Republicans poised to maintain their control of Legislature
Democrats will put their recent statewide election winning streak on the line Nov. 8, but have a tough fight to chip into Republican domination of the Legislature that illustrates why Pennsylvania is known as a swing state.
Despite trailing by about a million votes in party registration and having lost the governorship two years ago, Republicans hold solid margins of 31-19 in the Senate and 119-84 in the House.
Those majorities, wide even by historical standards, mean party control is unlikely to change this year.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could well end up with another two years of working with a General Assembly that has a political and fiscal agenda much different than his own.
As is usually the case, about half the state’s incumbent lawmakers have no opponents and will return when the two-year session starts back up in January. That’s true for 13 of the 25 Senate seats that are up this year, and for 82 members of the 203-district House.
The General Assembly session that began along with Wolf’s inauguration in January 2015 was dominated by a budget stalemate between the governor and the Republican majorities that dragged on for well over a year, although the process this summer was far more orderly and nearly made the July 1 fiscal year deadline.
Lawmakers and Wolf were able to loosen the state’s system of wine sales but could not reach agreement on changes to the large public-sector pension plans, a process that ended without votes in either chamber just a few days ago. They were also able to enact a new formula to distribution public education money, and increased the state’s share of those costs.
Many Republicans would also point to their success in largely beating back Wolf’s tax increase proposals, a stand that has left government on a shaky fiscal footing but spared taxpayers what could have been a sizable hit to the wallet.
Four senators are retiring this year: Republicans Pat Vance, of Cumberland County, and Lloyd Smucker, of Lancaster County, along with Democrats John Wozniak, of Cambria County and Shirley Kitchen, of Philadelphia. Wozniak’s seat in the Johnstown area is demographically the most competitive, as western Pennsylvania has gradually been voting more and more Republican.
Republicans have sunk millions in trying to extend their margin, and see strong support in Wozniak’s district for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“It’s hands-down Trump, and that’s having a huge effect on voter turnout and the ticket there,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, a top campaign strategist.
Sixteen House members are hanging it up, including Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, whose departure opens up the much coveted chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Democratic Reps. Mark Cohen, of Philadelphia, and Pete Daley II, of Washington County, among the General Assembly’s longest-serving members, are both retiring.
Three incumbents are running for Congress rather than seek re-election to Harrisburg: Democratic Reps. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia and Steve Santarsiero of Bucks County, and Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster. Rep. Mike Regan, R-York, is pursuing Vance’s Senate spot, while Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, is running for attorney general. If Rafferty wins, his vacancy would presumably be filled next year by special election.
Rep. Lynwood Savage and Rep. Tonyelle Cook-Artis, both Philadelphia Democrats, are about the wrap up very brief stints in Harrisburg. They both prevailed in March special elections but followed their wins by losing primaries the very next month. The woman who beat Savage, Morgan Cephas, is unopposed. There’s a contested race this fall for Cook-Artis’ district, and for the seat held by Rep. Frank Farina, D-Lackawanna, who also lost in the primary.
Hotly contested races for president and U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania will undoubtedly have implications for the legislative races, with Democrats seeing Hillary Clinton’s campaign driving up their numbers around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Republicans predicting that Trump’s support in western Pennsylvania, the Scranton area and rural regions will bode well for their statehouse candidates.
In the southeast, Republicans have to defend open seats in potential swing districts being vacated by Adolph, Rep. Mike Vereb of Montgomery County and Rep. Chris Ross of Chester County. Republicans like their hopes in western Pennsylvania districts opening up because of the retirements of Daley and Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Westmoreland.
Rep. Nick Kotik, a moderate Democrat from Allegheny County, says it’s been tough being on the losing side of so many battles. He is retiring after 14 years.
“The majority party just votes you down, day after day, week after week, month after month,” Kotik said. “And it’s not likely to change, not for the foreseeable future.”
Four incumbents, all Democrats, are seeking reelection despite facing criminal charges or having been convicted, and three of them are unopposed: Sen. Larry Farnese and Reps. Vanessa Lowery Brown and Leslie Acosta, all from Philadelphia. The fourth lawmaker, Rep. Marc Gergely, of Allegheny County, faces trial in December on allegations he helped run an illegal video gambling operation.
Farnese awaits trial on federal mail and wire fraud charges for allegedly using campaign money to bribe a Democratic Party ward committeewoman in Philadelphia by paying for her daughter’s college costs. Brown is charged with bribery and other offenses for allegedly taking cash from a man posing as a lobbyist, and not reporting it as campaign donations or gifts. Acosta secretly pleaded guilty earlier this year to a federal felony charge that she helped a member of a politically connected family embezzle money from a health clinic.