As of June, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly boasted a 27-percent approval rating, unsurprisingly low in a session that included painful budget cuts and such controversies as an attempt to legislatively mandate pre-abortion ultrasounds. But is there a massive campaign by Democrats to wrest control? Well, not exactly.
Rep. Brendan Boyle, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, isn’t even thinking about a majority in the House, which includes 109 Republicans and 91 Dems. “My goal coming in was to pick up four or five seats, which would be a very good performance,” he says. In the past 30 years, he notes, the average turnover in the House has been just two seats. “We will have a net pick-up of seats, I’m very confident.”
As for the Senate, now with 29 Republicans and 20 Democrats, hopes are dimmer still as only 25 seats are up for grabs.
“I’ve not talked to any independent analyst that thinks Democrats can win more than a handful of seats, if that,” says Franklin & Marshall political scientist Terry Madonna. “They’re not going to get to the majority. The reason there’s no discussion is that no one objectively thinks that’s doable.”
Part of the problem is carefully drawn and sometimes aggressively gerrymandered districts designed to keep seats safe. And part is that achieving a large number of upsets, Madonna says, typically requires a galvanizing, national “wave,” like the anti-Iraq war Democratic sweep in 2006 or the Tea Party fervor of 2010. “There’s no wave going on now,” he says. With almost half of House members running unopposed, “it’s just too big a hill to climb.”
Boyle concedes this year isn’t like 2006, but he says there’s at least one unifying force: “From suburban Philadelphia up to Erie and all points in between, the theme has been that Tom Corbett brought us the single biggest cuts in the history of public education in Pennsylvania, and every single Republican on the ballot voted for those cuts.”
Boyle thinks this message will especially resonate in hot races in Philly’s suburbs, where targets include seven Republican-held seats in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. Paul Drucker, unseated by Republican Rep. Warren Kampf in Chester County two years ago, is looking to return the favor. Elsewhere in the county, first-time candidates like lawyer Bret Binder and retired history teacher Eric Schott are mounting serious campaigns.
Boyle and other Philly legislators have been tapping their own resources in support. Brian Sims, unopposed in Center City’s 182nd District, is campaigning hard. He’s been stumping in Montgomery County for Will Sylianteng, who’s taking on freshman Todd Stephens in a district that had previously gone Democrat, and for Kelly Devine, who’s challenging Mike Vereb. He’ll spend next week in Dauphin County helping Chris Dietz, who — like Sims — is looking to make history as one of the state’s first openly gay legislators. “Although I would love to be in my district the night that I win,” Sims says, “we’re going to be sleeping on [Dietz’s] couch and knocking on doors the last five days.”
Zack Stalberg of the Committee of Seventy says that, while candidates might like to see up-ticket support, a presidential election year may actually divert interest from local campaigns. “All the focus is on the presidential race,” he says, so more straight-ticket voting is likely. He says no one is anticipating much change in the state legislative bodies. As Madonna puts it bluntly, “I think it’s status quo” — at least for two more years.
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