As we race toward the halfway mark of the new decade, politics in Pennsylvania remains uncertain.
Although Pennsylvania has long been the quintessential competitive two-party state, Republicans have now lost a record six straight presidential elections since 1988, while laboring under a registration deficit of 1 million voters. Nevertheless, they still control the governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, both houses of the state legislature and 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats.
Republican control of the governorship came in the 2010 tea party year. So did retaking control of the state House and winning a majority of the congressional delegation. It took a wave election to accomplish the first and some artful gerrymandering to accomplish the second.
But 2012 was not so kind to state Republicans. Instead, they lost the presidential election decisively, did not come close to defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and more ominously lost all three statewide row offices — attorney general, auditor general and treasurer — for the first time in state history.
These divergent electoral outcomes in the first half of the decade now become prologue to the second half of the decade. This year’s election followed by the presidential race in 2016 finds both major political parties nearing a crucial crossroad — one that could determine the course of state politics for decades to come.
Republicans, on the one hand, face a daunting challenge retaining the governor’s office while they must also defend their majorities in the General Assembly. In 2016, they must somehow avoid losing a seventh straight presidential contest while facing a tough challenge to retain U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s Senate seat.
Democrats, on the other hand, have their own set of problems. President Barack Obama’s pronounced unpopularity will weigh down the entire Democrat ticket in 2014, while possibly wrecking hopes to retain the White House in 2016. Worse, perhaps, the Pennsylvania electorate has long shown its preference to vote against the president’s party in midterm elections, hence the often referenced and frequently misunderstood “eight year cycle.”
Finally, Democrats must deal with a paradox of state politics that has long bedeviled them: Republicans might have trouble winning statewide elections but they do just fine in state legislative races, controlling the state Senate, with one exception since 1980, and the state house since 2010. There will be no Democratic ascendancy if Republicans continue their dominance of the General Assembly.
At stake, then, midway through the decade is much more than an election or two. The larger question is whether Pennsylvania will return to its historical role as a competitive two-party state or continue on a path toward long term, one-party dominance of state government.
There are at least four key forces playing out in 2014 that offer clues as to whether competitive state politics will survive.