This week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro will formally announce his candidacy for governor. Shapiro is the lone Democratic gubernatorial candidate facing what remains a crowded Republican field ahead of next year’s primary. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs with the retirement of Republican Pat Toomey. Ahead of 2022, Shapiro and fellow Democrats should carefully watch Greater Philadelphia’s Delaware County, which could determine if their party can retain its Trump-era suburban gains.
In fact, Delaware County – a unique mix of wealthy and working-class communities, from the Main Line’s leafy Radnor to blue-collar locales such as Ridley Township – is key to understanding Pennsylvania’s suburban political dynamics.
The Republican Party has been entrenched in Delaware County – known by locals as “Delco” – since the Civil War. Even as Delco residents began consistently voting Democratic at the presidential level in 1992, Republicans still performed well in down-ballot races. But the Trump presidency extinguished this long-standing trend. In 2019, for the first time, Democrats won control of Delco’s county council. Now it remains to be seen if this dramatic electoral shift has staying power.
Since the Democrats’ Trump-era sweep of Delco and other parts of suburban Philadelphia, the extremes of both political parties have only intensified. Suburban Philadelphians, though, may react more acutely to Democrats’ leftward shift than to the GOP’s Trumpian turn. Many of these voters, for example, associate Republicans’ conspiratorial strains – exemplified by the party’s “stolen election” lies and the detestable violence of Jan. 6 – with rural conservative lawmakers in Harrisburg, and with D.C.-based cable news talking heads. By contrast, the radicalization of the Democratic Party is affecting the everyday lives of swing voters in Philadelphia’s outskirts.
Indeed, Democrats’ ideological approach to the issues of crime, academic instruction, and COVID-19 mitigation efforts could endanger their newfound dominance in places like Delco.
Take rising crime in Philadelphia. Delco borders West Philadelphia, an epicenter of the city’s surging homicide rate. In 2020, Philadelphia registered an astounding 499 homicides, but so far this year, the city has already surpassed 400 killings. Such disturbing trends inevitably cross city borders to inner-ring suburbs like Delco, which “saw a 127 percent increase [in homicides] in 2020,” according to the Delaware Valley Journal. In other words, a murder surge has occurred under Democrats’ watch.
For now, local Democrats hope that progressive District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer offers a way forward. Though a vigorous proponent of criminal-justice reform, Stollsteimer has coordinated with police to establish focused-deterrence-style programming in Delco’s high-crime Chester, where homicides and shootings have declined this year. But will this recent success assuage suburbanites’ genuine concerns about crime?
Meanwhile, Delco isn’t immune to schools’ embrace of radical teaching on race and gender. This educational extremism alienates suburban votes. Issues like critical race theory in schools, moreover, could prove harmful to Democrats’ electoral prospects if Republicans successfully identify their opponents with this trend.
The activist group “No Left Turn in Education,” for instance, manages a database in which parents and teachers anonymously post instances of what they deem to be left-wing teaching in schools. The Philly suburbs are well-represented in the collection. In June, one parent from the Penn-Delco School District revealed that BLM-centered assignments were being distributed to students and that “Children in 5th grade are being told ‘What is said here stays here.’” The Delco GOP has already begun mobilizing against CRT-style instruction in area schools.
It might be an astute political move. Steven McGuire, director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University, which borders Delco, tells me that “people are probably going to be more likely to vote based off things that are affecting their lives immediately” than far-off, national political issues. Schooling out of step with community norms is doubtless one of those immediate, close-to-home trends. “I’ve had several conversations with various parents in the area, including registered Democrats and otherwise politically disengaged people, who are animated by these developments,” adds McGuire.
Time will tell whether the GOP’s focus on education radicalization – and tying Democrats to it – has political legs.
Finally, though many rural Republican counties are holding back the nation’s COVID recovery with their low levels of vaccine uptake, many suburbanites still might conclude that their pandemic-era lives were upended even more by Democrats. In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Tom Wolf’s lockdowns and hands-off leadership style during the initial phases of vaccine distribution generated public frustrations even among suburban Democrats. And not all suburban voters support COVID policies associated with Democrats, such as Wolf’s statewide mask mandate in schools or the national evictions moratorium, which the Supreme Court ended last month.
Still, the national GOP’s flight from reality could be too much for Republican candidates to overcome in suburban areas like Delco, where sanity and stability are prized. Trump, who still has an ironclad grip on Pennsylvania’s GOP base, has endorsed GOP Senate candidate Sean Parnell. That may serve Parnell well in the primary, but a Trump-loyal candidate like Parnell will run into suburban headwinds come 2022. Suburban swing voters aren’t pro-insurrection, and it remains to be seen whether the GOP has anything else on offer. Still, Democrats’ excesses might be enough to overshadow the extremism and conspiracy-mongering of Trumpism, especially since the left’s own flight from reality is – for the time being – having a more direct impact on suburbanites’ lives.
Given these dynamics, Democrats should be heartened by Rep. Conor Lamb’s decision to jump into the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania. An avowed moderate who has performed well in Republican-controlled territory at the district level, Lamb might be willing to push back against the left-wing excesses troubling suburbanites’ everyday lives. But Lamb faces a crowded primary field, and it’s unclear whether the Democratic base will vote with a strategic eye toward the midterms.
Suburban Democrats like those in Delaware County might want to start sweating. They can’t rest on their Trump-era laurels any longer. If they want to retain their electoral gains come 2022 – and their U.S. Senate and House majorities – they’ll have to distance themselves from the progressive radicalism popping up in places like Philadelphia’s suburbs. That will take some political courage and calculation on the part of 2022 candidates.
For now, in the upcoming November 2021 local elections for county council, both parties are running strong candidates sharply focused on issues close to home – COVID and the economic recovery. Sounding themes from Joe Biden’s successful 2020 campaign, Democrats Kevin Madden and Richard Womack are stressing the need for the county to vaccinate its way back to normalcy and begin repairing the damage the pandemic wrought on Delco’s middle class. Republican challengers Frank Agovino and Joe Lombardo are also focused on COVID recovery, while also warning about Democrats’ runaway spending at the local and national levels. Neither side is leaning into the culture wars or talk of stolen elections.
It remains to be seen whether the statewide candidates in 2022 can exhibit similar common sense. Given each party’s reluctance to punch back against its respective fringes – leaving moderate suburbanites out to dry – I’m not holding my breath waiting.