HARRISBURG — Josh Shapiro won more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in Commonwealth history in his successful run for governor of Pennsylvania.
And he didn’t just get a lot of votes. The attorney general also won by a margin not often seen in an open race — according to unofficial results, he beat GOP nominee Doug Mastriano by nearly 15 points and cut margins in counties that some state and national Democrats have lost in recent years years had written off.
Now the political world is pondering what lessons to draw from this victory.
Analysts, activists, campaign workers, supporters and critics all agree that a few key things sealed the deal for Shapiro: a politically extreme, financially poor opponent in Mastriano, a strong reach in rural areas that Democrats sometimes neglect, and a Pragmatic — and sometimes flexible — political message that appealed to voters in populous urban and suburban areas as well as rural communities.
However, some observers also focus on areas where Shapiro’s results have been weaker.
Turnout — important for Democrats in voting strongholds like big cities — was low in Philadelphia compared to other parts of the Commonwealth. This was particularly the case in poorer, heavily black and Hispanic areas. And outside of Philly, voter turnout was also relatively low in smaller black and Latino-populated cities like Allentown, Hazleton and Reading.
The Doug Effect
State Senator Doug Mastriano had moved from the fringe to the center of his party ahead of the election, fueled by his commitment to theories about the 2020 voter fraud. Emerging from a shattered primary with little support from mainstream Republicans, Shapiro had spent his undisputed primary raising tens of millions of dollars and building the infrastructure for campaigns across the state.
Mastriano never amassed much campaign fundraising or mainstream following, while Shapiro broke spending records and ran ad after ad portraying Mastriano as a dangerous radical. Mastriano stayed completely off-air for most of the race.
In their post-mortem election, Republicans’ grievances extend beyond Mastriano’s campaign decisions. They blame the state Republican Party’s lack of a clear message and little institutional leadership for its generally disastrous results, which include losing the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010.
While Shapiro was on the move to create a unified platform under which all Democrats could run, Mastriano’s refusal to speak to the mainstream press and lack of publicity allowed his opponents to define his campaign to switch voters, said Jeff Coleman, a former Armstrong County state legislator and current GOP campaign strategist.
Mastriano and his supporters argued that grassroots enthusiasm in redder, rural areas would overcome deficits in more temperate suburbs. But Dean Browning, an unsuccessful GOP candidate for the Lehigh Valley state senate, saw no broadcast.
Mastriano “has done nothing to counter any of the charges against him,” Browning told Spotlight PA. “I haven’t seen anything of the sort. He claimed to have a huge base because he collected 30,000 signatures to get on the ballot, but I didn’t see them on the ground.”
Meanwhile, Browning and other Republican House nominees have been hit with “cookie-cutter ads,” he said, linking each candidate to Mastriano’s support for criminalizing abortion, repealing the 2020 election and cutting public spending on education.
Become a resident of Luzerne Count (almost)
University of Pittsburgh political analyst Lara Putnam, who is already combing through available election data for 2022, pointed to some areas of the state where Shapiro’s results were particularly notable.
“Basically, Shapiro stuck with all Biden voters and actually let an unusually large number of them vote in the midterms…and then he additionally persuaded some Trump voters,” she said. “As such, he benefited both from swinging the votes of a number of independents and from maintaining strong turnout among casual voters, strongest in upscale suburbs and suburbs.”
Shapiro’s campaign staff and the local leaders who supported him attributed some of this success to Mastriano’s unpopularity, but argued that the campaign’s commitment to travel also played a role. This strategy was born out of failure, they noted.
Among people working on and with Democratic campaigns, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, with its clear focus on the cities and large suburbs of Pennsylvania, has become a model for not running a race in the state.
Kathy Bozinski, chair of the Democratic Committee in Luzerne County, where Clinton notoriously lost six years ago, said that “to this day … people will shake their heads and say Hillary Clinton never came here. She didn’t take care of us.”
“I think the candidates have realized the fact that they can no longer hang their hats on Philly and Pittsburgh,” said Jeff Eggleston, a Democratic district commissioner in Warren County on the north row. “There were too many defeats, too many narrow wins.”
Biden increased personal stops during his 2020 bid for the presidency. And Shapiro’s campaign, organizers said, really took the multi-district approach to heart.
“I joked with him: ‘I think you have to buy a house here now, you’re here once a month,'” Bozinski said of Shapiro’s visits to Lucerne. “I think it paid off for him.”
One-size-fits-all doesn’t work for nationwide messaging
Among the Shapiro campaign’s many ads were spots targeted at very specific audiences – such as a television ad, which ran primarily in the Pittsburgh, State College/Johnstown and Scranton media markets, that highlighted Shapiro’s lawsuit against a contractor for prevailing wage theft, and another that similarly ran Markets, which focused on Shapiro’s opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed tipping law change.
This approach made sense for democratic district officials like Bozinski from Lucerne.
“The Democratic Party is such a party with big tents,” she said. “It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all message. I looked at Luzerne County as an example. We have some very conservative Democrats here, some very progressive Democrats.”
Snyder, who will retire from the State House at the end of this year’s legislature, has held a seat in the far southwest corner of Pennsylvania for nearly a decade. Her district, like much of this region, has become increasingly Republican during her tenure – a process she says has accelerated rapidly with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
She said Shapiro’s rhetoric is as important as his presence. In Snyder’s estimation, what has turned people in her district away from Democrats in particular is what she sees as a misunderstanding of the party’s platform on issues like energy. There are two producing coal mines and a number of natural gas jobs in her district, and Snyder supports their continuation. But she believes there is a broad perception that Democrats want to end fossil fuel use.
On the campaign trail, Shapiro spoke about the switch to renewable energy sources, but also emphasized that he believes fossil fuels are indispensable at the moment. He avoided taking a firm stance on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a pledge in which states pledge to reduce emissions by requiring fossil-fuel power plants to purchase carbon emission credits.
RGGI is one of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature energy policies. At a recent press conference on the change of governor, Shapiro told reporters he would set up a working group to evaluate it.
“One of the reasons I was so involved in his campaign is because I see [Shapiro] As a Democrat like me: pragmatic,” said Democratic Rep. Pam Snyder of Greene County. “They want to come to the center and find solutions. You want to do your job without the blockers getting in the way.”
problems of the city
Putnam noted that the only areas where Shapiro didn’t consistently record extremely impressive turnout numbers compared to previous elections were “the most economically marginal, heavily minority” neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities like Allentown, Hazleton and Reading.
This election was not a presidential election, she noted, so some decline in turnout is expected. “But this decline was much more pronounced in core urban areas, including core urban areas that saw strong turnout in 2018,” Putnam added.
This doesn’t mean cities had terrible turnouts. In Philadelphia, for example, overall turnout in 2022 was lower than in 2018 but higher than at any other half in recent history. But voter turnout in those areas fell more sharply than other parts of the Commonwealth as of 2020, meaning it was lower compared to most of the state — a problem, Putnam said, seems bigger than any campaign.
“Basically the same pattern emerged this year in deprived urban core areas and in heavily African-American areas across the country.”
It’s always difficult to draw concrete lessons from overall turnout trends, but Putnam pointed to another data point that she believes sheds light on Shapiro’s relatively poor performance in poor urban areas: comparison to Lt. gov. John Fetterman for the US Senate.
Shapiro had better margins than Fetterman in most of the state – which Putnam attributes largely to Fetterman having a relatively more formidable opponent in Mehmet Oz. But repeatedly in poor, heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods, Fetterman’s results were much closer to Shapiro’s — ie, he performed comparatively better in those areas.
Putnam didn’t have a definite answer as to why. But she said the reason could point to what kind of messaging works in those areas.
“Maybe people should start thinking, for example, that the connection with criminal justice reform, legalizing marijuana, pardons, criticizing the prison system — maybe that’s a good thing for Democrats in places where people are in haven’t voted lately,” she said.
Local advertisers said they had encountered this attitude repeatedly in relatively poor neighborhoods.