Pennsylvania's extreme makeover

If the voting patterns of Philly's northeast suburbs are as reliable a predictor as usual, disgust with Iraq and Bush turned red states blue.

Rebecca Traister
November 9, 2006 1:40AM (UTC)

On Tuesday night, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was beaten by Robert Casey Jr. in an election that was once supposed to be a nail-biter, but turned into a rout, with Casey taking an estimated 60 percent of the vote. The crucial result edged Democrats closer to possible control of the Senate, just as many of the state's Democratic congressional candidates, including Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy and Chris Carney, unseated Republicans, helping Democrats take control of the House of Representatives.

It was all part of the Democratic tide that swept many remnants of Newt Gingrich's 1994 revolution out to sea. And in Philadelphia's traditionally Republican northeast suburbs, you could feel the tide moving in. At a massive Democratic rally three days before the election, the head of Montgomery County's Democratic Committee, Marcel Groen, told the crowd, "Many of you have come with me on a journey that started a long time ago, a time when Republicans controlled this county, when people were afraid their trash wasn't going to be picked up because they were Democrats. Those times are gone forever."


If Groen sounded confident, he had good reason. He was addressing a crowd of 1,500 people amped to hear state and national party stars like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Ed Rendell. But Groen was also staring out at the changed face of Philadelphia's northern suburbs, where a confluence of new residents, popular Democratic politicians and the frustrations of affluent, socially moderate Republicans has turned formerly red neighborhoods blue in sync with the rest of the country.

Twenty years ago, Montgomery County -- a labyrinth of overlapping boroughs and townships including Abington, Cheltenham, Jenkintown, Norristown and Lower and Upper Merion -- was so Republican that on primary days, my parents used to walk straight to the lone Democratic voting machine, while everyone else waited for one of three Republican booths. Those were the Reagan years, when these suburbs -- about 80 percent white with a mix of blue-collar and wealthy fiscal conservatives -- resembled others around the country. As recently as 2000, Montgomery County was home to 272,615 registered Republicans and 173,503 Democrats. Six years later there were 251,120 Republicans and 211,348 Democrats registered to vote on Tuesday.

Perhaps emblematic of the county is one of its boroughs, Abington, which for nearly 20 years has been considered one of those magical bellwether suburbs, despite its majority of Republicans.

In 1990, Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 60 percent to 28 percent in Abington; it was to 49-42 in 2004. With a population of 57,000 and a median household income of $45,000, Abington rarely votes a straight party line, and as party registration has moved marginally closer to equilibrium, the tipped balance often predicts state and national outcomes.

Abington voted (with the rest of Montgomery County and Pennsylvania) for Republicans Santorum and Arlen Specter in each of their winning Senate bids. It also picked Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, and Democratic Gov. Rendell. Abington -- along with the state of Pennsylvania -- chose George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Al Gore in 2000. It wasn't until 2004 that the district lost its winning mojo by tipping too far to the left, voting for John Kerry. (Pennsylvania also went for the Massachusetts senator.) In 2004, Terry Madonna, local political analyst and director of the Center for Politics and Political Affairs at Franklin & Marshall who has been a Pennsylvania political analyst for over 30 years, wrote, "As goes Abington, so goes the nation."

Even more mercurial has been congressional representation from the area. Abington makes up the bulk of Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District, which Madonna described in 2004 as "the most competitive congressional district in the state, and one of the five most competitive in the country." After Republican Rep. Larry Coughlin retired in 1992, Democrat Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky was elected. She was defeated by Republican Jon D. Fox in 1994, and he in turn was defeated by Democrat Joe Hoeffel in 1998. Hoeffel resigned to run unsuccessfully for Senate in 2004, and was succeeded by Democrat Allyson Schwartz, who was reelected on Tuesday. That's four shifts of party power in 14 years.


For those who have lived here for decades, the political pull to the left has rendered the area almost unrecognizable. In a community where Democratic lawn signs have long been stolen, ripped up and defaced, this year they lined the streets; only the stray Casey placard was spray-painted with "W's." While in the elementary school mock elections of my youth I was repeatedly dismayed to be the only one in my class voting for Democrats, in 2004, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that at Copper Beach elementary, the school that replaced my alma mater, John Kerry won 585 to 398.

So what's changed? Everybody here has got a theory. At Saturday's rally, local state representative candidate Rick Taylor, who pulled out a surprise victory against 12-year incumbent Eugene McGill on Tuesday, credited antipathy toward our commander in chief, swearing that in Republican homes he's visited he's been told, "I have got to make amends. I voted for George Bush and I feel bad. I am voting a straight Democratic ticket."

The notion that people have flip-flopped so dramatically sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky. But at least one resident backed up Taylor's claims. "People are disgusted with Bush," said Doranne Smith, 76, an active local Democrat who has lived in Montgomery County for more than 40 years." Smith, a poll worker, testified that she has seen large numbers of residents request party affiliation changes in recent years, and described a Republican friend who admits shamefacedly, "I voted for him," every time she sees an image of Bush. Smith's husband, Richard N. Smith, credited shifting allegiances to the popularity of local Democratic officials, like state Rep. Josh Shapiro and Rep. Schwartz. Indeed, both candidates enjoy ferocious loyalty and had monster victories on Tuesday night.

Jean Corrigan, an active Democrat here for more than 10 years, was outside the Ardsley train station holding a "Shapiro" sign at 7:30 a.m. the day before the election. Corrigan worked on Shapiro's 2004 campaign and has worked in his office since. "He's like a god around here," she said proudly. "When I first started, this area was so Republican, I was the only Democrat at my polling place," she said. "Today, registration is neck and neck." Spotted outside a polling place on Tuesday afternoon, Corrigan was red-cheeked and happy. Even before the results were in, she said, she felt great about the turnout, wondering if perhaps it didn't match what she'd seen in presidential elections. Along with her affection for the local representation, Corrigan attributes much of the changing politics to the influx of young liberal families who have moved out from the city.


That's the same, slightly less politically exhilarating, reason offered by longtime former Republican Rep. Jon D. Fox, a man known primarily for having sported the worst rug in Congress ("as if a dead raccoon is sitting on top of [his] head," wrote the Philadelphia Daily News in 1994). After losing his bid for state rep in 2004, Fox told the Inquirer rather balefully that "a lot of Republicans who were here died off," and were replaced by Democrats from the city.

Local god Shapiro said by phone on Monday that he had recently seen the new registration numbers that showed only about a 200-vote difference between registered Republicans and Democrats in Abington township. "Our district is split down the middle," he said, recalling one of Fox's 1992 pieces of campaign propaganda that listed the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the district as 80 percent to 20 percent.

Shapiro agreed that population change has shifted voting habits. He also cited the "trash collection theory" alluded to by Groen in his rally speech. Whether apocryphal or not, Shapiro said, the suburban legend that registered Democrats would not benefit from basic municipal services inspired many independents and conservative Democrats to simply spare themselves the hassle and register Republican. Shapiro swears that in his pavement-pounding, he's met people who told him, "I know it says I'm a Republican, but I just did that to get my trash picked up." Often, Shapiro said, these voters, realizing that it's now safe to come out, have requested forms to change their affiliation.


But Shapiro said the most crucial factor in the blue-ing of his suburbs doesn't have to do with changing politics, but with the changing parties. "Policies coming out of Washington in the 12 years since the Gingrich Congress have pushed the Republican Party further to the right socially and have made them fiscally irresponsible," Shapiro said, noting that voters in the northeast suburbs, both Democrat and Republican, "tend to be socially progressive but fiscally responsible. Republicans in Washington have abandoned the Republicans here, so they have begun to look for new home."

This is perhaps particularly the case for more affluent Republican residents, a group identified in a recent Pew poll as taking a big swing away from the GOP in this election cycle. "I represent a number of these affluent individuals in Rydal and Dresher," Shapiro said. "They want taxes low and spending controlled. Bush Republicans have cut taxes but increased spending and burdened the next generation with an enormous deficit."

Whichever of Shapiro's proposed dynamics was in place on Tuesday, it worked out for state Rep. Shapiro, who won 19,576 votes to his GOP opponent Lou Guerra's 6,188. The Philadelphia suburbs also ousted three longtime Republican state reps (Thomas Gannon, Eugene McGill and Matthew Wright). Democratic state Sen. LeAnna Washington, whose district includes part of Montgomery County, beat her Republican opponent 75,652 votes to 14,311. And early estimates showed that in the suburbs, Casey had beaten Santorum by a margin of 3-to-2.


At 11 on election night, it was clear that Allyson Schwartz was hosing her opponent, former "Apprentice" star Raj Bhakta. Schwartz said by phone that a big win was possible, in part, because area voters "want the same thing we're seeing nationally: stability and thoughtfulness and independence, a willingness to reach across the aisle, and a kind of considered moderation in confronting the challenges facing their area and the nation."

This year, Abington and Montgomery County remained bellwether districts. It's just that for the first time in many years, the wind was blowing to the left. At the rally on Saturday, the exuberant local Democratic committee head Groen cautioned his newly robust flock about the costs of victory. "Until this point we were always the underdog," he said from the podium. "We are no longer the underdog. We are not getting Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama because we're not important. We're getting them because everybody in the world, everybody in the country recognizes that we are ground zero. We are where it starts. We are where it's gonna be."

Tuesday, the Philadelphia suburbs were where it was at.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2006 Elections Pennsylvania U.s. Senate

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