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How is This Guy Getting MAGA Support? 

A confluence of factors and unique political talents explains Governor Josh Shapiro’s astounding popularity in the polls — even among those with whom he disagrees

How is This Guy Getting MAGA Support? 

A confluence of factors and unique political talents explains Governor Josh Shapiro’s astounding popularity in the polls — even among those with whom he disagrees

There’s a political lesson afoot in Pennsylvania, if only national politicos would take notice. Here, there may be signs that we’re not quite as divided as we all think — if only Republicans would get beyond the extremists in their midst and Democrats who hate Trump would give up on hating his voters.

Let’s zero in on a specific and timely case study. With the Commonwealth’s budget deadline looming, did you notice the movement in the negotiating stance of state Republicans? Back in February, their response to Governor Josh Shapiro’s proposed $48 billion budget was one of classic austerity. The governor’s plan, Senate President Pro Tem Kim Ward said, “reflects an undisciplined strategy that lacks accountability … Shapiro’s spend plan is reckless in a ‘unicorns and rainbows’ way and would lead to significant tax increases for Pennsylvanians … Upfront, he wants to spend, spend, spend, spend. We have to pay for that.”

Ah, but just a couple of weeks ago, Senate Republicans got into the spending game, releasing a $3 billion tax cut plan with eight Democratic votes — a tacit admission that their austerity argument had fallen flat. Now we have a fair fight, folks. A historic $14 billion budget surplus looms, and the argument now is not over whether to spend it or not — but how. In one corner, a centrist Democrat is proposing $3 billion in supply-side investments in economic growth; in the other, Republicans are pushing for $3 billion in income tax cuts in a state that ranks 34th in economic growth and has an already low income tax rate compared to neighboring states.

So why the Republican switch? Well … politics. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the Republicans have moved from austerity to a debate on spending at a time when — astoundingly — polling shows Shapiro drawing support from 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s Trump voters and some 40 percent of independents?

“He’s never taken on water,” one political consultant told me.

Here’s where we get to the encouraging signs. At a time when national politics is characterized by the most lurid type of juvenile partisanship, PA Republicans deserve credit for coming to the problem-solving table and for eschewing their party’s all-culture-war-all-the-time ethos in the age of Trumpism. I’ve spent the last two weeks talking to political consultants, many who do work for state officeholders. And they all report that Shapiro’s popularity among MAGA voters in Trump-heavy districts is real and not just the product of a couple of outlier polls.

Republicans have moved on the budget while knowing that their proposal — despite its support from eight Democrats — is likely DOA in the House. But they needed to do something, because Shapiro seems to always be on offense, as he was this past Memorial Day Weekend, crisscrossing the state on his Great American Getaway RV Tour.

How does he do it?

How is this guy — a wonky, Jewish, Southeastern PA pol — cutting through the divide? It has to do with a confluence of factors, as well as the governor’s unique mix of political skills. Let’s roll through some bullet points.

It’s easier for governors. While public trust in the presidency and Supreme Court hovers at around 25 percent, and trust in Congress languishes at eight percent, most governors have an average approval rating of 50 percent. (Shapiro’s, I’m told, is as high as the low 60s in some recent polls.) Why? With some exceptions, (looking at you, Florida), culture war politics hasn’t swallowed the states; there, problem-solving generally gets rewarded over finger-pointing. Voters seem to reward governors who have no choice but to compromise with legislatures run by the opposition party.

In Kentucky, for example, it was better than anticipated support from rural, MAGA-dominated counties that fueled the reelection of Governor Andy Beshear, sending the Democrat back for more wrestling with his Republican House and Senate. Fact is, activists want revolutionary change, but voters? Not so much. That’s why Republican moderate (remember them?) Charlie Baker was so popular in lefty Massachusetts for so long: He offered the promise of incremental progress, safely counterbalancing a progressive legislature.

Here, Shapiro has no choice but to work with a Republican Senate and the slimmest of majorities in the House; he’s incapable of being held captive by the fringe demands of his own party. (It will be interesting to watch how Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer does now that her party controls all power in the state capitol for the first time in some 40 years.)

Shapiro shows up. As the recent RV tour demonstrates, Shapiro spends time in Trump-friendly counties. In 2022, he won Berks, Cumberland and Luzerne counties — which Trump carried in 2020 by 8, 10 and 14 percent, respectively. Shapiro’s message in those counties? Not that they were filled with “baskets of deplorables” or voters who “cling to guns and religion.” No, he treated those voters like they were dissatisfied customers of government service. Are there racists and anti-Semites in Trump counties? Of course. But Shapiro knew there were also primal scream voters — those who’d pulled the lever for a bomb thrower because they’d been left behind by a Democratic party increasingly being run by and for elites. Those were gettable votes.

What you know about Shapiro, you kinda like. Quick: Name one thing New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has done. Other than his wife trying and failing to be a U.S. Senator, does anything come to mind? That’s what I thought.

PA Governor Josh Shapiro (center, wearing a black shirt, jeans and glasses) and his team walk from the site of the I-95 collapse.
PA Governor Josh Shapiro (center, in black shirt) and his team at the site of the collapse. Photo by Commonwealth Media.

Shapiro, on the other hand? The average voter knows about the 12-day turnaround of I-95, in which he bent the bureaucracy to his will, and likely has heard the governor’s relentless “Get Shit Done” slogan. (Shapiro substitutes the much less effective “Stuff” for “Shit” depending on the setting.) Likewise, other acts may have broken through the noise: The first executive order, creating some 65,000 state jobs for those with high school degrees; the flexing of gubernatorial muscles when it came to all those highfalutin Ivy League administrators who couldn’t talk straight about campus anti-Semitism and unrest. At first blush, unlike John Fetterman, Shapiro doesn’t fit the caricature of populism, but his pragmatic straight talk makes him stand out among finger-to-the-wind pols — especially to those who have long been let down by establishment politics.

You haven’t heard much you don’t like. Remember, in his three statewide races (two for Attorney General, one for Governor), Shapiro has never had to overcome millions of dollars of negative ads about him. “He’s never taken on water,” one political consultant told me. That means that he’s been able to define himself, define his opponent, and define the stakes of every statewide election he’s been in. That’s gold in politics.

New thinking. Shapiro’s Get Shit Done mantra is populist code for an emerging school of thought among next gen Democrats: supply-side, or outcomes, progressivism. It’s finally a way to think about governing beyond the tired “tax and spend” and “austerity” debate. It got its start in the San Francisco housing wars in recent years, led by Philly expat activist Sonja Trauss, the driving force behind YIMBYism. Another Philly expat, California State Senator Scott Wiener, has passed some of the most supply-side-oriented housing legislation in the nation.

Polling shows Shapiro drawing support from 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s Trump voters and some 40 percent of independents.

In short, it’s a way of governing that doubles down on increasing the supply of essential goods and services like housing, healthcare and education — in order to make them more abundant and, thus, affordable. Shapiro’s budget — with its $1,000 tuition cap at state-owned colleges for families earning up to $70,000, and its $600 million for the first statewide economic development program in two decades — is a blueprint for inclusive economic growth. In that sense, depending on how these budget negotiations go, Shapiro just may join Colorado Governor Jared Polis as the progenitor of the movement. Polis — in his sixth year — recently reached common ground with Republicans on a historic mix of free college, tax cuts and property tax reform, and denser development.

Faith / values. Not so long ago in this swing state — once described by Democratic political consultant James Carville as “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between” — a Jewish governor was elected who had earlier in his life changed his name in order to avoid anti-Semitism. That was Governor Milton Shapp — who had, ironically enough, been born a Shapiro. Like Ed Rendell later, Shapp never ran away from his Jewishness. But Shapiro’s faith, so central to his identity, has become something of a political asset. His common declarations of it actually connect him to voters of all faiths. Moreover, despite Trump’s personal history of anti-Semitism, his voters tend to care about the future of Israel. As for values, as I’ve written, Shapiro’s reclaiming of freedom and patriotism on behalf of a new progressivism is becoming a model for Democratic office seekers throughout the nation.

A tough SOB. Shapiro has gotten much attention for his Obama-like oratory and his GSD mantra, but he’s also a seasoned practitioner of the inside game of politics. He might not seem like a bare-knuckled brawler when at the podium, but how else does a candidate navigate his way to no primary opposition in an open gubernatorial election, other than by the exquisite exercise of political power behind the scenes? It was, after all, unheard of: In 2022, in an open seat, no one was willing to challenge him. In retrospect, courageous stands tend to lose their patina of courage, so just consider the fights Shapiro has taken on: The Catholic Church as Attorney General, and, as governor, Pittsburgh-based UPMC and the University of Pennsylvania, two of his state’s largest employers.

His political enemies have included the corrupt Philly labor leader John Dougherty. Contrast all that to President Biden, who always seems to be trying to placate a different wing of his ever-fragile coalition. Shapiro is often flexing his political muscle and — thanks again to the deployment of his political capital — has brought progressives in line under him. Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato won her seat thanks to Shapiro’s endorsement, and he and progressive firebrand Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks have a mutual admiration society.

Lest this read like a love letter to the governor, let’s be clear: The jury is, of course, still out. It’s only two years into his administration and Shapiro still lacks a defining signature accomplishment — other than I-95. Some of us thought school vouchers in last year’s budget had the chance to reset the national alignment on education policy, but Democrats (to their peril) didn’t have the guts to go along with Shapiro and he didn’t force them to. It was a missed opportunity to expand the Democrats’ political map and to reward the party’s African American constituency, 70 percent of whom favor school choice.

But here’s the thing: Polis’ outcomes progressivism agenda in Colorado didn’t get through till this year, his sixth. Whether you agree with Shapiro’s policies or not, there’s no denying that, after eight years of a competent but decidedly caretaker governor, state government is on the move again. And the most encouraging part of that? To many independent and even MAGA voters, that is a feeling worth getting excited about.

MORE ON POLITICS FROM THE CITIZEN

Governor Josh Shapiro at PNC Field to unveil PA's new state tourism brand and summer travel marketing campaign. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Media.

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