Pennsylvania legislative campaign season on brink of kickoff
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The abrupt announcement by the speaker of the Pennsylvania House this week that he would not run for another term in the Legislature made him the 15th state representative to head for the exits.
Candidates can begin to circulate nominating petitions Tuesday to get on the April 28 primary ballot, so retirement announcements by Speaker Mike Turzai and others are helping clear the way for newcomers who hope voters will send them to Harrisburg.
All 203 seats in the House and half the 50-member Senate go before the electorate this year. Democrats hope an aggressive push can propel them out of the minority in both chambers, while Republicans are counting on favorable national political winds and the decent-size margins they now enjoy to maintain all-important majority control.
Counting vacancies for the party that has held them most recently, the House is currently 110-93, meaning Democrats would need a net pickup of nine seats to control the agenda for the coming session, when lawmakers will vote on new congressional districts.
While most House districts are considered to be at little risk of switching from one party to the next, there are some notable exceptions, including Turzai’s upscale suburbs north of Pittsburgh.
He beat Democrat Emily Skopov in 2018 by 9 percentage points, but wider voting trends are making that area more Democratic, and Skopov is running again, now without the disadvantage of facing an incumbent opponent.
That district has “a lot of middle-class, upper-middle-class, college-educated women,” said Rep. Leanne Krueger, of Delaware County, who heads up the House Democrats’ campaign effort. “Those are the exact voters who don’t want to vote Republican in the wake of 2016.”
Republicans say their House targeting includes more than a dozen seats that Donald Trump won in 2016 but that are held by Democrats, including some that Trump won by 25 points or more.
“When you have people who were for (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders in the primary who turned around and voted for Trump in the general, they’re not voting for ideology,” said Rep. Jesse Topper of Fulton County, a leader in Republican legislative campaign strategy. “They’re voting based on who’s going to go in and turn over the tables.”
The Senate, where no retirements have been announced, has 28 Republican seats, one independent who is caucusing with the GOP, and 21 Democrats. There are 15 Republican and 10 Democratic seats among the 25 districts that will be voted on this year.
In the House, Republican strategists see flippable seats opening up through retirement in Schuylkill County (Rep. Neal Goodman) and Allegheny County (Reps. Harry Readshaw and Bill Kortz). Democrats are optimistic about vacancies opening up in the Philadelphia suburbs (Rep. Tom Murt of Montgomery County and Rep. Steve Barrar of Delaware County) and in the Lehigh Valley (Rep. Justin Simmons of Lehigh and Rep. Marcia Hahn of Northampton County).
Democrats also believe they have an opportunity during a March special election to fill the swing-district seat opened by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo’s November election to the Bucks County Board of Commissioners.
Other notable retirements this year include Rep. Marcy Toepel, of Montgomery County, who serves in Republican House leadership as caucus chairwoman; Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, chair of the busy State Government Committee; and Rep. Tom Caltigirone, D-Berks, a 22-termer who last year became the longest-serving House member in state history.
With no open seats in the Senate, Democrats’ hopes for recapturing control depend on ousting incumbents. Their top targets are Sen. Tom Killion of Delaware County and Sen. Dan Laughlin of Erie, both seeking reelection in swing districts.
To get to 25-25, giving Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman a tie-breaking vote, Democrats would need to avoid losing seats such as Sens. Pam Iovino and Jim Brewster, of Allegheny County, and pick up two more, perhaps hoping for upsets in the longtime GOP stronghold of central Pennsylvania — Sen. Mike Regan, of York County, Sen. John DiSanto, of Dauphin, or Sen. Scott Martin, of Lancaster.
With Pennsylvania in the presidential campaign crosshairs, strategists expect spending from outside the state on legislative races by those who hope it might help at the top of the ballot.
“The resources have to go where there’s an opportunity to pick up, to make gains,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. “That’s what people are supporting, that’s what people are making contributions to, to change the majority.”
House candidates need 300 valid signatures and Senate candidates 500 to make the spring ballot. The deadline to file petitions is Feb. 18.