The last debate puts Pa.’s GOP on the defense

October 24, 2016

T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak look at the state of Election 2016 after the third and final presidential debate, both at the top of the ticket and for other races.

Rooney: The die has been cast and it’s directly attributable to Donald Trump’s performance in the final debate – specifically his unwillingness to accept the conclusion the American voters will render on Nov. 8. For a candidate seeking the office of president of the United States to suggest in advance of the counting of the ballots that the election is rigged is groundbreaking territory for American politics. The fact that he is so self-absorbed will have negative effects on Republicans on the ballot below him. As a result, we are beginning to see in real time those Republican candidates, who otherwise would be enjoying relatively safe elections or reelections, in an all-out scramble to save their political souls.

Novak: People forget that in 2000, Al Gore had a problem with the outcome of that race too. Trump’s comment was Trump being the poor sport Trump tends to be. Look, I think we know how this story is going to end and because of that it is driving decision-making in congressional races and some state legislative races, particularly in the Philadelphia region. No one is nervous about the outcomes in Western or Northeastern Pennsylvania. The recent voter registration numbers show Republican gains and Democrat losses in those regions. They are going to translate into Republican victories.

Where we start to see the impact of Trump’s weakness overlaying legislative races is in the southeastern part of the state. The campaign of Republican Congressman Ryan Costello, in the Sixth District, is increasing its television buy and changing tactics to inoculate against a potential Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee TV buy. Brian Fitzpatrick’s race in Bucks County’s Eighth District is becoming the bellwether race in terms of Trump’s impact. And then there is retiring Congressman Joe Pitts’ seat in Lancaster and Chester Counties, the 16th District, where the Republican, State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, is upping his television buy and pressing the pedal to the metal to raise money, despite the fact that it should be a safe seat.

Rooney: When you see the money being spent on television in congressional races that were considered safe districts three weeks ago, that tells you just about everything you need to know about the effect of Trump. The counties surrounding Philadelphia and those in the Lehigh Valley are poised to make a very important statement on Election Day. At this moment in time, Trump is trailing in the Philadelphia suburbs by more than 35 points. That fact will keep the folks in the Toomey for Senate campaign awake at night. I have never seen a candidate so singularly destructive to an entire party as Trump appears to be to the Republican Party. Regardless of the outcome of the races in and around Philadelphia, it is very likely that the Republican margin in the U.S. House of Representatives will be, if not erased, much smaller and different.

Novak: A very respected and effective county Republican leader in one of the southeastern counties was telling me this week about his serious concerns regarding a state House race that has been safely in Republican hands for more than a decade. There are actually a couple of Chester County seats that a month ago we weren’t thinking much about and now there is a lot of attention on them to make sure there aren’t any surprises. I don’t think the majority is going to change in the Pennsylvania legislature, but I think numbers are going to change.

Rooney: I think there are going to be a lot of state House Republicans waking up Nov. 9 after having sweated the night out in close races that could have been won by Democrats if investments were made further down the ballot. A lot of state House Democrat legislators have been sounding the alarm that Trump is going to implode and he is going to take a lot of Republicans with him. There have been a number of people advancing that argument for a good long time. The question becomes: Have the resources followed those Democrats’ argument? If you are a state House Democrat or a challenger to a state House incumbent Republican, dollars are hard to come by. My fear is that we are going to see a lot of races where the Republican narrowly prevails because Democrats didn’t put the dollars in.

Novak: I am watching my own state House legislative district in western Chester County. This is a Democrat-majority district occupied by a very, very popular Republican – Harry Lewis. His race is an example where Democrats didn’t commit their resources, but Lewis and the House Republican Campaign Committee did. I think Lewis is inoculated and will be successful. It remains to be seen if that is a missed opportunity by the Democrats but I know of a couple of other seats, in Chester, Delaware, and Bucks County where adequate Republican resources are going to determine whether Republicans seats remain Republican.

Rooney: I think that the net effect of the Trump campaign is going to prove to be an unmitigated disaster for Pennsylvania Republicans. But in large part, due to gerrymandering, the anti-Trump tide won’t manifest itself in the state legislature the way it will in the Congress.

Novak: There is an undeniable populist, antiestablishment current in this election. The Trump candidacy has not effectively blended that current with the loyal, more establishment-oriented Republicans. Maybe that is just impossible to do right now. The challenge for the Republican Party after the election is going to be to patch together what I believe are the three elements of the Republican Party right now: the working-class realignment between former Democrats and Republicans that the Trump campaign has allowed us to see, the small government NFIB-type [National Federation of Independent Business] Republicans, and the larger U.S. Chamber of Commerce Republicans. That’s a tall order but that’s the challenge that lies ahead.

T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and debate policy. Contact them at tjrooney@rooneynovak.com and alan@rooneynovak.com.

Note: This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer Currents section on October 23, 2016.

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