By Michael Rubinkam and Peter Jackson
The bold blue that Barack Obama painted across Pennsylvania two years ago is barely dry as victorious Republicans prepare to apply a fresh coat of red.
The GOP scored a clean sweep Tuesday, winning a hotly contested U.S. Senate race, picking up five congressional seats, and reclaiming the governor’s mansion and the state House from Democrats in their biggest electoral victory since 1994.
“We’re back,” crowed a jubilant Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman Rob Gleason, who personally recruited many of the winning candidates. “They had our epitaph written two years ago, after (President Barack) Obama crushed us. Now Pennsylvania’s a red state.”
State Republicans spoke with one voice, blaming Democratic economic policies for a sputtering economy and high unemployment, an effective campaign message that resulted in what one defeated Democrat called a “wave election” that few incumbents could withstand.
It’s unclear what effect the shift in partisan power will have on the average Pennsylvanian, but Democrats cautioned Republicans against overreaching.
“You’re only as good as your last election. The Republicans have won a victory, but they need not and ought not get too full of themselves,” said T.J. Rooney, a former state Democratic chairman who now works as a consultant. “It was just two years ago when we won resounding victories. This electorate is in a state of flux.”
Still, it was an impressive night for a Republican Party that was left reeling two years ago when Democrats built a 1.2 million-voter registration edge in Pennsylvania and Obama carried the state by more than 10 percentage points over Republican nominee John McCain.
This time, voters turned their wrath on the Democrats.
“The national mood is being reflected in Pennsylvania,” said Tom Baldino, a political scientist at Wilkes University.
In the governor’s race, Republican Tom Corbett, the state attorney general who shook up the Pennsylvania Capitol with his prosecution of corruption in the Legislature, sailed past Democratic opponent Dan Onorato.
In the Senate race, voters chose Pat Toomey, the conservative whose popularity chased Arlen Specter from the GOP, over Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. The 48-year-old former congressman, investment banker and restaurateur hammered Sestak over his liberal voting record and his ties to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Republicans won almost every U.S. House seat they set their sights on, reclaiming the majority they lost in 2006.
Their victims included 26-year incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski, who finally fell to Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta after beating the Republican twice before; two-term Rep. Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress; and freshman Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie, who cast a politically suicidal vote for the health care overhaul in a district that went for GOP presidential candidate John McCain two years ago.
In all, Republicans won 12 U.S. House seats, and Democrats won seven, an exact reversal of the partisan makeup heading into the election.
In the state House, Republicans reclaimed the all-important majority status for the first time in four years by ousting Democratic floor leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, and flipping at least a dozen other seats.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said Corbett’s victory and the simultaneous GOP takeover of the state House, matching an existing Republican majority in the Senate, recalls the election of Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and a new GOP state House majority during the party’s 1994 national sweep.
The test of Corbett’s leadership, he said, will be in how well he follows through on his campaign promise to offset a projected $5 billion budget shortfall without raising state taxes or fees, “whether he really has the moxie and the stomach to do what (Gov. Chris) Christie did in New Jersey.”
Christie campaigned for Corbett in his race against Onorato, the little-known Democratic elected executive of Allegheny County.
In his victory speech, Corbett spoke of the need for bipartisanship.
“I understand with this election that I am the governor of all Pennsylvania, not Republicans, not Democrats, but all Pennsylvania,” he said.
Madonna said this year’s contest was the third consecutive “wave election,” in which national trends drive results in state and local races. He said the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and Obama’s election as president in 2008 fell in the same category.
Now resurgent Republicans are poised to dominate Pennsylvania politics, at least for the next two years.
“The Republicans are going to be put to the test,” Rooney said.