© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

The Other Election Result Giving Democrats Hope for November

While a local Pennsylvania candidate focused on local issues, national Democrats are looking to this small race as a sign for Biden’s reelection chances in the swing district.

Jim Prokopiak, Democratic nominee for a Bucks County special election
For some Democrats, Jim Prokopiak’s dominant success on Tuesday is about more than just his own victory. Matt Rourke/AP

President Joe Biden was not on the ballot in Tuesday’s special election for a seat in Pennsylvania’s state House of Representatives. But Democrat Jim Prokopiak’s victory in the perennial bellwether suburban Bucks County is injecting new optimism into his party for Biden’s chances of being reelected in November.

Bucks County was central to Biden’s 2020 victory in Pennsylvania, winning it by four points as he carried the state by just over one. And for Biden to win reelection, it’s almost certain he’ll need to win Pennsylvania, and Bucks along with it. Democrats knew they had something to prove on Tuesday: The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee pushed $50,000 into the race two weeks before election day, helping deliver Prokopiak a dominant win of over 30 points.

“Pennsylvania is a key state that President Biden will need to win reelection,” DLCC President Heather Williams said on a press call ahead of the election. “We know that building momentum at this level of the ballot will help build margins to deliver the victory needed in this battleground state.”

Williams said having a special election in February provided a “critical check on the mood of suburban voters,” and serves as a “data point” for how Democrats are faring there for the rest of the year.

“The stakes of Tuesday’s election truly couldn’t be any higher,” she said.

Prokopiak won with about 68% of the vote against Republican candidate Candace Cabanas, a difference of more than 3,000 votes.

But while national Democrats are framing the victory as a sign of hope for Biden in Bucks, it does come with some caveats. Bucks County overall was a +4 Biden district in 2020, but the 140th District, located in the lower part of the county, swings more blue, at Biden +10.

Despite the safer environment, Democrats’ campaign strategy around the special election does give a preview for what to expect in battleground states in November, including a heavy focus on abortion access. So far that’s been a winning message for the DLCC, not only in the last five House special elections in 2023 in Pennsylvania alone, but in races determining state legislatures across the country.

But Prokopiak pushed back against the abortion emphasis, brushing it aside in favor of “kitchen-table issues” in the working-class area.

“The first priority is really making sure that they have a roof over their head, and they can pay their bills, that they can take care of their families,” Prokopiak said. “The social issues are important, but taking care of their families comes first.”

Sign up for daily updates from NOTUS.

Despite the Biden-friendly electorate in this section of Bucks County, there’s still a considerable number of voters who are happy to vote for both parties on the same ballot. They’ve voted to elect two Republicans to Congress, first Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick and then his brother, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

“Democrats have shown that they’re willing to ticket split, and they do on a regular basis,” Prokopiak said ahead of election day. “It’s not that they just come out and vote for any Democrat, because the data shows otherwise.”

Ultimately, Cabanas couldn’t replicate Fitzpatrick’s years of success in the county, which Prokopiak pinpointed to “local roots” that stretch back decades. Cabanas moved from Lancaster to Bucks in 2019.

State strategists who spoke to NOTUS said it wouldn’t be uncommon to see someone in the district vote for Prokopiak in the special election, then turn around and vote for Fitzpatrick and even Trump in November.

Prokopiak stuck to local issues and local roots — as Abhi Rahman, DLCC communications director, noted, “he’s the little league coach.” But for Democrats trying to replicate the overperformance in Bucks at a higher level, there’s another broader takeaway: Former President Donald Trump still brings out votes for Democrats.

The DLCC and Prokopiak campaign targeted Cabanas as a “MAGA Republican,” despite her own efforts to distance herself from Trump. “People are making a decision to vote for Democrats because they are afraid of just the MAGA extremism that’s going on on the other side,” Rahman said.

“Bucks County is like the perfect suburban county, like if you were to think of the suburbs, you think of Bucks. And the fact that we won this big a margin should strike fear in every Republican across the country,” he said.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.