in both races at about 20 percent, an indication that a lot could change in the coming weeks.
The Emerson College poll offers more detailed follow ups on key issues related to voters’ choices – some key findings from this poll:
In the Senate race, Fetterman has a 4-point lead over Oz, 48-43 percent, with 5 percent undecided and 3 percent planning to vote for someone else.
In the race for Governor, Shapiro has a 3-point lead over Mastriano, 47-44 percent, with 6 percent undecided and 3 percent planning to support someone else.
When asked who they expected to win in November (a different question from who they would vote for in the election), a majority say they expect Fetterman to defeat Oz in the Senate race (56 percent) and 57 percent of voters say they expect Shapiro to defeat Mastriano in the gubernatorial race.
Fetterman suffered a stroke in May after securing the Democratic nomination, and 68 percent say the stroke makes no difference in their vote, while 22 percent say it makes them less likely to vote for Fetterman. Another 9 percent say the stroke makes it more likely to vote for him.
Carpetbagger charges against Oz, who was a longtime New Jersey resident, appear to have a negative impact on him, with a majority of Pennsylvania voters (51 percent) saying it makes them less likely to support him. Another 40 percent say it makes no difference, and 9 percent say it makes them more likely to support Oz in the race for US Senate.
Former President Trump defeats President Biden in a hypothetical head-to-head race for 2024, with Trump leading Biden among Pennsylvania voters, 47 percent to 42 percent, and 8 percent supporting another candidate and 3 percent undecided.
Five things to watch as the November midterms approach in Pennsylvania
1. Which candidates will correctly read the mood of the voters in Pennsylvania and position themselves as offering solutions to voters’ leading concerns? The overall mood among Pennsylvania voters is sour, and economic issues top their concerns. There’s also an anti-incumbency, “throw the bums” out vibe that’s associated with the basic political architecture in place for these midterms. Biden is not a popular president in Pennsylvania, and his recent legislative successes on economic and health policy issues don’t seem to have moved the needle for him and his party.
It’s unclear if Biden’s recent arguments on law enforcement and the extremism of the GOP or how the case he will make about America’s democracy later today in Philadelphia will matter to voters in Pennsylvania, given voters’ other priorities. This approach by the Biden team seems aimed at pumping up Democratic turnout, an effort that might work well given the increased concerns about abortion rights and signs that this has already benefited Democratic voter turnout in other elections this cycle. At the same time, the slate of Republican candidates who came out on top in Pennsylvania may prove to be too extreme for independent voters in Pennsylvania. As the general election unfolds, a clearer contrast will emerge between the competing candidates and parties, and neither side in these two marquee races has yet settled on a coherent theme.
2. Can the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and Governor increase their current slight edge? In the Senate and gubernatorial races, the two Democratic candidates have slight advantages over their Republican opponents in favorability ratings and vote support at this stage in the race. Keep in mind that summer polls usually shift post-Labor Day as people start paying more attention and all polls have errors that make predictions in close races harder to make with confidence. Both Shapiro and Fetterman will look to maintain their advantages and build on them in the coming weeks, but neither have yet settled into an overall central theme for their candidacies, or they haven’t communicated a core message just yet. Likewise, Republicans are sure to sharpen their appeals and rally around their candidates over the next two months.
3. How much will Biden and Trump help or hurt the candidates they seek to support? With Biden’s approval ratings underwater in Pennsylvania, it’s an open question whether his appearances in the state will give Democrats a boost or not. Trump remains deeply popular among key factions of the GOP, but he still remains a deeply polarizing figure and may turn off independent voters Oz and Mastriano need to expand their base of support.
4. How will broader GOP national divisions impact Pennsylvania’s statewide races? Other Republican national figures, including some rumored to be exploring a run for the presidency in 2024, have gotten involved in Pennsylvania, most notably Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s appearance last month at a rally for Doug Mastriano. A number of other Republicans have endorsed Mastriano’s Democratic opponent Josh Shapiro, a reflection of the broader Republican party seen in other elections across the country.
5. What impact will independent expenditure campaigns by political action committees have on the races? Because Pennsylvania is such an important battleground in determining which party controls Congress over the next two years and shaping the landscape for leaders thinking about running for president in 2024, a number of political action committees (PACs) have gotten into the act in the state, including these two PACs spending at least $30 million in television ads in the Senate race.
The spotlight is on these statewide races, but there are also pivotal Congressional races that could help determine who controls the U.S. House as well as the battle over the Pennsylvania state house, where Democrats are trying to overcome a decade-long drought to win control.
Keep an eye on these dynamics in the Keystone State in the coming weeks. It may determine who controls Congress in the second half of Biden’s term and also offer important hints about what’s to come at the national level.
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