Demographic changes in some of Lancaster city’s northern suburbs, combined with record campaign fundraising fueled by donors across the country intent on punishing President Donald Trump and his GOP supporters, gave Democrats what they thought was the perfect opportunity to flip three legislative seats in a county dominated by Republicans since the Civil War.
But even though Democrat Joe Biden hauled in more votes in the county than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, he offered no coattails to down-ballot Democrats. Each of the three Republican legislators targeted this year won reelection easily, and Trump still won the county by more than 44,000 votes.
“I’m disappointed, because it wasn’t an all-out repudiation of [Trump],” said Diane Topakian, who chairs the county Democratic committee. “Clearly it was not. That makes me very concerned.”
According to precinct-level results in the 41st House District (Hempfield area), 97th House District (Lititz), and 13th Senatorial District (southern half of Lancaster County and the city), Biden received more votes than the Democratic legislative candidate in almost every precinct.
“There was no down ballot momentum at all,” said Dana Hamp Gulick, who challenged state Rep. Steve Mentzer in a rematch to represent the 97th House District.
In Gulick’s race, she raised $180,000 and sent 25,000 hand-written postcards. Gulick pointed to the lack of a strong Democratic congressional candidate, plus high Republican turnout in Warwick Township, as reasons her bid to oust Mentzer failed for a second time.
Mary Ellen Lewis, 70, of Lititz, said she’s a registered independent -- the exact kind of candidate Gulick was trying to woo. She voted for all Democrats -- except in the 97th House District race.
“I felt that [Mentzer] seemed to have the experience, I liked the message he was giving,” Lewis said. “The thing about all of it that bothered me about all of the election stuff, the ads that candidates had were not an ad about what they were going to do. It said what was wrong with the other candidate. In that race, there was a touch more on the negative side.”
Topakian said she’s “perplexed” by the Democratic challengers’ losses
“I guess people felt like their vote for Biden was a risk and they didn’t want to take a risk on their state reps,” she added. “I really don’t know what to say.”
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Democrats was Lancaster city Councilmember Janet Diaz’s failure to unseat Sen. Scott Martin, even after her campaign raised a record $1.5 million.
Democrats had bet that 2018 results put them on track to defeat Martin in the 13th Senatorial District. In that year’s congressional race, Democrat Jess King received 88 more votes in the district’s precincts than U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker.
“The southern part of the county and the 13th Senate district, that’s always going to be a lot harder,” Topakian said.
Republican since the Civil War
While Biden failed to lift the Democrats in the three targeted legislative races, the opposite is also true: The Republican incumbent in each race received more votes than Trump.
But Tuesday was a banner night for the GOP majorities in the legislature, as they had been widely forecast to control one or both chambers. Far from playing defense, the party is likely to pick up multiple seats. Even the top Democrat in the House, Minority Leader Frank Dermody, might have lost his race. As of Saturday, Dermody was losing the suburban Pittsburgh district he’s represented for 30 years by about 1,000 votes.
In statewide races, the GOP won the auditor general post for just the second time since 1961. What’s more, the party’s candidate, Dauphin County Controller Tim DeFoor, will become the first person of color to hold one of Pennsylvania’s row offices.
And as of Saturday morning, Democratic Treasurer Joe Torsella was on track to lose to Republican challenger Stacy Garrity, a Bradford County U.S. Army veteran and vice president of a refractory powder supplier.
Trump -- even if he doesn’t win the presidency -- was a factor in turning out Republican voters in the state, said Charlie Greenawalt, a government and political affairs professor at Millersville University.
“I believe without the president on the top of the ticket, you would’ve had people like [U.S. Rep.] Scott Perry, he might’ve lost. Or people like [state Sen.] John DiSanto, he might’ve lost,” Greenawalt said. Perry and DiSanto both won reelection in Dauphin and Cumberland counties on Tuesday.
“The fact that Donald Trump was at the top of the ticket and he received more votes this time than last time, out in those constituencies, he may be the reason why they won and why they survived,” Greenawalt added.
This down-ballot strength in Lancaster County and across the state shows a “resurgence in the Republican Party,” said Kirk Radanovic, the chair of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County.
“The Republican Party has shown that we will win elections because we have quality candidates who match the values of the electorate,” Radanovic said. “As long as we do that, we will win elections.”
By keeping control of the legislature, Republicans will hold a strong hand in remapping state legislative districts, a process that starts next year and in which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf plays no direct role.
More significantly, the Republican legislature will take the lead in drawing the lines for the state’s congressional districts, though Wolf will be able to veto the redistricting bill if it’s not to Democrats’ liking.
Gulick said she is confident that if the 97th House District remains similarly drawn after the 2021 redistricting process, the Lititz and Manheim Township areas will one day elect a Democrat to the legislature.
“The 97th will flip,” Gulick said. “It’s coming. It might not be this year. It might be in four years, it might be in six years. And I’m proud to be a part of moving it forward.”
In the last 20 years, Democrats have cut the gap between number of Republican and Democratic voters by half, according to an LNP | LancasterOnline analysis from earlier this year. Despite this slow-moving shift, the Republican Committee of Lancaster County holds 65,000 more voters than Democrats as of this election. Incumbents have a greater chance of losing their position from an interparty challenger than to a Democrat.
Lancaster County still continues to be one of the most reliable Republican areas in America, Greenawalt said.
“This is a Republican area. It’s always been a Republican area and it’s one of the most Republican areas since the Civil War,” he added.