PHILADELPHIA — When Josh Shapiro took the oath of office Tuesday on a trio of Bibles, he didn’t just become the leader of Pennsylvania government.
He also cemented his status as a national figure who many expect to become a future candidate for president.
Shapiro took office after a dominant political performance last year that saw him clear the Democratic primary field and then romp to general election victory in a tightly divided swing state. He’s now the political leader in what’s arguably the country’s premier battleground, having racked up electoral support from the left, the middle and even some Republicans.
As Democrats search for their next generation of leaders, Shapiro now has an enviable platform.
“He’s going to be a national figure because obviously Pennsylvania is a battleground state, he won a decisive victory and carried in the ticket from Senate all the way down to the state House,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic public affairs strategist from Philadelphia, and Shapiro supporter. “You’ve got to admit, the Democratic Party right now does not have too many prominent leaders under the age of 50.”
Shapiro is 49, and just about anyone who has seen his relentless climb expects he has even bigger goals ahead. If all goes as his most fervent backers hope, he could be the country’s first Jewish president.
“People understand his ambition. He’s a politician who’s moved through various levels of government and representation,” said Berwood Yost, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College. “The circumstances of his election this year really speak out to some level of political skill that could qualify him, at least get him to the Major Leagues.”
There are many Democrats already lining up in Washington, and other statehouses, to become potential heirs to President Joe Biden, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and any number of senators.
But governors hold a different kind of appeal. Unlike cabinet members or senators, they can set agendas themselves. They can present themselves as outsiders to Washington, and point to work that’s often closer to voters’ everyday lives.
Shapiro built significant political credibility by winning a blowout victory in a purple state that’s critical to presidential races. While he was helped by a politically weak opponent who ran a far-right campaign and struggled to raise money, Shapiro ran a relentless, well-funded race that showed strength across the board, from blue cities to red rural areas.
Shapiro’s ability to avoid any Democratic challenges in the primary, Yost said, also speaks to political might.
“We know there were plenty of people with aspirations to run for an open seat, and he was able to keep that field clear,” Yost said. “That speaks to a set of skills and relationships that we shouldn’t discount.”
Shapiro’s inaugural speech reflected the strengths that drove his success, and nods to pragmatism. He emphasized top Democratic concerns, but he also pointed toward the wider electorate, and parts of Pennsylvania that might not naturally support a tried-and-true Democrat from liberal Montgomery County.
He talked about the diversity of his cabinet and staff; about funding schools, fighting racism and poverty; and the importance of clean air and water. He told of the grandmother who urged him not to let abortion rights slip, and warned about “the fragility of our democracy.”
But Shapiro knows he’s governing a diverse state. The grandmother he quoted was from rural Lawrence County. He emphasized ideas that unify voters across the commonwealth. “From God’s Country to Gettysburg, I heard you when you said you want good schools for our kids, safe communities, and an economy that gives people a shot and lifts them up,” he said in his inaugural address.
Shapiro specifically spoke to the people who didn’t vote for him, promising to “be a governor for all Pennsylvanians,” signaling an effort toward unity in a divided state that often mirrors a divided country.
And the former attorney general made several prominent references to law enforcement. Among his guests were the wives of Martin Mack and Brandon Sisca, two state troopers who were killed in the line of duty. When Shapiro listed off the “freedoms” he intends to protect he added that “real freedom” also “comes when we invest in public safety.”
Shapiro, and his team, have recoiled from talk about wider ambitions, especially as he just begins a four-year term he only won in November.
“I want to be governor,” he told The Inquirer in October. “I’m not running for anything else.”
And the governor’s job comes with pitfalls. Shapiro could lose some his luster if he’s dragged into a Harrisburg political snarl, if he struggles to deliver on his promises, or if a recession plunges the economy downward (something a governor has relatively little influence over). Republicans argue that Shapiro has never faced a real serious opponent, and could be exposed as more eyes turn to his work.
Ceisler, studiously avoiding the word “president,” said Shapiro will make his mark best by being a strong steward and salesman for Pennsylvania.
“Good government is good politics and it’s as simple as that,” he said. “If he does good things for the residents of the commonwealth and Pennsylvania becomes a state that other states look to as an example of best practices, everything else takes care of itself.”
Few expect Shapiro could run for president in 2024, arguing that’s too soon. But if Biden runs for reelection (as is increasingly expected), the Democratic nomination would be open in 2028, when Shapiro would, all going well for him, be into his second term as governor.
If in that time he can deliver bipartisan accomplishments, while working with a fractious Legislature, it will only further boost his claim to being the answer when Democrats wonder: “Who’s next?”