Democrats hope to ride spending wave to Pennsylvania House majority
HARRISBURG — National political winds, strong fundraising and heavy spending by outside groups are fueling Pennsylvania Democrats' hopes that they can pick up the nine seats they need to retake control of the state House of Representatives after a decade in the minority.
House Republicans currently hold the chamber, 110-93, down from what had been a historically high number of 121 GOP members before Democrats shaved off 11 seats in the 2018 election. In the Senate, Democrats are expected to pick up at least one seat, but securing the five necessary for a clear majority is considered out of reach.
If Democrats do regain the majority, a big reason may be unusually high spending on House races this year, thanks in part to more than $2 million from second-term Gov. Tom Wolf for House and Senate races.
A political adviser to the Democratic governor said the governor chipped in a $500,000 of his own cash and helped raise the rest. After six years of seeing many of his priorities stall before big Republican majorities in both chambers, Wolf sees this year's election as a chance to boost his agenda in his last two years in office.
“He sees this as truly the last shot he has to take back either chamber, so he wanted to do whatever he could to do that,” said Jeff Sheridan, Wolf's senior political adviser and former campaign manager.
Delaware County Rep. Leanne Krueger, who leads the House Democrats' campaign arm, described herself as “cautiously optimistic" that Democrats can close the gap while winning in districts where voters backed President Donald Trump in 2016's election.
“People overwhelmingly want elected leaders who are going to take a science, public-health approach to COVID,” Krueger said. “And over and over and over again, Republicans have tried to prematurely open industries with no adequate measures in place.”
Cumberland County Rep. Greg Rothman, the lead House Republican campaign strategist, said Republican candidates can tout their caucus’s efforts to loosen Wolf’s coronavirus restrictions and to push back against his proposals to increase taxes.
“He’s proposed taxes, and I would suspect that would be a priority for House Democrats if they ever had the majority,” Rothman said. “The first thing they would do is raise taxes.”
Rothman said GOP targets start with more than a dozen Democratic-held districts Trump won in 2016.
“If this is about Trump, then Democrats should be worried,” Rothman said.
The battle for control comes months after the House Republicans' campaign fundraising star, former Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny County, left for a job as a corporate lawyer. Turzai's former district, an affluent area in suburban Pittsburgh, is itself among the seats Democrats hope to win.
Democrats otherwise see most of their pick-up opportunities in suburban areas, which have become increasingly friendly to Democrats, a trend that has accelerated since Trump was elected.
Those include districts where first-term Republican incumbents are representing voters with a pattern of backing Democrats.
There will be two open seats in suburban Philadelphia districts, where Reps. Tom Murt of Montgomery County and Stephen Barrar of Delaware County are retiring. Democrats also hope this is the year they unseat a perpetual target, Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery.
Other Democratic targets are first-term Republicans in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs: Reps. Valerie Gaydos and Lori Mizgorski of Allegheny County and Reps. K.C. Tomlinson, Meghan Schroeder, Todd Polinchock and Wendi Thomas of Bucks County.
Democrats also think they can win an Allentown seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Justin Simmons, R-Lehigh, as well as a Pocono Mountains swing district held by three-term Rep. Jack Rader, R-Monroe.
Republicans have their own targets, starting with the Schuylkill County district held for 18 years by retiring Democratic Rep. Neal Goodman. Schuylkill was once a county where Democrats won races, but Goodman’s district is now a Democratic island among Republican-held districts.
Other targets are in Allegheny County. Those include House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody and a pair of seats being vacated by the retirements of two centrist Democrats, Reps. Bill Kortz and Harry Readshaw.
In the Senate, Republicans hold a 29-21 majority, including one independent who caucuses with Republicans.
There are no open seats that make for easy pickings. But the likeliest pickup for Democrats is seen as the Delaware County district held by Republican Sen. Tom Killion.
Democrats are also targeting freshmen Republican Sens. John DiSanto of Dauphin County, Dan Laughlin of Erie County, Scott Martin of Lancaster County and Mike Regan of Cumberland County.
Republicans, meanwhile, are aiming to unseat two Democrats in Allegheny County: Jim Brewster and Pam Iovino, who won a special election last year.