When Pennsylvania voters go to the polls Tuesday, the whole country will be watching.
The stakes in the state’s races for governor, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House are reflected by the sheer political firepower that swept through the state Saturday. President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama, and former President Donald Trump all arrived to rally their supporters, and try to shape the outcome.
Democrats are warning that abortion rights, voting laws, and the future of fair, honest elections are at stake across the country, and particularly in Pennsylvania, the fifth most populous state and potentially the most pivotal 2024 presidential battleground. The Senate race could decide control of the chamber.
“Truth and facts and logic and reason and basic decency are on the ballot,” Obama told a crowd of thousands at Temple University on Saturday. “Democracy itself is on the ballot. The stakes are high.”
Republicans generally haven’t laid out such sweeping worries. But they say their concerns — about the cost of living and crime — are ones that voters live with and feel every day. This is the public’s first formal chance to weigh in on the Biden presidency, as inflation and the economy consistently outpace other issues as the top concern in public opinion polls.
Trump told supporters in Latrobe on Saturday night, “If you want to stop the destruction of our country and save the American dream, then this Tuesday you must vote Republican in a giant red wave.”
The national attention is by now familiar for Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t make the moment any less tense. In 2016, 2018, and 2020, the Keystone State was also at the center of the country’s thrumming political turbulence. Mirroring the nation, it swung toward Trump, then back toward Democrats, and is again teetering in the balance.
The state’s balanced mix of liberal, moderate, and conservative voters, who stretch from East Coast cityscapes and suburbs to Appalachia, rural farmland, the edge of the Midwest, and the Mason-Dixon Line, makes it a bellwether for the national mood, and voters’ shifting preferences. This year is no different.
“We are a really, I think, a reflection, I think better than anybody else, of where the country is and where the country is going,” said State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race is perhaps the most consequential single election in the country. The contest between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano could determine the course of abortion and voting rights in the state. The GOP is likely to retain hold of the state legislature, potentially leaving the governor to decide on signing, or vetoing, new restrictions on both.
Mastriano has called for a total ban on abortion and has been a leading denier of the 2020 presidential election results, at times spreading false conspiracies. Shapiro, as attorney general, resisted attempts to overturn the lawful outcome and has vowed to block new abortion restrictions.
The winner of the governor’s race will appoint the secretary of state who will oversee voting in the 2024 presidential race, when Pennsylvania — with Florida moving steadily rightward — could be the swing state with the most Electoral College votes in play.
Trump’s rally Saturday is a glaring reminder of those stakes, after he tried to overturn Pennsylvania’s results in 2020, and as he appears poised to launch another presidential campaign as soon as this month. As usual, his rally Saturday included a litany of false claims about the 2020 election.
It’s also the first national vote since the Supreme Court wiped away constitutional protections for abortion rights, and the first since the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.
The state’s U.S. Senate campaign represents Democrats’ best opportunity to gain a seat in the evenly divided chamber. With control of the Senate would come the power to shape legislation and confirm or reject judges nominated by Biden, including any to the Supreme Court, should a surprise opening arise.
Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz have been locked in a neck-and-neck Senate race where hundreds of millions of dollars of spending has shown how critical the contest is to both parties.
The contest has taken on even more importance as signs have grown that Republicans are likely to win the House, potentially leaving the Senate as the battleground over whether the GOP will have complete control in Congress.
Several competitive House races in the state, including the one covering Scranton, Biden’s hometown, could decide the margins in the U.S. House, and reflect the national mood.
The results Tuesday could also set a road map for both parties ahead of the 2024 presidential campaign — showing what messages and approaches worked, or didn’t, in key parts of the state.
“For Pennsylvania, it’s all on the line,” said Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, of Chester County. “When you think about a woman’s right for reproductive freedom, it’s on the line in Pennsylvania. When you think about democracy, it’s on the line Pennsylvania, it’s on the line in the nation’s capital.”
Other recent Pennsylvania elections have also been laden with similar weight. Yet at a Fetterman rally last month in Philadelphia, Sam Gorelich, 34, said Trump’s victory has made him feel each successive race is more important than the last.
“The stakes are heightened after 2016 every single time,” said Gorelich, a teacher who lives in South Philadelphia.
Republican voters have consistently pointed to their frustration with higher prices, crime, and illegal immigration.
“Practical, daily challenges,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. Pointing to the administration’s spending, he said: “The Biden administration and Democratic policies have contributed massively to these problems.”
”I’m a senior citizen on a fixed income,” said Shawn Young, 66, of Mount Joy, as she entered a Lancaster County rally for Oz on Wednesday. “It affects me every time I walk out the door, every time I go to the mailbox,” and pick up new bills.
At the same bucolic venue, Michelle Gargano, 57, worried about her daughter’s safety in Philadelphia, and said her pet-grooming business was straining under the weight of inflation. A gallon of shampoo, she said, costs $83 now, up from $42, and new blades cost around $40, up from $22. Customers have less to spend and are leaving smaller tips.
“We need a change,” Gargano said. “This country in the last 18 months has gone down a dark hole.”
She added, “This is one of the most passionate elections I have faced in my lifetime.”
Some Republicans at the event wouldn’t give their names — fearing “cancellation” if they spoke publicly about conservative beliefs. Others raised unfounded fears about officials with “black bags” taking away votes or Democrats “finding” additional votes in Philadelphia.
When Oz spoke that night, inflation was the main topic, but the biggest cheers, and most emotional reaction, came when he talked about crime and border security.
“The federal government has an obligation and a covenant to secure our borders,” he said, drawing loud applause and whistles.
Democrats acknowledge that they also need to address the pain of inflation and worries about the economy. There are “two tracks to the election,” said Houlahan, noting that her TV ads have focused on kitchen-table issues like inflation and family leave.
But some Democrats say they’re more concerned about democracy than their own wallets.
“Gas prices, food prices, inflation are all absolutely real issues,” said Sandy D’Amico, 58, a township supervisor from Upper Uwchlan, in Chester County. “But there are no thriving economies in autocratic societies.”
Along with the massive policy stakes, Pennsylvania also has drawn attention for the outsize figures on the ballot.
Mastriano, a state senator from Franklin County has become a national emblem of how election conspiracists have risen to prominence within the GOP. He has taken far-right positions on abortion and has used transgender people as a punchline while he, his wife, and his allies have jabbed both subtly, and explicitly, at Shapiro’s Jewish faith.
On the opposite side of the ballot, Shapiro is a rising and ambitious figure, whom some admirers project as a future presidential candidate.
The Senate race features a former daytime TV host, Oz, against a political celebrity, Fetterman, the tattooed and hoodied figure who has been featured in Rolling Stone and a Levi’s ad campaign.
If Fetterman wins, he could be one of the more unorthodox senators in the staid chamber’s recent memory. Oz has Trump’s endorsement and his victory — or loss — could reflect on the former president’s lasting influence.
With so much at stake, Linda Golding, 67, left Jim Thorpe on a recent October morning and drove 90 minutes to attend a Fetterman rally and knock on doors in South Philadelphia.
“I just feel like this is a life-or-death election,” she said.
Staff writers Sean Collins Walsh and William Bender contributed to this article.