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Millions pour into Pa. House, Senate races as Democrats vie for control

Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA
Pennsylvania Statehouse

If you want to understand the big-money battle for control of Pennsylvania’s Legislature, look to Dauphin County.

This year alone, records show Gov. Tom Wolf’s campaign committee spent $300,000 of its war chest on Democrat George Scott, a pastor, former U.S. Army officer and failed congressional candidate who is trying to wrest control of a Senate seat from Republican John DiSanto.

The money may seem like chump change compared with the presidential race in Pennsylvania, but it represents a serious investment in what records show is one of the most expensive General Assembly races going into November.

A Spotlight PA review of campaign finance reports filed between January and Oct. 23 shows donors, lawmakers and outside interest groups are pouring millions of dollars into a few dozen races as Democrats fight for control of the state House and Senate.

Four of the many committees that are heavily involved in state legislative races — Wolf’s, the pro-Democrat Pennsylvania Fund for Change, the pro-Republican Build PA PAC and the conservative Commonwealth Leaders Fund — have alone spent more than $16.9 million this year, according to the latest available reports. While some of that money went to other races, such as for attorney general, the figure gives a window into the high-stakes legislative contest.

Nine wins in the House and four in the Senate would allow Democrats in Harrisburg to set the agenda on issues including gun restrictions, the natural gas industry and the minimum wage. The party would also control the drawing of new congressional maps in 2021. While control of the Senate is viewed as leaning toward Republicans, the House is considered a toss-up.

“It’s a big threat,” said Matthew Brouillette, treasurer for Commonwealth Leaders Fund. “We are seeing incredible amounts of money coming in.”

Pennsylvania Fund for Change, an opaque group that is supporting Democratic candidates in battleground districts, is an example of that big spending.

More:FEC complaint: Perry campaign illegally transferred funds to PAC

Registered as an independent expenditure committee in Pennsylvania — meaning it can’t contribute directly to candidates — Pennsylvania Fund for Change had raised about $5.6 million as of Oct. 19, campaign finance records show, including $3 million from a dark money group that isn’t required to disclose its donors.

Most of the money went to TV advertising and mailings. In recent days, the group has sunk nearly $500,000 into four races, including $198,000 to target a rising Republican star in Philadelphia and $129,000 to support a Democrat who represents a district that broke for President Donald Trump in 2016.

Another big spender for Democrats is a familiar name: Wolf, who has faced a Republican-controlled House and Senate his entire time in office. Term limits prevent him from seeking re-election in 2022.

“This is truly the last shot he has to win either chamber,” said Jeff Sheridan, a senior advisor to the governor’s political operation, who said Wolf’s total investment in House and Senate races stands at nearly $2.8 million this year.

In August and early September, Wolf’s contributions revealed the  dozen-plus House seats Democrats believe are key to taking the majority. He gave $30,000 each to 14 Democrats seeking to flip GOP seats, including eight in the Philly suburbs where Democrats made big gains two years ago. That list also includes former House Speaker Mike Turzai’s vacant seat in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

Republicans, however, are fighting back, and groups such as Brouillette’s have spent big to defend against Democratic advances. Commonwealth Leaders Fund reported spending about $848,000 from late June to mid-September on advertising for 13 Republican candidates.

The group is also targeting vulnerable Democrats in districts that supported Trump by funding ads that highlight their April vote against a bill that would have required the Wolf administration to loosen coronavirus restrictions on businesses.

That includes state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, who is running against Republican Howard Terndrup.

“Burns sided with Gov. Tom Wolf to keep local businesses closed,” a narrator says in a digital ad from Commonwealth Leaders Fund.

“We were being cautious at that point,” Burns told Spotlight PA of his vote. He later split with Wolf on other coronavirus-related bills.

In his own ads, Burns has gone after Commonwealth Leaders Fund. He called it a “shady” group that tries to “buy elections for ANYONE who agrees to be their ‘YES-MAN.’”

Brouillette said the group — funded primarily by donations from Students First PAC — decides to get involved in races where there’s the greatest opportunity to elect someone who will support expanded charter schools and more tax credits that fund tuition at private schools.

All this spending is happening while the president’s ability to drive turnout, on both sides of the political spectrum, looms large.

“In the southeast he hurts us,” Brouillette said of Trump. “And in the west he helps us.”

And in the middle of it all is the 15th state Senate district, covering much of Dauphin County, including Harrisburg, and rural Perry County. DiSanto, a real estate developer, narrowly won the seat four years ago, defeating a Democratic incumbent.

Democratic presidential candidates have won Dauphin County since 2008, although Republicans have kept control of county-level positions. Republicans make up 39% of registered voters in the county, compared with 46% for Democrats.

“The issue though is just getting those voters out,” said Rogette Harris, chair of the Dauphin County Democratic Committee. “So Dauphin County is a turnout county.”

Commonwealth Leaders Fund and Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund — another political action committee that Brouillette serves as treasurer for — have contributed about $438,000 combined to DiSanto’s campaign through direct payments, mailings, and advertising as of mid-October, according to campaign finance reports.

DiSanto reported raising more than $1 million from late June to Oct. 19, while the campaign of his opponent, Scott, said it raised more than $1.7 million.

David Feidt, chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Committee, said the outside interest matches the county’s purple status.

“For many years,” Feidt said, “we have done an exceptional job of kind of holding off the Democratic threats.”

Temple University’s Data Desk, a collaboration between the university and Spotlight PA, contributed research to this article. Andrew Seidman of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed reporting.

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