What Happened in Election 2019

The dust has settled on the election of 2019, and everyone is asking the same question- what does this mean for 2020? It’s nearly impossible to separate questions about Trump from anything political, but it’s also nearly impossible to take things from one election and apply them to some future election with different people in it, and not make mistakes. There are a lot of elections from Tuesday to look at, and they generally give us different things to discuss, so I’m going to break this up into sections dealing with different topics, states, and regions individually.

Pennsylvania, as a whole-

map credit to @4st8 on Twitter.

There were essentially two elections held in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, which yielded a very close, mixed result in statewide elections in the state. Judge Dan McCaffery appears to have won a Superior Court seat for the Democrats as the top vote getter, delivering a victory for Democrats that gives them the majority on that court for the first time in a very long time. McCaffery ran up very strong numbers in Philadelphia and it’s suburban counties (Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Lehigh), while also doing well in Lackawanna, Northampton, Centre, Erie, and of course, Allegheny. McCaffery also outperformed his running mate in the red counties, but it’s worth noting how similar his map was to the map of who controls County Commissioner boards in the 67 counties. Democrats flipped Monroe, Lehigh, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware counties in Tuesday’s elections, while maintaining control in Northampton, Lackawanna, Montgomery, Philadelphia, Centre, Erie, Allegheny, and Cambria. Statewide Democrats essentially were carried by 12 counties that mostly got bluer in 2019 than they were even in 2017 (Cambria actually got pretty red, but was held based on localized factors).

Judge Megan McCarthy King appears to have won the second Superior Court slot, currently leading by a narrow 30,000 votes over Democrat Amanda Green-Hawkins, while trailing McCaffery by a narrow 8,000 votes (roughly). For the Republicans, she offers a hopeful sign for 2020 in the Keystone State. While things haven’t gone great for the GOP as a whole, it’s worth noting now that in the statewide Judicial races of 2017 and 2019, Democrats have won 5 seats, and the GOP has won 4. King’s path to victory appears to have been strong showings in “Trump Country” counties, counties the GOP flipped control, and staying competitive in Monroe and Northampton counties. The GOP flipped control of county governments in Luzerne, Cameron, Armstrong, Westmoreland, Washington, and Greene counties, in most cases for the first time in generations. The GOP candidates got more votes than the Democratic candidates for Superior Court in 56 counties, winning by more than 10% in 51 of them, and by more than 5% in 55 of them. Their base in the era of Trump stayed extremely solid. That didn’t win them a sweep, but it did earn them a very, very close split.

Pennsylvania remains as competitive as it was in 2016. You’ll read analysis saying otherwise, and I understand why, but if you look at the overall picture, nothing has changed. Democrats probably have a narrow, narrow edge heading into 2020, but increasingly will be reliant on about 12 counties to carry them across the state. The impact of Trump, impeachment, and the national climate was higher turnout everywhere, and Trump counties getting more “red,” and Clinton counties increasingly getting blue.

The Lehigh Valley Region

Let’s state the obvious- Democrats had a better night than Republicans. Beyond that, you could look at Lehigh, Northampton, and Monroe and draw some dramatically different conclusions about where these counties are at moving forward. It’s fair to say that Republicans shouldn’t be excited about any of them, but the Democrats should have varying degrees of excitement about each of them.

I’ll start in Lehigh County because it was the most dramatic Democratic victory of the three. Four years ago in this exact election cycle, Republicans won three of the four Commissioner seats, virtually every contested row office, and were pretty dominant across the county government. That is all gone now, and it really wasn’t very close. County Executive Armstrong’s victory two years ago was a little bigger than many of us expected (disclosure- I managed that), and this cycle showed that to be the new norm.  Allentown, West Bethlehem, and Whitehall provided a substantial base of votes for Democrats, as did increasingly solid performances in some of the inner suburban communities- South Whitehall, Fountain Hill, Salisbury, Emmaus, and even the Macungies. One could look at Lehigh County, which used to be the more conservative of the Valley’s counties, and say that it is now blue. Not “swingy,” purple, or anything else that suggests it’s competitive, but blue. The Superior Court results back that up, in what was essentially a test case of generic partisan voting- The Democrats finished first and second here, and their margin was closer to 2,000 votes over the top Republican. Allentown elected two younger, more progressive council members out of their three. The results suggest Lehigh County is now performing like the Philadelphia suburbs.

Northampton County Democrats should be very proud and happy with what was a very good night at the polls. Democrats swept the county wide races, winning both Judicial seats, the DA’s office, the Controller’s office, and the one County Council seat they had to defend. Judge McCaffery carried the county by roughly 800 votes for the Superior Court race too. An African-American man was elected in a pretty white county council seat too (disclosure- I managed that). If you stopped right here, you’d ask how is this different than Lehigh County? I’d tell you, it’s at the margins. McCaffery’s rather close victory runs very similar in both raw votes and margins to Judge-elect Abe Kassis’ 1% and 1,005 vote victory over his Republican opponent. While margins were larger in the District Attorney and Controller’s race, it’s worth noting that those races featured Republican candidates with longer records to oppose for Democrats, and they exposed them. The ticket for Democrats was also not exactly indicative of “the coming revolution”- three career prosecutors for Judge and DA, a highly qualified City Controller for County Controller, and a former School Board President for County Council. They were fairly established people, and ran on fairly mainstream messages. It was a successful ticket, it won- but it wasn’t “burn it down” progressivism either. Democrats also did not take either of the two Republican held seats on County Council that don’t have any of the two main cities in them. Again, Democrats should be happy. They should also understand that Northampton County is still a very competitive, “purple” county. The overall margin of victory is about half of Lehigh County’s, which is great, but not blowout gaps. The most heartening thing here for Democrats is that after a huge spike in their favor leading to a blowout in 2017, the 2019 spike was even larger, and more bi-partisan, and they still won it. 

Then there’s Monroe County, the heart of the Poconos and fastest changing of the three counties, politically. In 2000, George W. Bush comfortably won a double-digit victory, but by 2008 and 2012 it was a steady part of the “Obama coalition” in Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton narrowly held onto it in 2016, which had some concerned that Democratic momentum had halted, but 2019 suggests otherwise. For the first time in a long while, the Democrats will control the County Commissioner’s board 2-1. This is significant because it suggests the county’s national tilt left is dripping down into local races. It’s still worth noting that the GOP held the row offices, and won the Superior Court race here, suggesting some institutional strength isn’t quite there in the party yet, but they’re getting better at this. The one peculiar thing here is that Judge McCaffery not only didn’t win the county, he finished in dead last of the four candidates in the race. This is… strange, to say the least. The bottom line with this is that it was a good night for Monroe, but Monroe is still on the pathway to Lehigh County status, not there yet.

The Voting Machines…

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Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? I’m going to make several points here, some of which will be popular, some of which won’t, but all of which are simply true.

  1. Northampton County’s counting problems were unacceptable. It did cause undue stress and burden on candidates and campaigns who were impacted, and they deserved better. There should have been enough testing done to know you wouldn’t have some candidates shown as zeroes in races with three candidates. This is just not good. The county has a responsibility to run elections, the company has a responsibility to provide working machines for our taxpayer dollars, and neither did well at this. There’s six months until the 2020 primary for President, and this has to be fixed.
  2. The actual voting process in Northampton County was fairly easy and pleasant, and didn’t feature any “real” problems. Let me just start by stating something obvious to me after 17 years of elections- every single election I’ve ever been apart of has had issues with machines. Things like machines not booting up fast enough in the morning, while important to remedy, are not indicative of “massive problems” with an election. This isn’t re-assuring to most people, but it’s a reality of having democratic elections. My voting process on Tuesday, as well as the overwhelming majority of people I talked to, was easy and fine. It was a new system, and people do have trouble sometimes their first time using new technology, and I have no doubt that for some people it wasn’t as good. I have good poll workers at my poll too, which helps. The most common complaint I heard from people unhappy with the process, was that the paper ballot they received from the machine didn’t match what they thought they voted (straight ticket or otherwise)- which they had every opportunity to fix themselves in the booth by hitting “no” instead of “cast ballot” when they noticed the problem. A person’s inability to follow pretty basic instructions, or ask for help when they have an issue, is not a problem with our elections process, but a problem with the person. There were two cases cited of people having trouble with retention votes for judge, which is an issue I guess, but not a massive one that in any way changed the results. Over the course of the day, I heard more complaints in Lehigh County about actual voting issues than I did in Northampton County, and frankly I heard nothing I’d call overly significant in Lehigh County either. I’m going to come down on the side of saying the machines themselves were pretty easy to vote on, in both counties.
  3. Imagine this happening in April. There is at least a 50/50 chance that the Presidential ballot in the Democratic Primary in May, as well as the delegate ballot and statewide Auditor General races will have odd numbers of candidates. If this happens then, it’s a national embarrassment. ES&S needs to have it made clear to them that the time to fix this problem is very, very short, because if they can’t do it quickly, the county needs different machines for April. This happening in April would be very, very damaging.
  4. The election, despite the problems, was fair and accurate. Thank goodness for paper ballots being printed. Ultimately they were what was counted, to get to the final result. They were done so in the company of both judicial candidates or representatives, with the GOP County Chairwoman present (so don’t believe any of her ramblings about this being unfair), and all people who had a legal right to be present. The final results, a county narrowly decided by about 800 votes in the statewide race, pretty much match-up to what Northampton County actually is politically. That the machines failed to spit out proper and correct results from the start is a problem, but it is not a problem that should cast any doubt about the final result, which was counted by the actual paper ballots that voters clicked “cast vote” to vote. The results look right, and there’s no reason to believe there’s any problem with those paper ballots- which is why paper is better to have. One can certainly make the argument for Lehigh County’s system, in which you hand mark the paper and then put it into a scanner to be counted, but scanners are as faulty as anything else (though I do like having hand marked ballots to re-count, though Florida in 2000, or North Carolina’s 9th district in 2018 tell us that these can fail/be cheated on too).
  5. No, the election was not rigged. Let’s note here that the most injured party on election night was the DEMOCRATIC nominee for Judge, and the election was administered by a Democratic administration. There is literally plausible or sane argument that can be made that Northampton County sought to harm the Democratic nominee for the Court of Common Pleas, and anyone saying so needs to be committed to an insane asylum. The whole thing was a colossal mess, and certainly ES&S deserves increased scrutiny here, but even insinuating they were trying to rig the election would be crazy- why didn’t they try to rig Lehigh County too (they produced those machines)? This is kind of just an insane thing to have to rebut. That there are Democrats saying this kind of stuff, given the narrow Democratic victories that they are casting doubt on, is absolutely insane.

The Cities are Way, Way, Way Left of Pennsylvania

Map credit to @4st8.

The joke I’ve made for months is that no Philadelphia city elected official could get elected in any of the surrounding suburban counties. That’s not looking like a joke anymore. Philadelphia’s strange at-large council system elects seven members of City Council, but limits the majority party (basically Democrats forever at this point) to five seats. As usual, the Democrats won all five seats. The two “minority party” seats were virtually conceded to Republicans in recent times, and David Oh and Al Taubenberger have filled them for a bit now. On Tuesday night that changed. The Working Families Party candidate, Kendra Brooks, defeated Taubenberger for the seventh and final at-large spot, and will be the first third party candidate in my memory to win Philadelphia. Taubenberger has long been considered semi-moderate, and it’s hard to imagine this would have happened even next door in a suburban county. It happened though.

In Allegheny County, longtime District Attorney Stephen Zappala beat back left-independent challenger Lisa Middleman by a solid, but not overwhelming margin. Zappala was nominated by both parties in May, and one may have presumed he would have won bigger than 57-43%. He won nearly every precinct in the suburban areas of Allegheny County, but still only won by 14%- because he lost nearly all of the City of Pittsburgh. Again, he had both nominations, so those city voters made it a point to *not* vote straight ticket, and it got closer because of that.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are substantially to the left of even their neighboring suburbs, which are the left-leaning parts of the state. The space between politics in the two major cities and even a place like Scranton is now substantial. Given the high number of raw votes in those cities, this could have huge impacts on future PA elections.

New Jersey Elections, as a Whole

This is going to be a lot shorter than my breakdown of Pennsylvania, because it’s a lot more cut-and-dry. Democrats in New Jersey lost two seats in the Assembly and one in the Senate, all in one legislative district in the far South of the state, where the Democratic Senator refused to rule out voting for Trump next year. This is as close to indicative of nothing as you can possibly come up with. South Jersey’s Democrats, lead by Senate President Steve Sweeney, have chosen to not go along with Governor Murphy and essentially create a three-party state. Their “third party” didn’t fair well in one of their own districts, which I guess you can try and read into it what you want, but i’m not even sure it means they’re wrong either. Democrats tried to win a few other Republican seats to add to their substantial majority around the state, and they didn’t succeed, which I guess you can blame on national factors and impeachment, but you still have to remember that they are *Republican* seats. Yes, Trump is popular in Republican seats, which is why they keep supporting him in Congress. There’s nothing all that shocking about any of this. Democrats ran out of room to grow.

Sometimes a majority outgrows what it can sustain. Democrats have probably done that in New Jersey. It’s definitely securely blue, and nothing really happened that should change your mind there. In the long run, one must hope that Governor Murphy and the South can get together ahead of 2021 and reconcile their differences, to avoid another embarrassing governor like Chris Christie, but that’s not for today. My point about New Jersey’s overall results is that they don’t tell you much of anything.

Phillipsburg

While their neighbors on the Pennsylvania side of the Lehigh Valley were voting out Republicans, Phillipsburg was voting them in. Todd Tersigni defeated Stephen Ellis, and will be the next Mayor of Phillipsburg in January, along with a staunchly Republican council. This comes on the heels of a tumultuous four years in which council clashed viciously with Ellis, and essentially set out to destroy him from the start. For Tersigni, who probably felt slighted at times when he was a Democrat, by the county and town Democratic committees, he found a home in the GOP and got the job he wanted. For Ellis, it’s got to be disappointing.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the state of Phillipsburg and it’s politics at this point, it’s bad. The town was dealt a bad hand when Ingersoll-Rand left town, and it has struggled to carve out an identity and direction since. That’s neither party locally’s fault, and one shouldn’t root against Phillipsburg either way. The politics though are terrible. People had “piss on Ellis” bumper stickers on their cars to show their displeasure, complete lies and innuendos were thrown around (I’d say possibly by both sides), and the race certainly got nastier in the closing days. Usually what goes around comes around, and I’m sure that will be the case for the new Republican government that takes office in January. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for anybody, but nobody is asking me either. Phillipsburg needs a few good years, but i’m not sure the politics there will ever quite allow it.

The politics in Phillipsburg are changing pretty rapidly though. Downtown Phillipsburg was the Democratic stronghold when I was a kid, and now that is dramatically changing. “Hillcrest,” a neighborhood on the north side of town used to be “Marge Roukema Republicans,” (North Jersey moderate ex-Republican Congresswoman) but are increasingly swing voters left out by the Trump coalition. This election didn’t really change any of that. Phillipsburg performed more like the rest of Warren County as a whole, which could be attributed to the power imbalance between the two parties in the county, but also could just be that most of the town is actually more like the rest of the county than their neighbors in Easton. It will be interesting to see how this all goes.

The Rest of the Country

To varying degrees, nothing that happened on Tuesday was all that shocking. Virginia’s legislature flipped blue in both houses, which is not shocking at all given that the state has pretty much been going blue from 2005 onward. Kentucky’s Governorship certainly did flip, despite Governor Bevin’s pathetic whining, but that’s also no shock. Andy Beshear is popular, and is the son of a popular Governor, and Bevin is the second least popular Governor in America. Beshear was also pretty careful to not contest the election on purely national themes. Mississippi was close, but the Democrat was a pro-life “Southern style” Democrat running against a somewhat weak Lt. Governor. The reality in all three states is that they ran on pretty mainstream messaging, not really ideologically in the image of Presidential front-runner Elizabeth Warren or Dem-Socialist darling AOC. We can say the Democratic Party over performed in these states, but do these candidates even remotely match up to what is likely to be the campaign in 2020? I’m skeptical.

That’s all i’ve got. Thanks to all of you who voted, and who read this kind of long piece.

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