Can the GOP Win Pennsylvania?

Can the GOP Win Pennsylvania?
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If Republicans are going to win the presidency next year, they’ll need to expand the electoral map that has dominated presidential politics in the 21st century. If the GOP won every state that George W. Bush won twice and either New Hampshire or Iowa, they would win 286 electoral votes, a bare electoral majority.

This scenario is unlikely since it includes swing states such as Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire. Losing just Nevada and Virginia would give Democrats a two-vote Electoral College majority. The Republican nominee must be competitive in states the GOP hasn’t won since 1988 — seven elections ago.

The best opportunities appear to be in Rust Belt states around the Great Lakes. The GOP vote skews heavily to older white voters and those states contain above average percentages of both. Perhaps no state holds as much promise as Pennsylvania.

The Keystone State has elected its share of Republicans. The junior senator is a Republican and the party holds 13 of 18 congressional seats. Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the state elects as many Republican as Democratic governors. Pennsylvania’s population is 84 percent white and has the fourth highest percentage of residents over 65. Wide parts of the state are rural and reliably Republican. The western area has remade itself with the discovery and development of the Marcellus Shale gas patch. Pictures of closed and shuttered steel mills document Pennsylvania’s past, not its future.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party is in disarray. The controversy centers on former rising star and Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who faces charges of leaking confidential grand jury testimony, obstruction of justice and perjury. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently revoked her law license, making her the only state AG in the country unable to try her own department’s cases. Yet she has not ruled out a bid for re-election next year.

State Democrats are also reeling from corruption cases pursued against the former Democratic state treasurer, sitting members of the state House, and the recent corruption conviction of a Philadelphia congressman's son.

So, if the GOP is going to break its six-election presidential losing streak in Pennsylvania, this would be the year to do it. Yet, formidable obstacles remain before Republicans can claim its 20 key electoral votes. First is the party registration deficit. There are over 1 million more Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania, so an appeal to “turn out the base” will fall well short in this state.

Then there are the populous suburbs surrounding Philadelphia – Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties. Democrats will win Philadelphia and Pittsburgh overwhelmingly, Republicans will carry the rural areas in central Pennsylvania and do well in the western towns outside of Pittsburgh, but the huge shift that has made Pennsylvania reliably Democratic in presidential years has been the change in voting patterns in the Philadelphia suburbs. While the numbers of Democrats and Republicans are nearly equal, Republican registrants contain large blocs of younger, moderate voters as well as college-educated women.

These voters can be targeted based on economic opportunity, but they are libertarian and tolerant on social policy. Two of the leading Republican candidates are misfits to appeal to these voters. Neither Donald Trump’s focus on white working-class resentment nor Ted Cruz’ caffeinated appeals to white evangelicals is likely to work. Republicans who have won statewide include reform-minded governors Tom Ridge and Tom Corbett, and current Sen. Pat Toomey. The last Republican to run a hard-right campaign emphasizing social issues was former Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost badly in 2006.

You can run the same analysis in other potential “blue to red” states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. The GOP will have to win a record number of older white voters, but they will also need to cut into the margins among young people, college-educated women and minorities.

The good news is that there is much to work with this time. Hillary Clinton scores historically low marks for truth and honesty among young voters. It will take a Herculean effort to turn out Obama-like numbers among minorities for her, not that the Democratic Party won’t try to raise the specter of racial division.

Worse still for Democrats, young voters, women and minorities have not benefited from the Obama administration’s economic policies. Young people face mounds of debt and bleak job prospects. Minorities and working women have been unable to climb the economic ladder because of low economic growth and scores of new regulations and taxes on business. Finally, concern about terrorism in America will make personal safety a voting issue in 2016.

There is no historical precedent for a party winning a third term while its incumbent president holds low job approval ratings. The GOP can seize this opportunity by nominating a candidate who can appeal beyond the Republican base to voters desperately searching for a new direction for the country and greater opportunity for themselves and their families.

That doesn’t mean de-emphasizing core values. Ronald Reagan successfully melded conservative appeals with positive messages to create coalitions of voters that had similar aspirations if not identical views. It’s still the best way to win a national election.

This story was updated at 3:54 p.m. to correct an error. A Philadelphia congressman's son, not the congressman himself, was convicted on tax fraud charges.

Frank J. Donatelli was assistant to President Reagan for political and intergovernmental affairs and is a past deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. He grew up in Pennsylvania.

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