Election 2021

The Elizabethtown borough municipal offices serve as a polling place. The Elizabethtown School Board race is one of the most hotly contested in the Lancaster County's 2021 general election. 

Conservatives in Lancaster County are celebrating Republican candidates’ sweep of victories in Tuesday’s municipal election.

With the exception of races in heavily Democratic Lancaster city, GOP candidates won nearly every contested school board, township and borough race in municipalities across the county, including in Manheim Township, where Democrats had made gains in recent years.

“This election came down to two things – our kids and grandkids and our future,” said Kirk Radanovic, chairman of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County. “Parents want a say in their kids’ education, and the average citizen is, quite frankly, concerned with our future.”

Despite a decline in the party’s voter registration advantage over the past two decades, Lancaster County Republicans showed Tuesday that they remain the county’s dominant political force. 

As of Monday, Republicans made up 51% of the county’s electorate compared to just 32.5% for Democrats. That 18.5 point advantage is roughly half what it was in 2000. Still, it was more than enough to deliver margins of victory upwards of 50 points in some races.

Radanovic didn’t go into his thoughts on how Tuesday’s victories square with that shift in registration, but said whether or not voters are registered Republicans, the Lancaster GOP “(is) going to do the right thing for everyone and that will lead to more people being attracted to our party.”

In Manheim Township -- arguably the most closely watched as Republicans fought to reverse Democrats’ 2019 takeover of the local government -- GOP area chair Mark Fetterman said the party’s success in the commissioners and school board races was due to the hard work of the committee and listening to voters' concerns.

“We listened to the voters, and they rewarded us with a spectacular victory and we are not going to let them down going forward,” he said.

Presidential woes for Democrats

Tuesday’s election can be explained by the circumstances surrounding it, said Stephen Medvic, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. GOP wins occurred in an off-year election under a recently elected Democratic president with low approval ratings. The wins came during a time of rising inflation and an economy still trying to recover from pandemic lows. Considering all of these factors, political scientists would expect the party out of power -- in this case, Republicans -- to make gains, as was seen across Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey, Medvic said.

But the long-term trends of decreasing Republican voter advantages are likely to continue as the county continues to diversify, he added.

“What you see is Democrats gaining strength in these closer-in suburbs, and that will continue,” Medvic said. “They’re competitive where they weren’t 10, 15, certainly 20 years ago.”

The margins in the Manheim Township commissioners’ race, for example, were within a few hundred votes, showing Democrats still retain strength in that area, he added.

“That was in a bad Democratic year,” Medvic said. “Democrats had a strong headwind with Biden’s low approval rating. That works against them. You see from election year to election year, both parties' fortunes tick up or tick down.”

Republicans faced similar factors during the Trump era, he noted.

GOP playbook

Radanovic credited the GOP success Tuesday to local committee members looking for qualified candidates for every single race, a goal he set at the party’s convention last winter. Having candidates in as many races as possible set them up for success when school boards became contentious this cycle, which he thinks also contributed to their success across the board.

“We had to support our judges and row office candidates, but what we really needed was our committees to have people on that ballot,” he said. “We are now fighting for every seat. Nothing is too small.”

Prior to the election, state Sen. Ryan Aument told LNP | LancasterOnline that Manheim Township’s highly qualified slate of commissioner candidates -- including a former state representative and township solicitor -- could be a model the Pennsylvania GOP uses to win back suburbs they’ve lost in recent years. Aument’s campaign poured $49,000 into the township campaign; he said the county’s second-largest municipality should expect big spending in its local races from here on out.

The township’s GOP committee developed a strategy earlier this year to focus on reversing their recent losses. Committee members focused on building the party and its candidates’ social media presence, along with emphasizing traditional campaign tactics of door knocking and talking to voters, Fetterman said.

“We did everything we could to put forward our platform of traditional Republican governance and our vision for effective, responsible and efficient governance and we really listened to people’s concerns because we lost two times,” he said.

Fetterman said it’s impossible to know if Manheim Township will be competitive in the future, because even six months to a year “is a political eternity.” 

Republican County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, however, said he sees Tuesday’s results as part of a trend that could continue, as voters showed their rejection of Democratic policies at a local and state level.

“That all motivates a conservative electorate,” he said.

And as people continue to see policies like mask mandates or the Biden administration’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal, they will continue to push back as they have this year, he said.

“People come far and wide to Lancaster County, look to Lancaster County and love our way of life, our historic heritage of farmland and agrarian society, rewarding hard work,” D’Agostino said. “So when people feel that may be threatened, yeah, we are definitely going to have the turnout and victories that we had Tuesday.”

Medvic agreed that hot-button issues like critical race theory, which was the subject of many heated school board meetings across the country and a regular target in conservative media, but topics like this are unlikely to be the main reason an electorate turned out to the polls.

“A vast majority of the explanation of Tuesday is that we have a Democratic president where things aren’t doing great right now,” he added. “No matter what campaign message a candidate decides to use, it’s going to be hard to overcome those fundamental facts.”

‘Keep Steamrolling’ 

Democrats say they still believe they will continue to gain ground as demographics shift.

Diane Topakian, chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee, said her party is still focusing on a strategy of making headway in the suburbs by running quality candidates and speaking with voters.

And they still view those suburbs -- especially Manheim Township, where the GOP still holds a voter registration advantage -- as competitive.

“We are going to keep steamrolling ahead and we're going to get there,” she said. “The county is still a red county but I don’t think this (election) by any means takes us out of the running. … It takes a while. It took the Ford works in Detroit six elections before they won their union, so we are not discouraged by this one race.”

She said she will be looking forward to January, when new congressional and state voting maps will set the stage for the 2022 congressional midterm elections.

“They may have higher voter turnout than we had this time, and sure, they won, so they can think the voters agree with their message, but I don’t think most voters do,” she said. “I think they just had higher turnout than we did. Some of the races were close and I still think it keeps it competitive.”

Gillian McGoldrick contributed reporting.

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