Wolf’s 2nd term comes with evolving GOP identity in Capitol
HARRISBURG – With Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s second term effectively underway, perhaps the biggest question in Pennsylvania’s Capitol is not how Wolf will govern, but how Republicans who still control the Legislature will re-emerge after suffering losses in the Nov. 6 election.
Wolf’s 17-point trouncing of Republican Scott Wagner was hardly a surprise, after Wolf comfortably led polls from the start. And while Republicans expected some losses of seats, they probably didn’t envision losing this many.
Republicans expect to have a 29-21 Senate majority and a 110-93 House advantage – down from 34-16 in the Senate and 121-82 in the House – when the counties finish tabulating votes.
These Republican majorities remain substantial, but they are the smallest since Wolf became governor in 2015 and – given significant GOP losses in moderate southeastern Pennsylvania seats – Republicans generally agree that their majorities are shifting to the right.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going all the way out on the right wing,” said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, “but I would say we’re way more unified in our overall political philosophy.”
In the two-year session beginning in January, Republicans will control a minority of the seats in Philadelphia’s four heavily populated suburban counties, long a core element of their legislative majorities and their moderate bloc.
Most of those seats will belong to Democrats, leaving Republican majorities more reliant on districts in central and western Pennsylvania.
That might mean fewer GOP intraparty fights or a more cohesive Republican caucus in partisan showdowns with Wolf.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said a smaller Republican majority will demand that members fall in line with leadership on politically thorny votes.
“I think when you have 121, sometimes you say, ‘you know what, I don’t need to vote for this, there’s 120 other members,’” Saylor said. “Now, if you’re down to 110, I think it puts more pressure on members to make sure they’re more united.”
A smaller majority likely doesn’t change the calculus if Republicans decide it’s time to push through the same type of bill – such as curbing abortion rights or attaching a work requirement to Medicaid – that has drawn one of 17 Wolf vetoes.
Those bills passed, despite the presence of more moderate Republicans inside the caucus who were more likely to push back.
For his part, Wolf hasn’t tipped his hand as to whether he will unveil a bold new policy in his second term. Rather, he has said repeatedly he will continue advancing his first-term priorities, such as more money for education in a state with deep funding inequities between school districts.
Still, Republicans show no interest in changing a longstanding rule that legislation must get the blessing of at least half of the Republican caucus – a majority of the majority – before it sees a floor vote.
That likely means no votes on various top Wolf priorities.
Top Republican lawmakers say the party can win back the suburbs with good candidates and smart public policy of the sort they’ve advanced in the Legislature. But that may not satisfy some surviving suburban Republicans.
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, said it is crucial to the future of Republicans in southeastern Pennsylvania for GOP floor leaders to allow votes on certain legislation that they have resisted since Wolf became governor. That legislation, DiGirolamo said, includes raising the minimum wage, expanding background checks on firearms purchases and imposing a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production – all things supported by Wolf.
“If they don’t give us a seat at the table on some of these issues,” DiGirolamo said, “two years from now, they’re not going to be in the majority because there’s not going to be that many of us left in the southeast if things don’t change up here.”