Political News

Pennsylvania drowned Democratic hopes in 2016, but 2018 looks far different

Posted May 14, 2018 4:51 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to carry Pennsylvania since 1988. Doing so helped him secure victory nationally.

On Tuesday, the first major statewide elections since 2016 take place in the Keystone State, and the Pennsylvania electorate looks to be in a far different mood.

The state seems to be fertile ground for a potential Democratic renaissance in 2018.

It starts in the race for Senate, where two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is defending his seat. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states with Democratic senators that have Senate elections in 2018. The fight for control of the Senate is being played in Republican turf, meaning Democrats face an uphill climb to win a majority.

Republican voters are almost certainly going to choose Rep. Lou Barletta on Tuesday to take on Casey in the general election. Barletta was in some ways Trump before Trump. He was known for his strong anti-illegal-immigration views as the mayor of Hazleton, a city that like the state flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

This Senate race, though, looks to be a very different affair than the presidential race two years ago. An April poll from gold standard pollster Muhlenberg College found Casey with a net approval (approval - disapproval) rating of +13 percentage points. That compared with Trump's own net approval rating in the state of -16 percentage points.

The disparity between Casey and Trump makes Casey a heavy favorite in the fall. The Muhlenberg poll gave Casey a 16-point advantage over Barletta. A Franklin and Marshall College poll from March had Casey ahead by 18 points. While it is still early, all but one Senate candidate (Sen. George Allen of Virginia) since 2006 -- out of over 80 -- has been up by 10 or more points in a January to June average of polls and gone on to win.

It's in the House races, however, where Pennsylvania Democrats are most likely to make a national impact. Democrats were helped when the state Supreme Court (controlled by Democrats) voted to redraw the state's congressional map after finding the old one an unconstitutional gerrymander. The result is that Democrats could have a net gain of four or more of the 23 seats they need to gain nationally in order to take back the House.

They look like fairly close to surefire bets to pick up at least two seats in the Philadelphia area, the 5th District and the 6th District. Their chances in the latter got a big boost when Rep. Ryan Costello announced he was stepping down.

They also look to be a favorite in the 7th District, which is about an hour outside Philadelphia. The seat currently belongs to Rep. Charlie Dent, who like Costello is retiring. A Muhlenberg College poll taken a few weeks ago has the potential Democratic nominees (to be chosen on Tuesday) ahead of the potential Republican nominees by anywhere from 7 to 18 points.

The battleground looks to be in another district in the Philadelphia suburbs and in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Democrats are hoping to unseat Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in the 1st District, which Trump lost by 2 points. Democrats are also looking for Conor Lamb (who won a special election earlier this year in a different district) to take down Rep. Keith Rothfus in the 17th District, which Trump won by a little less than 3 points.

The only "bad" news for Democrats is that Lamb's current seat (the 14th) is likely to be lost to the Republicans. Granted, Democrats didn't have that seat at the beginning of the year.

To top it off, Democrats will probably maintain control of the state's governor's mansion as well. A bunch of Republicans are vying to take on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. The leading candidate is Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner.

Wolf should be considered favored. His net approval rating in the Muhlenberg poll was +11 percentage points. Again, that's considerably higher than Trump's own popularity in Pennsylvania.

Wolf also holds a considerable lead over Wagner in the early polling. He's up by 16 points in the Muhlenberg poll and by 17 in the March Franklin and Marshall poll.