by Athan Koutsiouroumbas
This past midterm, Pennsylvania state Senate Republicans managed to meet electoral expectations while the remainder of the commonwealth’s GOP suffered stunning losses – many of them unanticipated. Why?
The story begins 99 weeks before Election Day, when state Senate Republicans elected Kim Ward as the legislative chamber’s majority leader.
Much has been written about Ward’s diminutive physical stature and the Westmoreland County native’s proclivity for saying exactly what is on her mind. What has not been written about the former certified respiratory therapist is her exceptional leadership ability.
Weeks after she assumed the majority leader position, the state’s Redistricting Commission released its plans to redraw legislative districts. The once-in-a-decade constitutional process quickly became Ward’s focus.
From the outset, Ward faced two redistricting challenges. First, rumors from Washington indicated that actual Census data would not be available until the end of 2021, due to the pandemic. This meant that mapmakers would have only weeks, not months, to draw legislative lines. Second, Ward knew that Republicans did not hold the majority on the Redistricting Commission. This meant that the Democratic appointees would have final say on the legislative districts.
To address the unavailability of data, Ward tasked a savvy attorney named Carlton Logue to lead a “war room” to build legislative districts based on preliminary data and past election results. Ward took it upon herself to understand the makeup of communities across the state, in some cases visiting them, to develop a proposal consistent with prior state Supreme Court rulings.
Ward knew that she needed a strategy to persuade Democratic appointees to accept her version of legislative maps. While most mapmakers saw the results of the 2020 presidential election as a guide for a precinct’s level of partisanship, Ward shrewdly built her maps on the results of down-ballot races going back decades. She understood that the 2020 election results, pitting Donald Trump against Joe Biden, were not a reliable indication of a precinct’s partisan leanings.
Making their judgments based on the 2020 results, the Democratic appointees accepted Ward’s proposals nearly unchanged. But by focusing on down-ballot results, Ward knew she had positioned the state Senate Republican Caucus for a potential decade of electoral success.
As the Redistricting Commission rounded into its final stretch, Ward was thrown a curveball headed into the midterm year. The Senate pro tempore, Republican Jake Corman, announced that he intended to run for governor.
The Senate pro tempore and majority leader traditionally work together on candidate recruitment and fundraising. By default, with his gubernatorial run, Corman would leverage the power and prestige of the pro tempore office to raise money for a statewide campaign, as opposed to state Senate elections, as was the chamber’s tradition.
Ward persevered, however. She turned her attention first to candidate recruitment, finding electable candidates for nearly every state Senate seat on the ballot. These were strong candidates – including a female Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot and a fire chief with a Wharton degree – with track records of serving their communities. Ward’s Democratic counterparts were forced to spend campaign funds protecting incumbents and challenging for open seats, instead of targeting Republican incumbents.
Next, Ward zeroed in on fundraising. Left without a traditional fundraising partner, she changed the fundraising model by building a team that included state senators Joe Pittman, Scott Martin, Ryan Aument, and Kristen Philips Hill. The team raised double the amount of money their predecessors had generated in the prior election cycle. In fact, Ward and her team eclipsed the all-time Senate Republican fundraising record, set during the 2016 election cycle, by nearly 30%. Their prolific fundraising ensured that all of Ward’s candidates had a fair chance at victory.
With a full slate of candidates and the requisite funds to be competitive, Ward made tough decisions at the right times. In races where candidates were not gaining ground by late summer, she fired consultants and staff – nearly unheard-of actions in Republican politics. In races where candidates had not gained sufficient traction by the time mail-in ballots hit mailboxes, Ward shifted resources to more competitive races.
On a tactical level, Ward insisted that campaigns direct messaging to all voters. With the political parties continuing their realignment and top-of-ticket concerns potentially affecting down-ballot races, she wanted no stone left unturned. Her moves kept Democratic candidates and operatives guessing.
Taken together, these efforts explain why Pennsylvania state Senate Republicans bucked the disappointing trend this past midterm by maintaining a sizable majority in the chamber. At a time when Pennsylvania Republicans desperately need direction, Kim Ward delivered a master class in leadership and teamwork.
As a reward for her efforts, Ward’s colleagues unanimously promoted her to the Senate pro tempore position. She is now the most powerful elected woman in Pennsylvania. And she is unquestionably the commonwealth’s most powerful Republican.
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Athan Koutsiouroumbas is a managing director at Long Nyquist and Associates and a former congressional chief of staff. Follow him on Twitter at @Athan_K.
Photo “Kim Ward” by Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus. CC BY 3.0. Background Photo “Pennsylvania Capitol” by Bestbudbrian. CC BY-SA 3.0.