Pennsylvania Society 2016: Keystone State GOPers revel in the year of Trump

Dems who aren’t going “are licking their wounds” — Tom Wolf’s at a soup kitchen instead.

Crowds mingle before the 2015 Pennsylvania Society dinner.

Crowds mingle before the 2015 Pennsylvania Society dinner.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Things can change a lot in a year, even for a high-society event that has featured the same steak dinner since 1899.

In 2015, everybody — everybody who showed up, anyway — was fixated on Donald Trump’s controversial appearance at the Pennsylvania Society, with many politicians calling for the PA GOP to refuse to let him speak. This year, they’ll all have to deal with him again but in a much different way: He’s now the president-elect.

Pennsylvania Republicans have reaped still more power over the last month, more than the power of majorities in the state House and Senate. For Democrats, it’s been just the opposite, and the shifted political landscape will certainly color the Pennsylvania Society, the annual three-day New York soiree of parties, fundraisers and dinners for Keystone State politicians that begins today.  

What happens election-wise always sort of casts a certain vibe on the event,” said Larry Ceisler, longtime political strategist and principal of Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy. “I know Democrats who are not coming this year and I think part of it is that they are licking their wounds.”    

Plenty of key Democrats will still be at Pennsylvania Society, of course, and nobody knows for sure who’s going to show up until the festivities begin tonight and continue through the weekend. But Gov. Tom Wolf has already said he will not attend. Instead, he’s volunteering at a soup kitchen and sponsoring the Pattison-Leader Ball here in Philadelphia.     

This will be the second year in a row the Pennsylvania Society lacks the governor after Wolf and many Democratic and Republican state lawmakers skipped the 2015 event because they had yet to pass the budget. They missed three days of parties and events most agreed were not as lively as in years past — and Trump.

The Commonwealth Club invited The Donald to speak at their annual luncheon at the Plaza Hotel (yes, the same place where Trump bumps into Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone 2”). Twenty minutes into his speech, four people from the group Jews For Racial and Economic Justice who had tickets to the luncheon began reciting the famous quote that ends with “Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” Protesters also made it to the floor of the Plaza Hotel outside the room in which Trump spoke. They were roughed up by security on their way out.

Now Trump is president, and Republican power has not only been consolidated nationally through the presidential election but around the state. Pat Toomey defeated Katie McGinty in a close, expensive Senate race. The Republicans gained three Congress seats to bring their US House total to 13 of Pennsylvania’s 19. The Republican majority in the state House is as strong as it’s been since the 1950s.

At Pennsylvania Society, politicians often use dinners, luncheons and happy hours to build a foundation for runs for higher office and this year many of these events are headlined by Republicans. They include State Sen. Jake Corman, Congressman Charlie Dent, State Sen. Scott Wagner and Pat Meehan. Wagner has declared his intent to run for Governor in 2018, and insiders told City & State PA Meehan is considering a run for Senate against Democrat Bob Casey in 2018.

But even with partisanship at an all-time high, Pennsylvania Society has always been known to produce a relaxed atmosphere where Dems and Republicans can escape the grind of Harrisburg and Washington and get along for a couple of days. And as the parties commence in New York, expect much of the talk when the two sides get together to center on life under Trump.

I’m sure when Republicans are talking among themselves and Democrats are talking to Republicans the topic is basically going to be the same,” Ceisler said. “Like, ‘how did this happen?’”

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Larry Ceisler