Election Day is so close that we can almost smell it, and with it will put an end to four years of punditry and speculation. As campaigns have gone into the final stretch of the election cycle, I’ve been closely watching the battle for highly competitive state legislative chambers in my series “Let the States Decide”. In this installment, I’ll be writing about the eighth and final state on my list: Pennsylvania.
Both of the chambers in Pennsylvania are expected to be competitive to an extent. The State Senate should go to Republicans, but Democrats have a clear, albeit longshot, path to victory. Elections Daily staff member Joe Szymanski wrote about this back in May, and not much has changed since. The State House, on the other hand, is a nail-biter, and Democrats have a good chance of flipping it.
Philly suburbs are the battleground…again
In 2018, when Democrats swept many races across the nation. In Pennsylvania, they flipped 13 State House seats, all in the Philadelphia metro area. Republicans currently have a 109-93 majority, with one vacant, Republican-leaning seat. Therefore Democrats need to net nine seats to win the chamber, and the path to victory once again lies in the Delaware Valley.
Like last week’s article, I’ll be breaking down the targets geographically.
Likely flip in the coalmines
The 123rd district in Schuylkill County is one of the most fascinating state legislative districts in the country. For years it has been Democratic-leaning. However, in 2016 it swung almost 40 points, from Obama+4.9 to Trump+33.3. 2018 proved that Democratic support in the district wasn’t completely gone, however, as Governor Tom Wolf won the district.
After over a decade of running unopposed, incumbent Democrat Neal Goodman is retiring. Democrats have typically performed very well down-ballot here, but Goodman’s retirement will probably cause this seat to finally flip. Democrat PJ Symons aligns with Republicans on issues such as abortion, guns, and property taxes, so he may be a good enough fit to hold the seat. But barring such an awakening of ancestral Democrats, Tim Twardzik will flip the seat to Republicans.
Longtime incumbent Democrats in the rural West
Aside from Schuylkill County, Democrats have typically outperformed the top of the ticket in other rural, ancestrally Democratic areas. Crossover support can be fickle however, as shown by 2016 and 2018, where Republicans flipped six such seats. Now three of these Democrats remain, and they are top Republican targets.
In ancestrally Democratic Cambria County, Republicans flipped one seat in 2018. Now, they’re targeting the other. The 72nd district, which Trump won by a staggering 43.9 points, came close to flipping in 2018. Democrat Frank Burns has held the seat for twelve years and is looking to hold on amidst a possible Republican surge. His support has faded in recent elections and he now faces Republican Howard Terndrup. Burns leads in fundraising, but the race will ultimately come down to whether partisanship overcomes historical support.
The 55th district takes in more exurban areas in Westmoreland County, which is just outside the Pittsburgh area. While this area has been Republican-leaning for years, Democrat Joe Petrarca has represented the district since 1995. He hasn’t faced a competitive election in decades and even ran unopposed in 2018. But this year he faces Republican Jason Silvis, and Petrarca’s support will be tested for the first time since the western Pennsylvania realignment.
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the state is the Greene County-based 50th district. This area, like Cambria County, is ancestrally Democratic but has consistently swung towards Republicans. This is more of a longshot than other seats mentioned. Incumbent Pam Snyder has amassed lots of cash and won her last race by double digits. She still faces the prospect of a unified Republican base, but she should win re-election relatively easily.
Brian Fitzpatrick isn’t the only perennial Republican ticket-splitter in Bucks County. Republicans have held a majority in the county’s delegation for years, and even flipped a seat in 2018. But this year, Democrats have a few opportunities to pick up seats.
One target is the 18th district in Bensalem just outside Philadelphia. Freshman Republican K.C. Tomlinson is running for re-election against Howie Hayes, whom she beat by double-digits in a low-turnout special election earlier this year. While partisanship and fundraising favor Hayes, Tomlinson has prioritized healthcare and paid family leave, which may play well in the suburban district. Hayes will have to count on presidential turnout, which will be far different from special election turnout, to carry him to victory.
The other target is the 144th district in the northern part of the state. Todd Polinchok won the open seat in 2018 by a narrow margin of 2 points against Meredith Buck. This year he faces Warrington small business owner Gary Spillane in a Trump+5.4 district. Polinchok has passed legislation funding the district and hopes to use that to help his re-election. Spillane is outraising Polinchok, but Polinchok’s incumbency and connection to the district make him a narrow favorite.
A couple more seats are within shooting distance for Democrats. The 29th and 178th districts, represented by Megan Schroeder and Wendi Thomas, respectively, are both in the central part of the county, and both went to Donald Trump by mid-single digits. The 178th flipped to Democrats in a May 2018 special election before flipping back very quickly in November. The seats have both moved heavily to the left relatively to the state in recent years, which may help respective challengers Marlene Katz and Ann Marie Mitchell.
Montgomery County presents some of the best Democratic targets in the state. Possibly the most likely district to flip in the state is the 152nd district. Longtime Republican incumbent Tom Murt, who has typically won the district by large margins despite partisanship, is retiring. Now this Clinton+12.9 district is looking like a gimme for Democrats. Everything is going the way of Democrat Nancy Guenst, and Republicans seem to have given up on their candidate.
Another seat which Democrats are targeting is the 151st district, just due northwest of the 152nd. The two districts are very similar to each other in terms of partisanship, with the 151st at Clinton+14.0. The 151st has an incumbent running for re-election in Todd Stephens. Stephens faced a close re-election bid in 2018, and this year his election is expected to be similarly close. He faces Democratic challenger Jonathan Kassa, who is running as an outsider to make change in Harrisburg. Stephens leads in fundraising, and has taken moderate positions on issues such as gun violence. But because of partisanship and turnout, his re-election bid may fall short. Absent any unexpected overperformance, the race is a tossup.
Delaware and Chester Counties
Similarly to Montgomery County, Democrats are targeting one open seat and one held by a Republican incumbent in this region. Democrats swung these two counties drastically in 2016, and have made big gains in the State House.
The open seat is the 160th district, which crosses the border between the two counties. Incumbent Stephen Barrar, who has represented the district since 1997, faced his closest race in years in 2018 and decided to retire rather than face another competitive election. Running in his place on the Republican side is Craig Williams, a Marine veteran and former prosecutor who ran for Congress in 2008. While he may be a decent recruit, he lags in fundraising and faces Anton Andrew, who came close to unseating Barrar in 2018. Andrew is a slight favorite to flip this Clinton+2.0 seat.
The only Republican running for re-election in Delaware County is Chris Quinn of the 168th district. Quinn won re-election very narrowly in 2018, and faces a very similar situation to Todd Stephens in Montgomery County. The district is Clinton+6.7, and Quinn will need to stress his independent record so that partisanship won’t overcome his chances. The Democrat running here is Deb Ciamacca, a teacher who is focusing on making change in the State Capitol. Ciamacca leads in fundraising, which may help her in what I expect to be a close race.
South central Pennsylvania will decide who has control of the State Senate in 2021, but will also play a key role in the State House. One competitive district in the Harrisburg area has a vulnerable Republican incumbent, this being the 105th in central Dauphin County. It is fairly Republican-leaning at Trump+7.9, but it came close as an open seat in 2018. Andrew Lewis won by just 512 votes and this year he’s looking like he’s up in a similarly competitive race. While Lewis is young himself, his opponent Brittney Rodas is even younger herself at just 25 years old. Rodas is seen as a good fit for the working-class district and presents herself as a problem solver. She has done well to catch up with Lewis’s strong fundraising numbers but still falls behind. To flip the chamber, this may be a good place for Democrats to find that path.
The second-biggest county in the state is Democratic-leaning as a whole, but the outer areas typically lean Republican. In the northwestern part of the county there are three seats in particular that Democrats may wish to target. All of them are light red and have swung toward them in recent years.
The best target for Democrats is the vacant 28th district. This was held until June held by Speaker Mike Turzai, who left to take a job in the private sector. While his resignation is having repercussions across the state, they are felt most heavily at home. The district is highly-educated and was won by Trump by 9.2 points. In 2018 the district was won by Democrats Tom Wolf, Bob Casey and Conor Lamb, and Turzai was brought down to a surprisingly close margin. His 2018 opponent, Emily Skopov, is running again, and many consider her a strong candidate. Skopov is running on an economic moderate message of job growth and balancing the budget. Turzai’s multi-million-dollar campaign is funnelling money to his hand-picked candidate, Rob Mercuri, in order to help Republicans hold the seat. The race is a tossup, and it will be between Turzai’s legacy and a strong Democrat.
The other two competitive districts in the county are the 30th and 44th, and border Turzai’s district on either side. Both districts have a Democratic registration advantage and both were narrowly won in 2018 by Republicans to open-seat races. Respective incumbents Lori Mizgorski and Valerie Gaydos are running for re-election. Their performances this year will largely depend on upballot performance by Democrats, but for now, they both seem slightly favored to win re-election.
A Scandal in Western Pennsylvania
Aaron Bernstine, the representative of the 10th district in Beaver and Lawrence Counties, was once considered a rising star. He defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2016 by double-digits and was poised to win re-election easily. Then some videos emerged (warning: offensive language and acts) in which Bernstine made his 5-year-old son smoke a cigar, as well as engaging in disrespectful dialogue with him and other young children. Subsequently, leaders from both parties called on Bernstine to resign. While he hasn’t resigned, these developments will be certain to hurt his chances at re-election. His district, while solidly Republican-leaning, still has a Democratic registration advantage. This incident may turn off ancestral Democrats and swing voters to Bernstine, which may hand victory to Democrat Kolbe Cole.
Path to Victory
Pennsylvania is one of the most closely watched states in the country. While we expect it to go blue on the presidential level, flipping the House will be a tougher challenge. In my opinion their most realistic path to victory will be to flip the following seats:
10, 18, 28, 105, 144, 151, 152, 160, and 168.
Unlike every other installment, I’m not providing a list of most to least likely to flip. This is because each part of the state is so different from the next, and it’s easy to see one area showing good results for one party, and another area showing the opposite. For Democrats to win every single one of these seats, it will take an impressive co-ordinated effort. This is why I believe Republicans are still favored to keep control.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives: What’s at Stake
Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has been in office since he was elected in 2014, and since then has been in contention with a fully Republican controlled General Assembly. Flipping both chambers to Democrats is very unlikely, although flipping the State House would give Democrats a lot more power in passing laws. Every seat that Democrats may gain in either chamber would put Tom Wolf and his party in a better position to pass laws related to the state budget, education and voting rights.
Well… that’s a wrap. In the two months since I started writing this series, I’ve covered eight states and ten legislative chambers. It’s been a huge privilege to write this up and provide you with the information you need going into tomorrow’s election. I’m planning on writing a review installment after the election that will go over what happened, how good or bad my predictions were, and what the consequences will be.
Thanks to Ben Forstate for the maps. Ben is a great resource on Pennsylvania politics, so be sure to check him out. Thanks as usual to Ballotpedia and CNalysis for providing useful information throughout my time of writing this series. And very special thanks to the readers. See you on the other side.