Winning Pennsylvania

My Great-Grandfather came to this country almost 110 years ago. He left behind a wife and two sons in the Austria-Hungarian Empire for a chance at a better life. He landed at the Port of Baltimore, and quickly moved on with some compatriots – the first smart thing he did in the country – and went to Pittsburgh – the second smart thing he did – where he eventually found a job in Westmoreland County working in the coal mines. Well, not in the mines, for Great-Grandpa – the Old Kraut, as my father referred to him – was six foot six inches tall. In any case, he did well, well enough to be able to send for his wife and two young sons two years later. Those sons would work part of their young lives in the mines. It was the emigration path at the time. And whether it was the mines, or (later) Circle W Ranch, or U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh (and more generally Pennsylvania and the country as a whole) brought a chance for the immigrant of a good job, a future, an education for their kinds, and upward mobility.

And though I’ve been gone from there for almost two decades (save for return trips for reunions, funerals and the like), part of my heart still calls it home. And I still watch its politics intensely.
20121104-193703.jpgWhich is why the Romney move to gain traction in Pennsylvania – described by CAC over at Ace’s as “The White Whale” – is interesting to me. The last time a Republican won in Pennsylvania at the top of the Presidential ticket was in 1988. A friend from high school, a Dukakis supporter, made the newspaper the next day. A dejected, hang-dog look on his face. For a Republican, the look you want on those on the other side politically, friends or no.

After 1988, the tides of the state changed. Much of it came one afternoon, in April 1991, when a helicopter and a twin-engine Piper airplane collided above Lower Merion township. The Piper carried one of the commonwealth’s Senators, John Heinz. I recall his funeral, at Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus, quite well. Global dignitaries, and most of Congress were there. Secret Service agents talking into their raincoat sleeves every twenty or thirty feet around the perimeter.

Soon after, a special election was scheduled to fill the vacant seat. Governor Bob Casey, who would famously be rejected as a speaker at the following year’s Democratic National Convention, named Harris Wofford, an assistant to Sargent Shriver, to fill the seat. His opposition in the election would be the previous Governor, and Attorney General, Richard Thornburgh. Wofford’s campaign was directed by people those on the right came to know and dislike: Paul Begala and good ol’ Serpenthead himself, James Carville. Wofford ran a proto-Obama campaign, even promoting a Canadian single-payer health care plan.

On Election night I listened to returns come in. Wofford with an early lead from Philly and Pittsburgh, as expected. Then things tightened, with “the T” – the north corridor and center of the state, the part filled with “bitter clingers” – rolled in. All that was left were the collar counties of Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, counties that had gone Republican for years. They didn’t go Republican enough. Wofford won the seat, and Begala and Carville had a template they’d apply to a cipher of a Governor from a southern state a year later.

Skip forward three years. Wofford is defending his seat, and his votes with the Clinton economy, against a three-term congressman from western Pennsylvania by the name of Rick Santorum. Rick ran as a Republican. As a Conservative Republican.
Election night 1994, I was among a group of College Republicans watching the wave roll in at Richard Lugar’s Victory HQ. As the night went on, the propensity of the wave started to hit: Republicans were going to take the House for the first time in 40 years. And since I was from PA, everyone wanted my take on the Santorum-Wofford race. I explained what I wrote above. At 11 PM, it was clear that Wofford was dragging compared to three years earlier, barely up by one percent as the T came in. Left once again were the Philadelphia suburbs. This time, they showed up for Santorum. He would defend the Senate seat in 2000, before being swept out in a wave in 2006.

So that’s a lot of history. How does it apply today?

Well, Mitt Romney made a campaign appearance in the White Whale Sunday, in the center of the eternal headache: a farm in Bucks County, outside Philadelphia. And there were people there. Tens of thousands of people.20121104-222105.jpgEnthused voters. But will it mean anything come Tuesday? The polls, some of them, are tantalizing. Susquehanna has the race a draw, 47 percent each.

Can it happen?

It might. It won’t be the only shoe to drop if it does. Nor the first. I’d expect a call by 11 ET in Wisconsin or Ohio before in Pennsylvania. Any call for Romney in PA won’t come until 1 AM. If then.

Unless this is like 1988, or 1994, or 2010.

In which case pudding will be at the ready.

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