Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature have a problem, but it’s a challenge their Democratic counterparts would love to take off their hands.
The GOP holds commanding margins in both the state House and Senate, which means they also have a much wider territory to defend in the Nov. 6 election.
The results will be a verdict of sorts on the past two years of all-Republican control in Harrisburg, as the party holds both chambers of the General Assembly and the governorship.
That period has been marked by financial austerity that has squeezed school districts and the disabled; a push to restrict and heavily regulate abortion; legal battles over laws on natural gas drilling, voter identification and new legislative district lines; and changes in regulations, taxes and law sought by the business community.
“Somebody has to be the adult in the room,” said Indiana County Rep. Dave Reed, who heads up the House Republicans’ campaign efforts. “Had some of these decisions been made years ago, we wouldn’t be facing the problems we have today.”
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett isn’t on the ballot this year, but given his low popularity ratings in public opinion surveys, Democrats are doing what they can to tie him and his agenda to individual Republican candidates, particularly in close races.
“The bottom line is that most of the Republicans in the Senate and in the House have been rubber stamps for the Corbett administration’s most extreme proposals,” said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, head of the caucus campaign committee. “And we think these proposals have done great harm to Pennsylvania.”
Muhlenberg College political scientist and pollster Chris Borick said the strategy makes sense tactically.
“The education cuts were unpopular,” Borick said. “Some of his handling on Marcellus Shale has been less than well-received, when you look at the public’s view on how much revenue could have been generated. I think those Democrats would be wise to try and exploit the governor’s diminished standing in these races.”
Corbett’s political adviser, Brian Nutt, said the governor has been raising money for House and Senate Republican candidates and attended “numerous” events for candidates and campaign committees.
Polling shows voters are mostly focused on jobs and the economy, said the Senate Republicans’ campaign leader, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson, and his message is putting some distance between his caucus and their party leader, Corbett.
“We did restore funding to public education, higher education, and we did it in a pretty bold fashion,” Scarnati said. “So the tying (of) us and our candidates to education spending hasn’t worked and it won’t work because we stood up against those cuts and we were able to bring them back.”
He said Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley have helped with fundraising.
“We have never depended on anybody to come in and help us with the races,” Scarnati said. “We run on our record. There are probably races that he’s helping in, and the lieutenant governor’s helping in. But clearly, we do our own work.”
Campaign coordinators say they expect this year to see only small shifts in the party balance, following several cycles in which the House has whipsawed from Republican control in 2006
to Democratic in 2009 and back to Republican.
Philadelphia Rep. Brendan Boyle, the House Democrats’ campaign coordinator, said he counts about 30 meaningful races, and 19 of them would be pickups for his party. Boyle is not expecting a big shift in numbers, however.
“It’s clear that this is no-wave election,” Boyle said.
In the House, 47 Republicans and 39 Democrats are alone on the ballot as they seek another term, while 55 Republicans and 34 Democrats have opposition.
Of the 28 open House seats, 10 have only one candidate – eight Democrats and two Republicans. The parties are fighting over 18 open seats, including 11 held most recently by Democrats.
Democrats hope to pick up an open seat in Erie, and are targeting freshmen in swing districts, including Rep. Justin Simmons of Lehigh County, Rep. Tarah Toohill of Luzerne County, Rep. Dan Truitt of Chester County, Rep. Rick Saccone of Allegheny County and Rep. Warren Kampf of Chester County.
Republicans think they have a shot to oust Rep. Rick Mirabito in Lycoming County, Rep. Bryan Barbin of Johnstown, Rep. Joe Markosek in Allegheny County and Rep. Steve Santarsiero of Bucks County.
The Senate is 30-20 in Republican hands, with 25 seats up this cycle. All four open seats were most recently held by the GOP; four sitting Democrats and four sitting Republicans are unopposed; and six Democrats and seven Republicans have contested races.
Democratic strategy begins with vacant seats held most recently by Sen. Jane Earll in Erie County, Sen. Jeff Piccola in Dauphin County and Sen. John Pippy in Allegheny County. They also have designs on the Beaver County district represented by Sen. Elder Vogel, who is seeking a second term.
The Republicans’ best chance to flip a state Senate district may be near Johnstown, where Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, faces a changing demographic in his bid for a fifth term.
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