The November election is less than two months away, but it was still summertime for Democrats gathered at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters in the city’s South Side in mid-September.
The event, a fundraiser for a liberal activist group, had a beach theme, with a “surf shop,” activists in beachwear, and oversized umbrellas.
The guests of honor were nine Democrats running in suburban state legislative districts – districts where Republicans have long held sway. And activists like Stacey Vernalis were optimistic about the political climate – even in places where Democrats have struggled.
“We have an opportunity in so many districts if we just literally knock on the doors, to turn them from red to blue,” she said. “The hardest thing in the past was finding people to run. And we’ve adopted a strategy of: challenge every seat.”
Democrats may or may not fulfill their hopes for a “blue wave” this November. But Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says there's already been a sea change.
At the top of the ballot, polls show Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey with comfortable leads over their Republican challengers. Conor Lamb, who won special Congressional election in the South Hills and environs this year, is also competing well against Keith Rothfus in a newly drawn district. But Putnam, who has been studying activism in the suburbs, says the real sign of change is the number of state legislative seats that are up for grabs.
“There are at least 10 different seats in this area that have been in Republican hands since 2010,” she said. In a typical year, only about half of those have had competitive races in November, she said. But, “All of them are being contested by Democrats this year.”
Putnam said interest in those races is being driven by a new crop of suburban activists, still reeling from President Donald Trump's election. Many of them had already been active within their communities, but after 2016, she said many suburbanites – mothers in particular – decided that, “I cannot give my children and grandchildren the future that I want, if all I’m doing is being on the parent school council, running the carpools. It is not enough to guarantee the world that I want my child to live in.”
Putnam said many activists shared concerns over the fundamental workings of democracy. One frequent issue of concern, for example, is how the boundaries of legislative districts were being drawn. And while many were new to political activism, she said, they often had a family history of union membership to draw on.
Activists haven’t lacked for opportunities to get involved. In Allegheny County alone, a half-dozen Republican incumbents chose to retire rather than run again this year. A sixth Republican, state Senator Randy Vulakovich, lost to a primary challenger, Jeremy Shaffer, in May. Democrats, meanwhile, are only defending one open seat: Joseph Markosek is retiring, with his son Brandon seeking to replace him.
Chris Borick, a longtime pollster at Muhlenberg College, said it’s not unusual to see a spike in retirements when a party is facing a tough re-election climate. And this year, those retirements are raising the stakes even higher in crucial swing districts.
“The rural areas have become increasingly conservative, urban areas are increasingly liberal and Democratic,” Borick said. “And suburban areas are where the battles are fought.”
Republicans like political consultant Mark Harris acknowledge the GOP faces a tough November.
Trump himself lost some precincts even in staunchly Republican suburbs like Upper St. Clair. Since then, Democrats have won a number of municipal and school board races, in places from Upper St. Clair to McCandless.
Among Democrats this year, Harris said, “There’s certainly a lot of excitement, as often happens with the party that’s out of power. Their voters are energized, and I think as the 18th special election showed, Republican voters are not.”
That’s the election in which Conor Lamb inspired Democrats, and beat Rick Saccone in a Republican-tilting Congressional district. Lamb won thanks to support from South Hills suburbs, by sometimes huge margins in communities like Mt. Lebanon.
Harris says that’s a red flag for the GOP, since no party can succeed statewide without such communities. But more far-flung suburbs are still friendly ground for Republicans, he said. And while Trump faltered in some areas, more conventional Republicans – like his client Senator Pat Toomey – performed strongly.
Democrats could let their own progressive excitement get the better of them, Harris warned, if they run too far to the left.
“It’s not like all the sudden the people of Upper St. Clair have decided that equal distribution of wealth is the best thing to do, right?”
Stacey Vernalis says suburban Democrats are campaigning on a “radical pragmatism,” rather than on hardline partisan issues. Lamb himself ran as a moderate and pragmatist, and candidates like Daniel Smith are following a similar playbook.
Smith is running against a hardline conservative, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, in a solidly Republican district centered in Cranberry, Butler County. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s focusing on local infrastructure needs and other bread-and-butter issues.
“Local issues are not partisan issues,” Smith told the partisans attending the South Side rally. “When we call EMS, they don’t look at our political registration, they come to our door.”
Observers like pollster Chris Borick, meanwhile, say Democrats shouldn't take their partisan fervor for granted.
“There is energy there, but that doesn’t always translate into voters turning out. Historically, Republicans have done a much better job in off-year mid-term elections. It’s a concern.”
And if Democrats aren’t concerned, he says, it could lead to a disastrous complacency on Election Day.