The GOP was saddled with an extremist candidate atop the ticket and a battered Senate nominee with only faint ties to the state. A late visit from Donald Trump only reinforced the messages driven by Joe Biden and Democrats as they tried to defy historic trends, brutal inflation, and the Democratic president’s low approval ratings.
Democrats, meanwhile, had a political powerhouse running for governor, a Senate candidate who might have been uniquely positioned to withstand the problems caused by his stroke, and battle-tested incumbents in critical U.S. House races.
» READ MORE: Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman helped Democrats defy GOP hopes for a red wave
They got a boost from the backlash to election denialism and the resulting Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, as well as a Supreme Court decision on abortion rights that provided an unusual spark of motivation to more liberal voters.
After a week of examining the results and talking to officials, voters, strategists, and insiders in both parties, here’s a look at the factors that led to stunning Democratic success last week.
For months, establishment Republicans predicted a Doug Mastriano nomination would be a disaster. They were right.
Mastriano embodied the extremism in parts of the GOP and served as a perfect foil for Democrats who argued voters should set aside economic worries in the face of fundamental threats to democracy and women’s rights.
But while some Republicans wanted to avert a Mastriano candidacy, stopping him was another story. Mastriano had a sizeable, and seemingly unshakeable, base of support. His opponents divvied up slivers of the rest of the GOP vote without anyone emerging as a stand-out rival. Many in the GOP argued the state party failed by not endorsing an alternative, but even if they had, it’s not clear if anyone could have beaten Mastriano.
In the end, he became the face of the GOP after supporting a total ban on abortion with no exceptions, elevating false election conspiracies, and going to the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. He made no effort to reach voters beyond his hard-core base.
(Oz, notably, avoided his party’s candidate for governor).
Members of both parties pointed to Mastriano’s 14-point loss as a huge hill for any other Republican to overcome. There are ticket-splitters in Pennsylvania, but at some point, there’s a limit.
» READ MORE: The Pa. GOP’s no good, very bad, terrible election is forcing a reckoning in the state party
“We suffered down ballot just because of a poor performance at the top,” said Rob Gleason, the former GOP state chair.
Colleen Bixler, a registered Republican from Westmoreland County, pointed to Mastriano when explaining why she supported Shapiro and Fetterman. “The Republican Party has gone so crazy, extreme. … Civility is really gone.”
A New York Times analysis noted that Democrats tended to do better in places where the elections had direct consequences for democracy and abortion rights.
Because of Mastriano, Pennsylvania was on the front lines for both.
The corollary is that Democrats had one of their strongest statewide candidates opposite Mastriano. Josh Shapiro didn’t just win, he rolled up a blowout.
It helped that Shapiro could dominate the airwaves, because Mastriano barely raised enough money to advertise. But Shapiro still ran a relentless campaign that reached beyond typical Democratic strongholds.
He lost by fewer than 2 percentage points in Lancaster County, a key vote center for the GOP Trump won by 16 in 2020. In Northampton County, a bellwether Biden won by less than 1 percentage point, Shapiro won by 13.
Shapiro’s big effort almost certainly lifted other Democrats.
» READ MORE: 6 Pennsylvania election takeaways: Shapiro’s ascendency, Fetterman’s plan, and Trump’s bad night
Just as he likes it, Trump’s imprint was all over this election.
His endorsement of Oz almost certainly propelled the celebrity surgeon to the Senate nomination, considering his narrow primary victory over Dave McCormick. Mastriano was well on his way to victory without Trump, but it’s hard to imagine a nominee like him — fighting culture wars, spreading baseless conspiracies, and defying party elders — without Trump doing it all first.
Trump also pulverized some of the main alternatives to either Oz or Mastriano, hammering McCormick as a “liberal Wall Street Republican” and calling gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain a “coward who let our country down.”
Many Republicans now say Trump elevated the wrong choices by focusing on his own interests rather than who could win.
» READ MORE: ‘It’s time for him to retire’: Some Pa. Republicans want to push Trump aside after their election losses
“I think the party is going to learn a lesson that if the candidates’ sole virtue is they’ve got the endorsement of Donald Trump, that’s probably not a very good criteria for success,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), though he praised Oz as a strong nominee.
Democrats were glad to have Trump on the scene. Instead of a referendum on Biden and inflation, they turned the election into a choice between Democrats and Trump.
Consider that Biden came to Philadelphia to give a prime-time speech about “MAGA Republicans.” And when he and Barack Obama came to Philly the Saturday before Election Day, democracy was one of the main themes they emphasized.
“I understand that democracy might not seem like a top priority right now, especially when you’re worried about paying the bills,” Obama said at the rally. “We’ve seen throughout history, we’ve seen around the world, when true democracy goes away, people get hurt. It has real consequences.”
Hours later, as if to drive the point home, Trump was on his own stage in Southwestern Pennsylvania, teasing another run for president.
Fetterman had many problems as a candidate — including those in his control (liberal policy pronouncements he had to walk back), and the big uncontrollable: his stroke. But he was perhaps uniquely positioned to withstand months off the campaign trail.
Speaking to Democrats after the election, one of the most common themes was how often they say they — and ordinary voters — saw Fetterman in their communities during his years as lieutenant governor, or before. The Democratic county chair in Erie recounted people posting on social media whenever Fetterman and his family came up to the shoreline there.
» READ MORE: How John Fetterman won Pennsylvania’s Senate race
Neil Makhija recalled seeing Fetterman in his former home, Carbon County, back in 2015 during Fetterman’s first Senate run. “He was talking to this very small group of Democrats, and I remember thinking, if he’d go talk to them, he’ll go anywhere, and he’s been doing that ever since,” said Makhija, executive director of IMPACT, an Indian American political organization.
Democrats believe Fetterman’s travels, and innate Pennsylvania-ness, helped him when he couldn’t physically be on the trail. And he had maybe an ideal rival in that regard. Oz hadn’t lived in the state since graduating from Penn in the 1980s. (He moved back in late 2020).
“I supported him and I liked him and I thought he worked hard, but [Oz] had no connection at all to the Republican Party of Pennsylvania,” said Gleason, the former GOP chair, who had backed McCormick in the primary. “He was a guy who parachuted in and became our nominee, and that doesn’t work in Pennsylvania.”
Usually, it’s the party out of power that’s angry and ready to run through walls to vote.
But the high court decision on abortion reminded Democrats, and some swing voters, of the stakes of individual elections. That was especially true in Pennsylvania, given the potential for Mastriano to sign sweeping abortion restrictions if he was elected.
Sephora Brooks, 33, said abortion was a key reason she backed Democrats at her West Philly polling place last week.
“They believe that women should still have those rights,” said Brooks, a nurse. “You never know the circumstances a woman might go through. Timing ain’t right, certain things are going on in your life. The option should be available to them, at all times. I believe in that.”
Inflation consistently rated as the biggest concern for voters, but at Democratic events, abortion was the topic that men and women often cited as the driving factor in their votes. Three thousand people filled a Fetterman rally in Montgomery County about abortion on the same day as the Eagles’ season opener.
Democrats believe the issue was particularly potent in the suburbs, where Oz tried to win back swing voters with a focus on crime, but got the same dismal 40% in the Philly collar counties as Trump in 2020.
A wave might have flipped at least three U.S. House districts. But all three stayed blue.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, Democrats had Rep. Matt Cartwright, who has a well-established brand and experience winning in a district that Trump carried. In the Lehigh Valley, people in both parties thought Rep. Susan Wild was the most vulnerable Democrat, but that she ran strong.
And in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Democrats found another moderate veteran, Chris Deluzio, to replace the similarly positioned Rep. Conor Lamb.
Even in these races, which have no direct connection to state government, the Democrats used Mastriano’s presence, running ads linking their GOP opponents to his stand on abortion.
It wouldn’t have been surprising to see one or two of these Democrats hold during a tough year for their party, but the fact that all three won points to bigger trends — and the top of the ticket.
Pennsylvania has pockets of far left and far right, but when you put the state together, it’s moderate on the whole, and often looking for pragmatism.
That was proven again.
When Mastriano was rallying with Trump on Nov. 5, he spent much of his speech attacking issues around transgender people and declaring he would fight against graphic pornography in schools. Shapiro, at the rally with Biden and Obama at almost the same exact time, talked about scaling back standardized testing, and increasing support for vo-tech programs and mental health counseling in schools.
Even Fetterman, known for his brash stands, tempered some of them, including around fracking and decriminalizing drugs, aiming to avoid being painted as a candidate of the far-left, while Oz cast himself as the candidate of “balance,” far outpacing Mastriano even as he fell short overall.
Hewing toward the center in Pennsylvania still works.
Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this report.