Pennsylvania politics in 2022: Rise of the youth, courts are a force, and election nonsense

Pennsylvania politics in 2022: Rise of the youth, courts are a force, and election nonsense

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

The holidays! That blessed season when political journalists, who put off family obligations for months, scramble to attend to long-neglected obligations at home. Thus the emergence of one of our most cherished holiday traditions: the year-in-review piece, which allows us to recycle content we amassed while loved ones were … ummmm… graduating from high school? Dying? Getting married? There was some sort of excitement around the May primary, anyway.

While we figure that out, here are three of the big trends that shaped 2022 — and what they may mean for the year to come.

Out with the old, in with the new

Consider this. Allegheny County’s Austin Davis, who was elected to be lieutenant governor this fall, could serve two full terms in the post and still be just 41 years old. Most people’s lives end when they become LG: His may be just beginning.

And younger faces won races up and down the ballot. Josh Shapiro ain’t even 50 yet, and he replaces 72-year-old Tom Wolf. Summer Lee will replace Mike Doyle — who is nearly twice her age — in Congress. John Fetterman is a hoary 53 but still younger than the senator he replaces, Pat Toomey. (And it’s not just a Democratic phenomenon: Congressman Guy Reschenthaler isn’t even 40 yet, but he is making a steady climb through Republican ranks to become deputy whip in the House.)

What does that mean? Some politicos worry it will mean a western Pennsylvania delegation with less power and less success bringing home federal grants in the seniority-driven environments found in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. It definitely means a more diverse crop of leaders, and one that may prove more willing to call out the status quo.

Whatever the case, the trend is likely to continue this year in Allegheny County, with competitive elections in the offing for county executive, county controller, and district attorney. You can expect a retirement or two in Pittsburgh City Council, and a new city controller, too.

The courts as a political force

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion was arguably the biggest single issue of the 2022 campaign. All evidence suggests the decision reversed what easily could have been an election disaster for Democrats.

More broadly, scrutiny of the court is likely to grow as experts see a trend toward an “imperial court” in which the judiciary arrogates more power to itself. Looking at lower substrates of government, though, judges sometimes assume new prominence because of dysfunction in other branches. Right now, for instance, the Pennsylvania House needs court intervention just to schedule elections to replace its own members.

Next year, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a novel legal theory — the independent state legislative doctrine — that gives state legislatures more power to redraw congressional districts without court intervention. That’s been an issue for the Pennsylvania GOP ever since the state Supreme Court demanded new Congressional district maps late in the last decade. That ended a period in which Republicans enjoyed lopsided congressional representation in an evenly divided state.

We’ll also see next year whether Republicans pursue state constitutional amendments on issues that include voting rights, executive power and abortion. We often talk about these amendments as an effort to bypass the governor, who can’t veto the proposals before they go to voters. But amendments can also constrain courts by rewriting the Constitution they interpret.

Not to mention the fact that voters will pick a replacement for late Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer, whose death left the state’s top court with just six members. Interest in such races has traditionally been low, but 2022 shows the stakes are high.

Pennsylvania is done with election nonsense. Is the nonsense done with us?

Pennsylvania’s near-total repudiation of Republican extremism was the most obvious story of the year. The GOP lost the marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate with a pair of candidates, state Sen. Doug Mastriano and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who won the backing of Donald Trump but seemed embarrassed to be seen together. Perhaps for good reason, given that the closer of the two races — Fetterman’s defeat of Oz — was still decided by a comfortable 5 percentage points.

Republicans fared little better down-ballot, losing races that a year ago seemed eminently winnable — such as Jeremy’s Shaffer defeat at the hands of Chris Deluzio in the race to replace Conor Lamb — and losing a clear majority in the state House.

Exit polls suggest that voters had concerns about whether democracy itself was at risk. Hostility toward Trump seems to have been more common among voters than support for him. And a decisive majority said they trust Shapiro with their elections more than Mastriano, who has been an active participant in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

What does this mean for 2023? While 2020-vintage election denialism may become less fashionable, the GOP is already talking about ramping up efforts to establish voter ID rules through constitutional amendment. That may prove a more palatable approach.

Even Mastriano may have moved on. He’s already taken to tweeting sketchy polls that predict him defeating Bob Casey two years from now. Which means that whatever else happens in the years ahead, for Democrats, Christmas 2024 may be coming early.