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After busy political year, Pennsylvania looks ahead to 2017
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania found itself in the eye of the political storm this year, from contested primaries, through the Democratic convention in Philadelphia and into the fall, when it was anointed with battleground status.
In 2017, not so much.
The top of the campaign outlook involves two elections that won’t even occur next year — Republican jockeying to become the nominee to take on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in his expected re-election bid, and to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey as he seeks a third term. Those elections are in 2018.
The fact that Wolf and Casey are incumbents may not scare away ambitious Republicans eager to build on Donald Trump’s win in Pennsylvania and a string of GOP electoral successes in the Legislature.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of names out there,” said John Brabender, a veteran Republican campaign consultant. “I think half of them will be people who just want to get their names out there, they just want to see it in the newspaper, and the other half will be legitimate candidates.”
A look ahead at the coming year’s political landscape:
Wolf, largely unknown and having never held political office, beat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by 10 points in 2014, thanks in part to millions of his own money. Ugly budget fights with the GOP-controlled Legislature have marked his first two years on the job, and the state’s darkening financial picture suggest Round 3 will play out over the coming six months.
The one Republican who has said he is running for sure is state Sen. Scott Wagner, who owns a trash-hauling company headquartered less than 3 miles from Wolf’s home in northern York County. Wagner said he plans to spend millions of his own money on the race, and will make a formal announcement in the near future.
Another potential candidate is House Majority Leader Dave Reed of Indiana County, who said recently he is “considering all possibilities” when asked about the governorship or other races. U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, who represents a northwestern Pennsylvania district, says he is strongly considering a run for governor. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman of Centre County is widely viewed as having gubernatorial ambitions but isn’t talking about it.
Paul Addis, an investor and former energy executive from Haverford, says he’s exploring a possible run in the Republican primary and will decide early next year.
Other potential candidates include former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley of Bucks County, House Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny County and other members of the state’s congressional delegation.
It will be another year before the governor’s re-election campaign gets underway in earnest. In the meantime, Wolf and legislative leaders have to get through what’s expected to be a brutal year in Harrisburg, where another projected deficit threatens to trigger another budget standoff.
Casey says he’s definitely running again, on a message of “standing strong against terrorism” and working to protect the economic interests of middle class people.
Casey had an easy win against then-incumbent Rick Santorum in 2006, beating him by 17 points. Six years later it was closer, as Casey defeated businessman Tom Smith by 9 points to keep his seat.
One possible Republican opponent is U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, who is heading back to Washington for a fourth term, representing a suburban Philadelphia district. Meehan declined to comment on the record, but the possibility that he might run was a topic of much speculation during December’s Pennsylvania Society, a New York gathering of the state’s political and business elite.
Three proposals, including one to shrink the state House from 203 members to 151, have made it through the first round of voting by both chambers of the Legislature. If they are approved a second time at any point in the next two years, they will go before voters for final approval as amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The House size reduction has been promoted as a way to improve efficiency in the chamber’s operations. If approved, it would take effect after redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. A second resolution would modify the constitution’s Uniformity Clause regarding property tax rules, a change designed to set the stage for potential elimination of all residential property school taxes. The third amendment would allow Philadelphia to tax business properties at a higher rate than other real estate, providing revenue that would be used to cut the city’s wage and business taxes.
Democrats won three open seats on the state Supreme Court in 2015, giving them a 5-2 edge on the high court. The only true opening on the court next year will be the seat held by Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, a Republican appointed to the court by Wolf to fill the unexpired term of Justice Michael Eakin. Mundy said she plans to run to keep the seat. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, and Justice Debra Todd, a Democrat, face up-or-down retention votes for another 10 years on the bench, races that sitting jurists almost always win.
On Superior Court, an intermediate appeals court, there will be four openings. One judge faces retention. Two seats on Commonwealth Court will be open, and none face retention.
Judicial races will also be held in many counties — there will be at least 23 vacancies.
The coming year may not feature many high-profile statewide campaigns in Pennsylvania, but at the local level there will township, borough, county and school board races. The most prominent will be Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who has made no secret of his desire for a second term.
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