Pennsylvania: The Ultimate Swing State


The sign as you enter the Keystone State via the Pennsylvania Turnpike or any of the interstates such as 80, 81, 83, 84 or 95 has read many things.

  • “Pennsylvania: Pursue Your Happiness.”

  • “The State of Independence.”

  • “Pennsylvania Memories Last a Lifetime.”

  • “America Starts Here.”

  • “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.”

I offer an addition to the Office of Tourism: “Pennsylvania: The Ultimate Swing State.”


Keystone State politics is a different beast. For the longest time, Pennsylvania would change the party in control of its governor’s mansion after every two terms. In fact, party control switched seven times since 1971 – Milton Shapp, Dick Thornburgh, Robert Casey, Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell, and Tom Corbett. Back and forth, Democrat and Republican. Tom Wolf broke the string by defeating Corbett in 2016 and we will see if that is an outlier in November.


The Gubernatorial Race:

Popular Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro, former commissioner of the third-largest county in the Commonwealth (Montgomery), easily won the Democratic nomination without opposition and has amassed a war chest of nearly $16 million entering the fall. The Republicans nominated state senator Doug Mastriano, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, who has been a staunch supporter of former president Donald Trump and openly claims that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president. Mastriano, whom some consider a Christian Nationalist, even helped organize and transport protesters to the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.


The Shapiro campaign actually ran an ad on TV that seemingly encouraged Republicans to vote for Mastriano by attaching him to Trump. To many political observers, this was a sign that Shapiro wanted to run against Mastriano in the general. If that is the case, they should be careful what they wish for.


In 2015, the Hillary Clinton campaign was discussing ways to bolster the campaigns of GOP candidates other than Jeb Bush, feeling that he was the most dangerous of opponents. The campaign pushed Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Trump as challengers to Bush. Back then, the political consensus was that Trump’s prospects were laughable, and we all know the rest of the story.


That is an important lesson moving forward for the Shapiro campaign. As with Trump, Mastriano supporters are committed and enthusiastic voters. Late polls showed he could receive between 35-40 percent support in the primary, but surpassed expectations by pulling in nearly 44 percent. Not a plurality, but certainly more than what was expected in a nine-candidate field.


The Shapiro v. Mastriano showdown provides distinctive positions for voters to choose from. Whether it’s abortion rights, gun control measures, fracking … you name it, they probably disagree. But as in 2016, many voters in Pennsylvania feel as though their voice is not being heard in Harrisburg. Mastriano talks about “walking as a free people” and making sure that the government never shuts down again as it did during the COVID years of 2020 and 2021. He has a populist appeal that cannot be overlooked.


With the swipe of a pen, Mastriano could rewrite abortion law in the Commonwealth. With the mandate from the voters, he could appoint a Secretary of State who supports “The Big Lie” and calls for election reform in Pennsylvania.


The Senate Race:

Overshadowing the governor’s race has been one of the most expensive Senate primaries in the country between Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick. Many in the Commonwealth feel that Oz and McCormick took one of the state’s more recent slogans – “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania” – a little too seriously.


Oz, the celebrity doctor, keeps residences in New Jersey and California and only recently listed his address as his mother-in-law’s in Montgomery County. McCormick, who grew up in Bloomsburg in the central portion of the state, has spent the better part of the last decade living in Connecticut, running one of the nation’s largest hedge funds. The phrase used by the other candidates for the GOP Senate nomination in Pennsylvania – “carpetbaggers.”


Both are vying for the seat held by retiring U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, who has drawn the enmity of Trump by voting to convict him in the second impeachment hearing. The two frontrunners – along with their other three opponents in the primary field – have spent over $60 million in the primary alone, saturating the Pennsylvania airwaves with ads from the campaigns or their PACs.


How many ads? For example, in one 60-minute period from 6-7 AM, I was subjected to 27 ads while taking in the local morning news.


As of mid-April, Oz was the favorite in polls, right around the time he received the endorsement of Trump. Even with Trump injecting himself into the race, McCormick continued to hold ground while talking about his team of former Trumpers while burnishing his America First credentials. Both withstood the rise and leveling off of Kathy Barnette to end up within 0.07 percent of each other in the vote total – a grand total of 902 votes to be exact.


According to the Pennsylvania Election Code, any statewide race within 0.5 percentage points triggers an automatic recount, which was declared by acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman on Wednesday. The recount must begin no later than June 1 and must be completed by June 7. Results are sent to the Department of State and a decision will be announced on June 8.


At least, that’s what is supposed to happen on paper. The McCormick campaign has gone to Commonwealth Court to ask for the counting of so-called “undated” ballots. These mail-in ballots were received by counties without a written date on the outer envelope as indicated by directions. Although the instructions read that the outer envelope holding the secrecy envelope holding the ballot must be dated and signed, there does not appear to be a penalty for not “signing” the envelope.


As a former Director of Elections for York (Pa.) County, I can attest to the fact that we received many mail-in envelopes without dates or signatures. After time-stamping the envelopes as they were received – as our office did with all mail – these envelopes were reviewed and segregated into different categories. Those with no signature, those with no date, and those who listed their birthdate, rather than the completion date.


The McCormick camp states that the absence of a date should not disqualify a vote from being counted. The Oz camp, which has the backing of the state and national GOP, insists that the rules disqualify these ballots from being counted.


While the GOP waits for the outcome of the recount, the Democrats nominated current Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman as its candidate to oppose either Oz or McCormick in November.


Fetterman does not look like your traditional candidate. He stands 6-foot-8 (or higher), prefers a hooded sweatshirt and shorts to a three-piece suit, and has tattoos on his arm that reflect shooting deaths that occurred during his time as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. He is an unabashed progressive who also learned how to shoot from an early age. He is a pro-choice, pro-marijuana candidate who rails against economic inequality, even though he grew up as the son of an insurance executive who put him through Harvard.


If Fetterman wins the general, he will join Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat who has been in the Senate since 2006. The last time Pennsylvania had two duly elected Democrats in the U.S. Senate takes one back to 1945 when Joseph F. Guffey and Francis J. Myers. Republican Edward Martin replaced Guffey in 1947, starting a political drought for Democrats.


Pennsylvania could defy history this election cycle. Josh Shapiro could buck history and become the first Democrat since 1959 to succeed a term-limited Democrat in the governor’s mansion. John Fetterman might break a 75-year skein without two Democrats representing the Keystone State in the Senate. The outcome of Pennsylvania might determine who holds the majority in the U.S. Senate.


Is Pennsylvania the ultimate swing state? The moniker will be put to the test, but as we say, “Pennsylvania Memories Last a Lifetime.”


Steve Ulrich

Ulrich currently serves as the Managing Editor at PoliticsPA, the most comprehensive resource for observers of the Pennsylvania political scene. It intended to be a one-stop shop for political junkies in every part of the state.

Ulrich served as Director of Elections in York (Pa.) County from 2020-21 after working as the Executive Director of the Centennial Conference, a NCAA Division III athletic conference comprising 11 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, since the league’s founding in 1993. He has also worked in athletic communications at McDaniel College and Cornell and Yale Universities.

A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, he is married with two children.


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