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The Pa. county that explains how Biden won big while other Democrats struggled


The cultural divisions are more readily evident than the political split. Just a mile up the road, on the eastern side of Route 100, a Whole Foods recently replaced a Kmart. Three miles west, along Route 30, sits a popular Cracker Barrel.

“That is pretty much where the divide of the red and the blue is,” said Ryan Costello, a former GOP congressman from this region.

Chester County voters supported Barack Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when Costello retired at the end of 2018, Chester County seemed to be marching toward solid blue status, with three straight elections resulting in blowouts against Republicans.

Sure enough, the county delivered big time this month for Biden, whose Delaware home is just 30 minutes down the road. Chester County provided Biden the largest percentage gain of any county in Pennsylvania. He won by nearly 54,000 votes, a victory of more than 17 percentage points in the onetime Republican stronghold.

Add the three other large suburban counties, and Philadelphia, and Biden emerged from Philadelphia’s “Big 5” with a vote margin of more than 765,000 votes over President Trump, larger than any Democratic presidential candidate this century, the anchor of an overall statewide victory of more than 80,000 votes.

State Attorney General Joshua Shapiro racked up similar margins across the region en route to a reelection victory that puts him at the top of Democratic wish lists for gubernatorial candidates in 2022.

But Shapiro’s margin in Chester County, 11 percentage points, trailed Biden’s. Two other Democratic candidates, for treasurer and auditor general, eked out single-digit margins in Chester County, a big reason that they lost their statewide races.

It has left Democrats wondering: Is Chester County truly becoming a Democratic bastion? Or are the suburb’s well-educated voters turned off by Trump but willing to support Republicans in other races?

The answer to that question is particularly important as Democrats consider the 2022 Senate race, where the incumbent, Patrick J. Toomey (R), has announced he’s retiring. Republicans have won that Senate seat every six years since 1968.

“If you want to win statewide, you have to win in places like Chester County. If you want to understand what’s happening countrywide, you have to understand places like Chester County,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) said in an interview outside the Capitol on Friday.

Fresh off another double-digit victory there, Houlahan is among those considering a run for the Senate in two years — just as Costello is considering coming out of retirement to run for the GOP nomination.

Both think the key to unlocking the state’s political future resides in their home county, although their moderate lean would make winning their respective party’s nomination a battle against more ideological wings.

For Costello, Republicans win statewide by being very competitive in Chester County and by winning back the estimated 30 percent of registered Republicans who voted for Biden in southeastern Pennsylvania, where just five counties represent more than a quarter of the entire state’s votes.

For Houlahan, the path to victory is appealing to Biden-supporting Republicans and independents while committing to the same values as liberal activists, to ring up the type of big margins that she and Biden received in her county.

“This is kind of a perfect little petri dish of almost exactly 40-40-20 in terms of the electorate,” Houlahan said, calling her constituents “genuinely purple people.”

The split in this county starts at the 30-and-100 intersection in Exton, with the municipalities to the east being more rooted in massive townhouse developments and workers commuting into the city and those to the west including more multi-acre, single-family homes.

Go west on Route 30 toward West Brandywine township, and it turns into Cracker Barrel country. In one precinct there, Biden, Shapiro and Houlahan all lost by about 17 percentage points.

Head east on Route 30, toward Tredyffrin, the easternmost corner of the county, closest to Philadelphia, it turns into Whole Foods country. There’s a Tredyffrin precinct where Biden rang up a margin of 37 percentage points, allowing him to carry the entire county by the largest margin in decades for a Democrat.

But state Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Democrat, won that precinct by only 27 percentage points, too small a margin to make up for the losses elsewhere.

In the previous three elections there, Democrats stomped Republicans across the county, winning the county commission majority for the first time and sweeping the “row offices,” as locals call them, the countywide offices such as district attorney. After a court-ordered redistricting condensed all of Chester County into Costello’s district, the GOP incumbent retired in 2018 rather than face Houlahan in the new Democratic-leaning district.

Now Costello thinks that the previous three years of politics just represented an anti-Trump primal scream by economically successful, well-educated voters.

“There was a group of voters that had to voice their displeasure with Trump, and the only way to do that was to vote against those Republicans,” he said.

In 2020, tens of thousands of Chester County voters expressed their opposition to Trump by voting for Biden, then voted for GOP candidates in other races. In fact, of the five Republicans running across all of Chester County, Trump received the fewest votes.

“Among Republicans, the behavior has not morphed into voting straight Democratic,” Costello said.

Ticket splitting became easier after the state legislature crafted a compromise early this year that allowed for widespread mail-in voting but eliminated the longtime practice of allowing voters to simply cast a straight Republican or straight Democratic ticket.

Houlahan believes that made it easier for those Republicans to move about the ballot and support GOP candidates down the ballot, while also leading to too many Democrats just checking the box for Biden and not voting down ballot.

Heading into 2022, Houlahan said, the party needs to realize that its nominee has to have a message that appeals to both sides of the Routes 30 and 100 interchange.

“I would hope that the nomination would go to somebody who would be that kind of person who’s pragmatic and who’s willing to have conversations with people that aren’t them,” she said.



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