HARRISBURG – The Republican Party is cutting into the Democrats’ long-held voter registration edge.

Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state by more than 900,000 in 2016 when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, an election decided by fewer than 50,000 votes.

Since then, the Democrats’ registration advantage has shrunk by more than 150,000 voters.

In 2016, there were 4.22 million registered Democrats in Pennsylvania and 3.3 million registered Republicans. As of Monday, there were 4.13 million registered Democrats in the state and 3.38 million Republicans.

The shift is reflected in historic changes in party membership numbers – with some blue-collar counties long considered Democratic strongholds now having a majority of voters belonging to the Republican Party. In 2016, Cambria, Carbon, Lawrence, Mercer and Westmoreland counties all had more Democrats than Republicans. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in all those counties.

On the other hand, Democrats have made gains in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 18,000 voters in Chester County in 2016. Now, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2,000 voters.

In Delaware County, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by fewer than 18,000 voters in 2016, but that advantage has increased to more than 44,000.

In Montgomery County, Democrats increased their edge in voter registration from 56,000 in 2016 to more than 88,000.

 “We’ve seen the state turned inside out, politically. Areas that had been solidly Republican have turned Democratic and areas that were strongly Democratic have turned Republican,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. “It’s a different state than it was 20 years ago.”

A chunk of the Republicans’ gains in voter registration have come as voters who’d nominally belonged to the Democratic Party but had been voting Republican, officially abandoned the Democratic Party in the years since President Donald Trump’s election.

“In some ways, it’s largely a certification of any already existing voting pattern,” Borick said.

Gale Measel, chairman of the Lawrence County Republican Party, said that voters in his area have gravitated toward the GOP because they feel like the Democratic Party hasn’t been focused on them.

“It’s not the same Democratic Party. It used to be the party of the hard-working union man,” he said, adding that ideologically the Democratic Party has become dominated by the “far left.”

Measel said he’s not sure how long it’s been since his county had more Republicans than Democrats, but it’s been at least since the 1970s.

In Lawrence County, 561 Democrats have switched to the Republican Party so far this year, according to state voter registration data. At the same time, 131 Republicans have joined the Democratic Party in Lawrence County.

Former Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason said that Democrats had outnumbered Republicans in Cambria County since at least World War II. He recalled that his father had served as the longtime county chairman, fighting an uphill battle in an area dominated by Democrats.

“Every once in a while, he’d be able to elect a Republican, but it was always a difficult thing,” Gleason said.

So far this year, 1,504 Democrats have joined the Republican Party in Cambria County. 

On the flip side, 192 Republicans have joined the Democratic Party in Cambria County so far in 2020.

In Mercer County, 736 Democrats have joined the Republican Party in 2020, while 184 Republicans have joined the Democratic Party.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, said that there is a sense in the community that the national Democratic Party has focused more on attracting urban and suburban voters and has been paying less attention toward appealing to rural and working class voters.

“I still think in more localized elections, Democrats who tailor their message geared toward working people and families can be successful,” he said.

Longietti said he also thinks that former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has been seeking to appeal to “reclaim the voice of the average working person.”

Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said that the losses in voter registration are largely due to voters shifting their official membership long after they’d already begun voting Republican.

The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat contributed to this article.

He added that while Democrats are losing ground in western Pennsylvania, they’ve made gains in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The Delaware County board of county commissioners has a Democratic majority for the first time since the Civil War, he said.

While the Republican Party’s gains have come from voters leaving the Democratic Party, the Democrats are doing better in terms of new voter registration.

Among new voters, twice as many have registered as Democrats since 2016 as Republicans – 414,000 have joined the Democrats, compared to 282,000 Republicans.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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