Political experts count Pennsylvania among the swing states. Looking at the Keystone map, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are mostly Democratic strongholds. Rural Pennsylvania — what political pundits call the “T” — has always been Republican, and now it’s gone super red. So the critical battle is in the Philadelphia suburbs, which have about 22% of the state’s registered voters and higher turnout than other areas.
Since 1980, Pennsylvania’s population has grown by just 7%. The Philadelphia suburbs are one of Pennsylvania’s few growing regions — as is Chester County, where the population has grown 68% since 1980. In contrast, rural Pennsylvania is mostly shrinking.
Until recently, the Philadelphia suburb was long a stronghold of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Chester County voted for GOP presidential candidates until Barack Obama in 2008 and for gubernatorial candidates until 2010. The firewall was nearly dissolved by 2016, although Republican US Senator Pat Toomey managed to capture Chester County that year. Today, of the 43 state representatives from Philadelphia’s suburbs, only nine are Republicans. This resulted in the first Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives since 2010 and only the second Democratic majority in 30 years.
Pennsylvania’s swing-state status is largely thanks to Donald Trump and Toomey’s victories in 2016 and Trump’s razor-sharp loss in 2020, coupled with wins by a GOP state treasurer and comptroller. But those results were achieved by historic margins in rural Pennsylvania — where communities continue to lose population and where future candidates will struggle to garner Trump’s support. The 2022 US Senate race showed that a modest decline in Republican success in rural counties compared to 2020 — e.g. For example, a 41% win instead of 44% almost guarantees a national GOP defeat.
In short, Republicans have won the hearts of Pennsylvania’s shrinking communities while continuing to fall behind among voters in growing communities. Although Republicans’ suburban problem is most severe in the Philadelphia metro area, the party also faces early warning signs in the adjacent Harrisburg-York-Lancaster corridor in southern Pennsylvania. Of course, this is not a recipe for future success. Finding a solution to this voting problem is critical to a rebirth of the GOP in Pennsylvania and in states with growing suburban populations like Georgia and North Carolina.
Nationally, some GOP candidates have gained, or at least expanded, their support in the suburbs — think Governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, or Governor Ron DeSantis and US Senator Marco Rubio in Florida. Meanwhile, New York’s Long Island has cycled from red to blue and back to bright red. There are certainly tactical and intelligence lessons to be learned here.
However, in the Philadelphia suburbs, the current trajectory is not good for the GOP. But even in this region, the GOP has some lessons to learn. For example, Republicans in Bucks County have had some success by keeping many races competitive and electing a congressman. The party’s success has been due to grassroots registration and door-to-door work, with effective outreach to workers’ communities.
A key element is the committed and growing support of first- and second-generation ethnic communities crying out for an alternative to the Democrats. This includes – but is not limited to – the Indian, Chinese and Hispanic communities. And yes, it must involve genuine, sustained outreach to the black community.
Sincere and relationship-building public relations can be successful. When it comes to politics and messaging, the GOP focus must be on economic opportunity, rewarding hard work, education with an emphasis on academic rigor, public safety, liberty, and families.
Republicans must also stop attacking their own candidates. Most Democrats support once-nominee Democrats. Once it was clear that Joe Biden was the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump, Democrats, including US Senator Elizabeth Warren and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and almost all progressive interest groups lent their support. When the Democrats nominated John Fetterman for the Pennsylvania Senate, his main opponents rallied behind him. No “moderate” Democrat held a press conference to say Fetterman was too radical or his resume too flimsy. When Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro appointed Republicans to his transition team and even to his cabinet, progressive Democrats did not protest.
But all too often, GOP candidates find themselves on fire of their own. The GOP is full of media-described “leaders” who are vocal about deserting candidates from their own party. Republicans need to stop doing that and focus on winning elections with the candidates they choose.
Newt Gingrich once identified a key difference between Democrats and Republicans. He noted that if 50 Democrats met, their focus would be on getting more people into the room. On the other hand, at a meeting of 50 Republicans, too many would look around the room and think, “Who doesn’t belong here?”
If you are the minority party and continue to fall behind, it is long past time to start thinking about how to unite, grow and win. That’s what Republicans in the Pennsylvania suburbs need to do.
Guy Ciarrocchi is the former CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry and the Republican nominee for Congress.