Thirty years ago, Republican Sen. John Heinz – then Pennsylvania’s most popular public figure – died in a midair collision over suburban Philadelphia’s Lower Merion Township. The April 4, 1991, crash that aviation officials deemed a “senseless accident” occurred when a helicopter flew too close to inspect the landing gear of the plane carrying Heinz.
The two aircraft collided over Merion Elementary School, where children were at recess on that beautiful spring afternoon. Seven people were killed: Heinz, age 52, and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot; two pilots in the helicopter; and two first-grade girls playing in the schoolyard. On the ground, crash debris also injured five people, including a second-grade boy who survived burns over 80% of his body.
That day in Los Angeles, a White House aide notified George H.W. Bush, who just hours earlier had attended a memorial service in Washington for Lee Atwater, his legendary 1988 campaign manager. The news was shocking. At the time, Heinz – beloved by Pennsylvania’s working-class and suburban voters alike – was considered a future GOP gubernatorial, or even presidential, contender.
Indeed, Heinz’s tragic death altered both state and national political history. In the 1991 special election to fill Heinz’s seat, Democrat Harris Wofford’s upset victory was an ominous sign for Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, but also for Bush, who in 1992 lost Pennsylvania, which remained in the Democratic fold until Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. In 1994, when Heinz had been expected to run for governor, Tom Ridge and Rick Santorum – who won that year’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns, respectively – foretold the GOP’s Trump-era schism between moderates and populists. And in 1995, Heinz’s widow, Teresa, married John Kerry, whose presidential campaign message in 2004 – a critique of George W. Bush’s foreign policy – resonated in working-class Pennsylvania counties that later fueled Trump’s statewide win. Years before, voters in those Democratic-leaning regions supported Heinz, whom they viewed as a defender of their interests despite being a Republican.
In a sense, the Keystone State’s political realignment also began after Heinz’s death. It took Trump to solidify Pennsylvania’s shifting party allegiances among blue-collar voters, who long favored Democrats, and suburbanites, who traditionally voted Republican. Ironically, Heinz’s coalition of working-class Democrats in Pennsylvania’s northeast and southwest, combined with rural conservatives and suburban moderates, was also Trump’s winning formula in 2016. In 2020, however, Pennsylvanians – especially those in the suburbs – denied Trump an encore.
Next year, the future of Pennsylvania’s GOP depends on winning the governor’s race and the Senate seat now held by the retiring Pat Toomey, who was rebuked by the party for voting to convict Trump in his impeachment trial. As the Republican Party faces such internecine conflicts, the late Heinz’s Senate years still offer lessons on winning this culturally fractious state. “Heinz walked the careful line of a moderate, garnering votes from both coal hamlets and college towns; if he had not been so skilled, he would have been called slippery,” said Tom Waseleski, who retired as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial page editor in 2016. “That’s the difference between a leader who can inspire support for his platform and one who has to demagogue.”
First elected to the Senate in 1976, Heinz took nuanced policy positions. When Reaganomics reigned, he called for fair trade to protect his state’s steelworkers. A passionate advocate of senior citizens, Heinz strengthened Medicare and Social Security. He was rewarded at the polls. In the 1988 election, for example, Heinz won by 1.49 million votes – the widest winning margin in state history. On election night, echoing Bush’s campaign call for “mainstream values,” Heinz said he had a “mainstream mandate.”
“He appealed to blue-collar people; he had a lot of respect for people who put on a hard hat and went to work every day,” said GOP strategist Tony Fratto, a Pittsburgh native who volunteered for Heinz’s campaign while in college. “At the same time, he had a really good understanding that it was important to have an environment for capital to finance factory building,” added Fratto, a former Treasury Department official. “Heinz’s legacy was that a powerful Pennsylvania Republican could be pro-labor and pro-environment while still being loyal to his party,” noted Waseleski, who met with Heinz on the day before his death.
An heir to the iconic food company – he was the richest member of Congress – Heinz could afford candor and independence. But he was a patrician respected by the masses. His philanthropic family, moreover, remained committed to Pittsburgh – a rarity in many Pennsylvania cities and towns. “A little-known thing about him: Even though he was born into privilege, that privilege never went to his head,” Mark DeSantis, a Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur and former Heinz staffer, told me. “For him, he was about earning everything: the respect of his voters, staff, and colleagues.”
From demography to economics, Pennsylvania has profoundly changed since Heinz’s death. In many instances, though, the state’s voters still elect candidates based on mainstream values. This was the case last November, when Pennsylvania narrowly elected Joe Biden – amid the tumult of COVID-19 – while the GOP enjoyed significant down-ballot success.
In next year’s fight for Toomey’s coveted Senate seat, both political parties will confront the state’s shifting political realities. Democrats, for example, have alienated blue-collar voters with the party’s inflexible liberal positions on issues like immigration, criminal justice, and energy. Throughout the state, Trump signs and flags indicate that the 2020 election never ended for many voters, who felt denigrated by Democrats and media during his presidency.
But other Democratic positions – from seeming indifference to rising urban crime to widespread pandemic school closures – are also alienating suburban voters. After all, most suburbanites want to elect moderate public servants, not leftist activists consumed by identity politics.
Meanwhile, Republicans face their own statewide challenges. In most working-class communities, for example, voters are loyal to Trump, not the GOP. The party’s economic positions, moreover, don’t always resonate with these regions’ residents – particularly senior citizens. Meanwhile, in suburbs, or what Joel Kotkin called America’s "last contestable geography,” Republicans continue to lose ground, especially in growing “eds-and-meds” towns.
Time will tell which party prevails in this politically split state, which is more divided now than when Heinz held office. To DeSantis, the former aide, Heinz “represented what this state is: humble, hardworking, thoughtful, practical.” Next year, Pennsylvanians will decide which candidate best represents those values.