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The Caucus

Who's Safe? Who's Not? Breaking down the 2020 Pennsylvania House and Senate contests

Caucus election story butting heads

By the time 6 million Pennsylvania voters get their chance to vote in the November election, Republicans in Harrisburg will have been the primary gatekeepers of new state laws for an entire decade. Their chances at holding onto power for another 10 years could very well be decided that same day.

Every legislator in the 203-member state House and half of the 50 senators are on the ballot this year. The party that wins power will determine not just how much of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s agenda gets done in his final two years in office, but also how state legislative and congressional districts are redrawn in the 2021 redistricting process. And that party will have tremendous sway in the decade of elections that follow.

Republicans are intent on defending their majorities in both chambers. Democrats are aiming to flip nine House seats and steal the majority; they’re gunning for at least four seats in the Senate just to tie.

All told, there are 228 legislative seats up for election in November.

The reality is, though, that few of those races are competitive. Five out of six districts are either solidly Republican or Democratic, according to a Caucus analysis.

The battle for control of the Legislature will come down to only about three dozen districts where there are narrow voter registration margins; no incumbent running; changing voting trends; and strong candidates, party resources and outside help, according to the Caucus analysis and interviews with party officials, elected officials, activists and analysts.

Fewer of those are considered top-tier battlegrounds. Only three Republican-held Senate seats — in southeastern, central and northwestern Pennsylvania — are seriously in play for Democrats. About a dozen House seats fall in that category.

There are many unknown factors at play in these races. The strength of candidates. Fundraising. Voter turnout in a highly volatile presidential election year that features a deeply unpopular incumbent. The impact of House Speaker Mike Turzai’s retirement. New voting laws.

Those high-profile races are attracting more campaign money and interest than Pennsylvania legislative races have ever seen from party-affiliated and independent groups alike.

“Pennsylvania is on every left-wing political PAC list for engagement, so people recognize that, while we have a presidential election, the down-ballot impact on our state Legislature has the potential of reshaping Pennsylvania for the next decade,” said Matt Brouillette, a Harrisburg lobbyist and consultant who has helped raise more than $4.5 million to defend the Republican majorities.


House of Cards

In the House, Republicans hold 107 seats and Democrats hold 92; there are four vacancies. Democrats hold their largest number of seats since they had the majority in the 2009-10 session. Their priority is, naturally, protecting Democratic incumbents — but also picking up nine more seats.

Dena Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, said that goal is “very doable.”

The party is targeting a broad swath of the Philadelphia suburbs, Lehigh Valley, central Pennsylvania and Allegheny County. It’s been recruiting candidates since the spring, and the HDCC is fresh off a record fundraising year; it raised $1.2 million in 2019, Gleason said.

“Our ultimate goal is to recruit and train candidates regardless of what their districts look like,” Gleason said. She declined to identify specific districts.

Gleason’s Republican counterpart predicted the GOP will “absolutely” hold on to its majority.

“There are 15 seats that Donald Trump won that Democrats currently hold, and a number of them are by double digits,” said Brian Rengert, executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee. “There are great opportunities there.”

Rengert said Republicans are targeting districts held by Democratic incumbents in which the GOP holds a voter registration advantage and seats picked up by Democrats in the so-called “blue wave” of 2018.

State voter data shows there are 11 House districts in which Republicans hold the voter registration edge but are represented by Democratic legislators. Of those, nine flipped blue in one of the last two elections, meaning the incumbent has not had a chance to become entrenched.

Only one of those seats — that held by 25-year House veteran Rep. Joe Petrarca east of Pittsburgh — is not in the Southeast.

In the Senate, only a few of the 25 seats up for election will be worth watching, insiders say. Neither of the Republican or Democratic caucus-related organizations for Senate campaigns answered requests for comment.

Democrats have their eyes primarily on three vulnerable seats held by freshmen Republicans: Sen. Tom Killion in Chester and Delaware counties; Sen. John DiSanto in Dauphin and Perry counties; and Sen. Dan Laughlin in Erie County. The fourth, the one they’d need to get to a 25-25 tie in the chamber, is freshman Republican Sen. Scott Martin’s southern Lancaster County district.

Republicans, on the other hand, are looking to capture at least one seat they recently lost: Democratic Sen. Pam Iovino’s in Allegheny and Washington counties.


What the Numbers Say

In the House, only about a dozen districts could be considered “tossup” seats.

Those at the top of the list include the 151st Legislative District in Montgomery County, where Republican Rep. Todd Stephens’s margins of victory have been shrinking. His last win, in 2018, was by three percentage points, and Democrats now have a 2.5-point registration advantage there.

Others include the 144th and 168th legislative districts, also in the southeast part of the state. Republican Reps. Todd Polinchock and Chris Quinn have nine- and 10-point registration advantages, respectively, over Democrats. But each won by fewer than 600 votes in 2018.

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Even more immediately, Democrats have their sights set on a special election on March 17 in the Bucks County district recently vacated by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo. The moderate Republican spent 25 years in the seat and won reelection by a healthy 13 points in 2018. But Democrats have a nearly 12-point voter registration advantage now, and Bucks County commissioners seats flipped to majority Democrat in 2019 for the first time in decades. Democrats are putting up candidates in two other GOP-leaning special elections on the same day.

Republicans, on the other hand, have their eyes on the Cambria County district represented by Democratic Rep. Frank Burns. The six-term lawmaker’s margins of victory have shrunk in an area trending red and where President Donald Trump won considerably in 2016. Democrats still have a 2-percentage-point registration advantage over Republicans.

Among the 16 or so seats opening up, only six are considered competitive.

All are now held by Republicans: Reps. Stephen Barrar, Tom Murt and Marcy Toepel in the Philadelphia suburbs; Reps. Justin Simmons and Marcia Hahn in the Lehigh Valley; and House Speaker Mike Turzai in suburban Pittsburgh.

Barrar’s and Simmons’ districts look like top Democratic targets because of their narrow wins in 2018. Murt won by 10 points in 2018 but Democrats now have a nearly seven-point registration advantage over Republicans there.

Turzai, the most powerful House lawmaker for the past five years, defeated his Democratic challenger by nine percentage points two years ago — the smallest margin of his 19-year career and far smaller than his 30-point win in 2016. Republicans still have a nine-point edge there, and the Democrat who ran last time has already re-launched her campaign.

Turzai’s departure also has the potential to affect the rest of his caucus members’ fates. As the most important face of the Republican House, he was their top fundraiser — directly donating more than $1.8 million to their campaign efforts in 2018.


The Senate

The likelihood of the Democrats taking control of the Senate slipped in the fall when Sen. John Yudichak, of Luzerne County, unexpectedly switched his party affiliation from Democrat to independent and chose to caucus with Republicans. Instead of needing to win three seats in three competitive districts, the majority might end up being just out of reach for the Democrats.

“What looked like a very competitive situation just a few weeks ago just doesn’t look competitive at all,” said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow.

The most vulnerable Republicans, Killion and DiSanto, represent districts that are narrowly Republican in voter registration; they won in 2016 only by about three percentage points each. Laughlin, in Erie, won by seven percentage points but Democrats maintain a 17-point registration advantage, according to the latest data.

Democrats have a top-tier recruit in at least one of those districts. George Scott, a pastor and veteran who narrowly lost a race for the Harrisburg-based 10th Congressional District in 2018, is running against DiSanto. Gov. Tom Wolf, who said he will personally be involved in and donate to legislative candidates this year, started fundraising for Scott right after he jumped into the race.

“The Republicans know that George is a formidable opponent, and they will do everything they can to beat him,” Wolf wrote in a fundraising email earlier this month. “Any contribution will send a message that Democrats are energized and ready to flip the State Senate and pass policies that Pennsylvanians desperately need.”

The fourth seat Democrats need to win to break even in the Senate is held by Martin, in southern Lancaster County. It will be a stretch, observers believe. Republicans hold a seven percentage point voter-registration edge in the district, which includes deep blue Lancaster city.

In 2018, Democratic congressional candidate Jess King outperformed incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker in the district’s precincts by 88 votes. In the state Senate race this year, the Democrats are fielding a candidate with high name recognition in the area: three-term Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman.

But it will take an ambitious campaign to recreate King’s monumental ground game from 2018 and recapture the enthusiasm she elicited.

Republicans, meanwhile, might target a pair of Democratic-held districts, including freshman Iovino’s. Her predecessor, former Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican, won by a whopping 21 points in 2016 before she won by four percentage points in the 2019 special election.

The other would be 14-year Democratic incumbent Sen. Andy Dinniman. The former Chester County commissioner won easily there even before the countywide offices made their historic shift to the Democrats in 2019.

“The Dinniman seat has been a thorn in the side of Republicans for a long time,” Gerow said. “Given the voting trends down there, it’s a tougher race than it otherwise would have been.”


The Trump Effect?

Many candidates have yet to officially launch their campaigns. New voting laws will expand absentee ballot voting and eliminate straight tickets for the first time. The presidential race and its trickle-down effect on statewide and local candidates are far from settled.

Jeff Coleman, a political and communications consultant who also spent two terms in the state House, said the presidential race will have “enormous consequences for people down ballot.”

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House candidates have some advantages by having a smaller target than other office seekers, Coleman said. Their districts have about 62,000 voters, compared with about 250,000 for state Senate seats and about 700,000 for U.S. House. So they have more of a chance to make a personal connection and distinguish themselves with many of their constituents.

But in today’s political zeitgeist, their “number one” question for state lawmaker candidates still might be: “Do you support or do you oppose the president?” Coleman said.

“I can’t really imagine being a candidate in this environment,” said Coleman, a Republican who represented an Indiana County-based seat from 2000 to 2004. “It’s going to be exhausting for any competitive race.”

That question also is tough to answer when the news cycle before the election could make all the difference.

“The president writes political episodes every day of the week, so his ability in the last 72, 48, 24 or the last 12 hours before the polls open to change a narrative using every available tool — whether that’s military, economic — he’s willing to go there, where other politicians might have had more restraint,” Coleman said. “I don’t know how politicians down ballot prepare for that. You just have to run your game.”

Gerow said the presidential race always has some effect for down ballot candidates.

“Pennsylvania will be the most hotly contested state in the union, and the focus of the entire political world will be our wonderful commonwealth,” Gerow said. “That drives up turnout and intensity and excitement, and that inevitably has a spillover effect down ballot.”


A Little Help

Independent groups are hoping to make their own marks on legislative races this year.

Some focus exclusively on voter engagement and organizing volunteers. Others are actively raising hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars to eventually give directly to candidates.

Coleman said there are probably double or triple the number of groups taking a “pinpoint approach to communicating with voters” compared with the 2016 election, when Trump’s win inspired a new generation of political activism.

“They’re trying to find the needle in the haystack of voters who can be picked off with just a little bit of evidence one way or the other,” Coleman said. “It’s a really sophisticated level of voter engagement.”

There are a handful of such groups focused on southeastern legislative districts alone, even after the 2018 elections when they contributed to many of the Republican seats that flipped to Democrats.

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ChangePA, which raised $210,000 and helped flip five southeastern Republican-held House seats two years ago, has already raised $300,000 toward a $450,000 goal for 2020. The money will be disbursed to specific candidates — about $35,000 each — in the late summer, said Laslo Boyd, one of the group’s founders.

Their preliminary targets are 15 Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia suburbs and districts reaching up into the northeast part of the state — from Rep. Martina White’s Democrat-heavy Philadelphia district to Stephens’ moderate Montgomery County seat and outgoing Rep. Simmons’ Republican-leaning seat touching the Lehigh Valley.

“It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely possible,” Boyd said about the chances of flipping control of the House. “There are variables. … Both Republicans and Democrats will think that having the president running for reelection at the top of the ticket will help them, but who knows?”

National groups also will be in the mix for Democrats, including the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Swing Left, which donated more than $40,000 to several Pennsylvania Senate campaigns and more than $20,000 to some Pennsylvania House campaigns in 2018.

They’ve raised $1.3 million so far for 2020 legislative races across a dozen states, said Catherine Vaughan, the group’s chief strategy officer. Pennsylvania will be a top target, and recently they announced 16 House districts and five Senate districts where they will look to unseat Republicans or defend Democratic incumbents

“We were so successful and there was such an incredible blue wave and groundswell, particularly women and activists running (in 2018), that we’re looking a little further afield (now),” Vaughan said.

On the Republican side, outside help may come in the form of larger direct donations from a few sources.

Brouillette, the consultant and lobbyist who serves as CEO at Commonwealth Partners, said the two political action committees he runs have more than $4.5 million in the bank for state races, and he hopes to double that amount when it’s all said and done.

“We intend to be fully engaged in the 2020 House and Senate elections, and in total, we see about two-dozen races that we’ll probably get involved in,” Brouillette said.

His one PAC, Commonwealth Leaders Fund, spent $2.2 million in 2018 in the form of contributions to Republican legislative candidates.

Campaigns such as now-freshmen Republican Reps. Andrew Lewis in Harrisburg and Stephanie Borowicz in Clinton County each got $20,000.

Others got a significant sum but nonetheless came up short. The PAC sent $550,000 to Jeremy Shaffer’s losing state Senate race against now-freshman Democratic Sen. Lindsey Williams in Allegheny County. It sent $320,000 to Rep. Warren Kampf, who won his Chester County district by almost 12 percentage points in 2016 but lost in 2018 to current Democratic Rep. Melissa Shusterman, then a political neophyte. Another $170,000 went to another Chester County incumbent, Rep. Eric Roe, who ended up losing but is running again in 2020.

“Honestly, if we’d have spent $1 million in each of those races, I don’t think they could have overcome the blue wave,” Brouillette said. “Is there any less of a wave in 2020? I guess we’re going to have to see.”