Ah, good ole Pennsylvania. Even when it’s the middle of May and its an odd year primary you just have to make news. Of course, I never personally mind it when my beloved home state makes the news like this. It means I get to write about it. With two of the most contentious constitutional amendments ever on the ballot along with a highly watched state senate special election in the Northeast, there was a lot to look back on in the Keystone state.
SD-22: Democrats hold a red-trending blue seat
The eyes and ears of analysts flashed with excitement earlier this year when former state senator John Blake announced his resignation from this Lackawanna County based seat. This seat went for President Joe Biden by nine points in 2020, but only went for Hillary Clinton by 3.4 in 2016, and the area has trended away from Democrats. With that knowledge in mind, some thought that this seat could be one of the first real tells of the upcoming environment for 2022. This is also a seat though that is still quite blue down the ballot. Even after only going for Clinton by 3.4, the aforementioned Blake won re-election by 21 in 2018. And Democrats had the candidate advantage too, nominating Scranton-based state representative Marty Flynn. While Republicans had a decent candidate in county commissioner Chris Chermak, Flynn’s set brand put Democrats at an early advantage.
That brand, coupled in what is a Biden +9 seat, saw Flynn comfortably win, 51-38 over Chermak. What makes this margin hard to decipher is that a local Green Party candidate got 9.2% of the vote. That is in part due to an endorsement for the Green candidate by the Scranton Times Tribune. Still, even with that, Flynn beat Biden’s 2020 margin by about four points, helped on by keeping Election Day vote close in Lackawanna and then absolutely dominating the mail in ballots. With that in mind, you’d think that this night would be one that favored Democrats. That however, did not end up being the case.
Pennsylvanians strip Governor of emergency powers, in a blow to the Wolf administration.
The reason this isn’t just a good night for Pennsylvania Democrats is the result of Constitutional Amendments 1 and 2 on the ballot. Usually, referendums like these in Pennsylvania are of no issue. They generally pass with flying colors. However, these are going to end up quite close. While Democrats will point to that as a success, it should be considered that these are the most partisan amendments possibly in Pennsylvania’s history. Championed by the well-known and very right-wing legislator Russ Diamond of Lebanon, it was expected that these two amendments would be close. State Republicans championed it, while state Democrats fought against it. But how the results came out in the end did not necessarily follow that pattern.
The passing of these two amendments was not built on huge victories in strong Trump or GOP counties in general. In fact, the amendments generally underperformed Trump out west, except for in Erie County. The amendment greatly overperformed the usual Republican bylines in the southeastern and south central parts of the county. The best example coming in Philadelphia, where Donald Trump only got 18% of the vote in 2020. Currently, with most mail in ballots counted, Amendment one has 33% support in Philadelphia and Amendment 2 has 31% support. A massive overperformance from Trump’s total in Philadelphia allowed most outlets to call it for the “Yes” vote by the early morning. And so we have a good result for Republicans and at a statewide level.
Should either party take away signs for 2022 from this primary?
The short answer is no. Results were all over the place and this was a primary. With primaries closed in Pennsylvania, that makes it hard to dissect from the results (a reminder: even non-party voters were able to come out and vote in the referendums). Neither party should be more hopeful or less hopeful for their chances in Pennsylvania come 2022, especially with redistricting on the way. Democrats will celebrate their win in SD-22, and Republicans will celebrate amendments one and two passing.
Progressive Democrats do have something to celebrate.
Maybe the all-round biggest winner from last night was progressive Democrats. Two incumbent Democratic mayors were knocked off in primaries last night. First the one that was less surprising in the state’s capital of Harrisburg. Two-Term incumbent Eric Papenfuse had come under fire for poor leadership and endorsing Republican state senator John DiSanto for re-election over Democrat George Scott in 2020. That led multiple challengers to come forth against Papenfuse, the highest-profile being City Council President Wanda Williams. Williams ended up being the one to knock off Papenfuse by only 61 votes in this low turnout primary.
The second result, and definitely the most shocking one of the night, was state representative Ed Gainey upsetting incumbent Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh. Gainey, who is black, put himself in a more progressive lane compared to Peduto. It paid off in the end, and Gainey is now set to become the first black mayor in a city that is only around 25% black. This might truly be the final nail in the coffin for the old Pittsburgh Democratic machine, which has been weakening since the mid 2010s. It’s not necessarily a surprise in a city that has started to attract younger, more educated, and wealthier white citizens, but this is just a final sign.