By: Brent Sailhamer, Director of Government Affairs
For months, Democrats have been positioning the 2017 “off-year” elections as an early referendum on the Trump administration and in three closely-watched states – Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey – the strategy seemed to have worked, at least for the time being.
In one of the most hotly contested races of 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam faced off against Republican Ed Gillespie, who had maintained a policy-based message and abruptly changed to a more bombastic, Trump-esque style just weeks before the election. While polling showed the race as a dead heat going into Election Day, vote totals quickly showed that the result would be anything but. Northam trounced Gillespie by a 54%-45% margin, carrying with him a wave of Democrats in the House of Delegates. Going into Election Day, Republicans solidly controlled Virginia’s House by a 66-34 margin, but lost 16 seats yesterday to bring the body to a 50-50 tie.
In New Jersey, Democrats ousted every shred of the Christie administration when first-time candidate Phil Murphy defeated sitting Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, affirming polling showing dismal popularity for sitting Gov. Chris Christie.
While Democrats also showed strong gains in Pennsylvania, efforts were far more sporadic. At the top of the judicial ticket, Justice Sallie Mundy, who had been appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf to fill a vacancy, won a full ten-year term, defeating Judge Dwayne Woodruff, who entered the race with high name ID. Despite a win at the top of the ticket, Republicans failed to carry through on downballot races.
Of the four open seats on Pennsylvania’s Superior Court, Democrats won three seats with Maria McLaughlin, Carolyn Nichols, and Deb Kunselman. Judge Mary Murray, a Magisterial District Judge from Allegheny County, was the lone Republican to secure a spot on the Superior Court.
The parties split the two open seats on Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, with Democrat Ellen Ceisler and Republican Christine Fizzano Cannon each winning.
In other races throughout the Commonwealth, attorney John Persinger gained national attention when he closed the gap of a 3:1 Democratic registration margin in Erie in his bid for Mayor. Despite losing to Democrat Joe Schember by a 53%-47% margin, Persinger made a strong populist appeal to working-class Erie citizens, showing a potential breakthrough for Republicans in the future. History was also made in Delaware County, where Democrats gained two seats on the County Council and won all three row offices. This marks the first time that Democrats have held a row office in Delaware County, despite a growing registration advantage in that county. And in one of the most hotly contested races in southcentral Pennsylvania, Democrats picked up four seats on the Manheim Township School Board, showing significant traction in Lancaster City suburbs. Manheim Township has shown to be an emerging progressive hotbed and considerably narrowed the 2016 race for the 16th Congressional district, which was won by Rep. Lloyd Smucker.
While Democrats point to many of these victories as a portent of Republican demise in the 2018 midterm elections, many elections had little similarity or connection to Trump, making it difficult to predict any momentum going into next year. In 2018, Pennsylvania will see major Democratic efforts to re-elect Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S Senator Bob Casey, as well as pick up a number of moderate Republican Congressional seats in southeast Pennsylvania.