VIEWING HARRISBURG: GOP hopes to keep power under new redistricting
HARRISBURG — For the past 3 1/2 years, Republicans have controlled all three power centers in Pennsylvania government — the governorship, both chambers of the Legislature and a majority of the seven-seat Supreme Court.
None of the justices is up for retention in November, but voters will be able to decide whether to return Gov. Tom Corbett and determine the makeup of the 253-member General Assembly.
Legislative elections are notoriously difficult to handicap since they involve dozens of separate competitive races, usually produce a surprise or two, and can be swept along by statewide or national electoral headwinds.
Both chambers are now in Republican hands, 111-92 and 27-23, and GOP leaders did what they could during the most recent redistricting process to keep them that way. The process ended up in state courts, and this will be the first general election under the new maps.
That was bad news for a few House Democrats who had to fight it out with a fellow incumbent in the primary and for one state senator whose district was moved from the Pittsburgh area across the state to the Poconos.
Now that the election is a little more than two months away, the legislative battlefield is starting to come into focus. Democrats hope they can thread the needle in the Senate and take control for the first time in 20 years. In the House, their hopes are more modest and amount to cutting into the solid Republican advantage.
Republicans want to hold what they have, and maybe pad their majorities.
As usual, many Pennsylvanians won’t really have a choice since nearly half the seats are held by incumbents who face no opponent — 51 Democrats and 52 Republicans in the House, and four of each party in the Senate.
In the Senate, where 25 of the 50 seats are up this cycle, there are six open seats — three Republican and three Democratic — while three Democrats and eight Republicans face challengers.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who leads Republican campaign efforts, said he doesn’t think there’s much chance his party will lose its majority status. He thinks they’ll even pick up a seat or two.
“We have nobody on red alert or even orange alert,” said Scarnati, adding he’s hoping for gains out west, where one Democratic senator has retired and another has been targeted by a special GOP fundraising effort.
A Senate Democratic campaign leader, Sen. Rob Teplitz, said his caucus is focusing on a Republican retirement in the Philadelphia suburbs and other GOP members in districts with large numbers of registered Democrats.
Corbett’s poor polling — the latest this week had him trailing Democratic nominee Tom Wolf by 25 points — also gives Teplitz cause for hope.
“It’s going to tighten, but whether it’s a 25-point lead or a 20(-point) lead or a 15-point lead, at the end of the day it’s a landslide victory,” Teplitz said.
If the Senate ends up tied and Wolf wins, that could create an interesting few months because Wolf’s running mate is Sen. Mike Stack, who presumably would resign from the Legislature. Lieutenant governors break Senate ties in certain instances.
In the House, where all 203 seats will go before the voters, retirements and primary defeats have created 23 open seats, which can present some of the best pick-up opportunities, and they skew slightly in favor of the Democrats, 14-9. Republicans also have more incumbent seats to defend, 46-31.
Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who coordinates campaign efforts for House Republicans, said the top-of-ticket story doesn’t necessarily translate to results further down the ballot.
“I think if you look at the past number of election cycles, the state House is one of the last levels where you get to know everybody who’s voting,” Reed said. “We feel very good with where we’re at.”
Democrats recently replaced two of their candidates in important House races. A Reading-area Republican will go up against the Democrat he beat four years ago, and Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, in the Philadelphia suburbs, now has a well-heeled challenger.
“We have our eye on probably 20 races,” said Rep. Tim Briggs, the House Democrats’ campaign strategist. “That’s some open seats, some rank-and-file, some leadership races. We think any of them could break our way.”
Among the House seats to watch include one in Huntingdon County, where Republican Rep. Mike Fleck is running as a Democrat against the man who beat him after Fleck disclosed he is gay; Rep. Rick Mirabito’s district in Williamsport, which has been a perennial Republican target; and an open seat in Lebanon County, where anti-pay-raise activist Russ Diamond has been attacked by fellow Republican Party figures.