Analysis: Democrats roar in Pennsylvania

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., gives a victory speech during his election night party in Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP)

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., gives a victory speech during his election night party in Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP)

Stung by a demoralizing loss in 2016, Pennsylvania Democrats made a comeback in Tuesday’s midterm elections, sweeping statewide races and making significant gains in Congress  as the the national party regained control of the House of Representatives.

It was an easy win and an early night for Gov. Tom Wolf who triumphed over Republican challenger Scott Wagner by 16 percentage points.

“Pennsylvania has to be a fairer place,” Wolf told supporters in an early victory celebration. “You understood that, and you voted for that.”

Wagner attacked Wolf as a tax-and-spend liberal, but never overcame big deficits in name recognition and campaign cash, and the self-inflicted wound caused by his videotaped threat to stomp on Wolf’s face with golf spikes.

“Scott Wagner never found an issue that voters cared about to cast Gov. Wolf’s term in a negative light,” said Franklin & Marshall College analyst Terry Madonna. “You have to do that if you’re going to beat an incumbent.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey also cruised to an easy win over his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta.

Speaking to cheering supporters in Scranton, Casey promised to preserve protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

“We have to continue the fight against any attempt — any attempt — by politicians in Washington to either rip away coverage or deny people protections. We are not going back,” he said, to cheers and applause.

Barletta was an early and avid supporter of President Trump, who, like Wagner, trailed his opponent in money and name recognition.

In a concession speech, Barletta said he was sure Casey “will serve the people of Pennsylvania as he always has.”

Gains in Congress

Democrats captured nine of the state’s 18 congressional districts, a net gain of three seats toward the 23 the party needed to flip to take control of the House. That’s four more than the five seats the party has held for most of the past six years.

An apparently robust turnout drove the party’s success, but events earlier in the year altered the political terrain in ways that improved Democrats’ chances.

A gerrymandering suit created new congressional districts which were more compact and in many cases Democrat-friendly. Also, three Republican incumbents in eastern Pennsylvania bowed out of the race, denying the GOP well-known candidates who almost certainly would have been more competitive than their replacements. The Democrats won those three seats.

Republicans won the most intensely-contested seat in the state in Bucks County.

Freshman incumbent U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick narrowly defeated Democrat Scott Wallace, a wealthy philanthropist who put more than $12 million of his own fortune into the race.

It was a particularly bruising contest, with candidates and outside Super PACs combined spending roughly $30 million.

“These are tough, tough fights,” Fitzpatrick told supporters after a tense night of following returns. “These elections in these districts are tough.”

Fitzpatrick, a member of the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus, promised to work for compromise in a divided Congress.

“We need a bipartisan fix to this mess, health care and immigration,” he said. “Bipartisan fix…it’s inexcusable that it hasn’t been fixed yet.”

The Democratic wins were mostly in suburban communities. Their efforts to unseat Republican incumbents in more rural areas fell short, though some of the races were close.

New faces

The Democratic winners in Pennsylvania congressional battles are:

  • Chrissy Houlahan –  6th District (Chester & Berks counties). A former Army captain, Houlahan began fundraising and filed to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello before the districts were re-drawn.

    Costello’s departure after the filing deadline left the GOP with unknown attorney Greg McCauley as its standard-bearer, and his campaign never got untracked. Houlahan won by 16 percentage points.

  • Mary Gay Scanlon – 5th District (Delaware, Montgomery, Philadelphia counties). The district was among the most Democratic-leaning after the boundaries were re-drawn. Scanlon, an attorney and former Wallingford-Swarthmore school board member, defeated nine rivals in the Democratic primary to reach the general election.

    Pat Meehan, the well-liked, four-term Republican congressman from Delaware County, resigned in April in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. That left the party without a well-known candidate for the seat.

    Scanlon easily beat the party’s nominee, former prosecutor Pearl Kim to win election to Congress. Scanlon also won a special election to fill the remainder of Meehan’s term in the old 7th Congressional District, so she’ll go to Washington immediately and start her new term in January as a second term congresswoman.

  • Madeleine Dean – 4th District (Montgomery, Berks counties). Dean is an Abington state Representative who won a competitive primary in the re-drawn district, which leans Democratic in registration and voting patterns. She beat Skippack businessman and first-time candidate Dan David, who had little support from the national Republican Party.
  • Susan Wild – 7th District (Lehigh Valley). Wild is an attorney and former Allentown city solicitor who beat a multi-candidate field, including Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli to win the Democratic primary.

    The re-drawn district is competitive in its voting patterns, and Wild would have had a tough battle against Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, had he not decided to leave Congress. Wild handily defeated Lehigh County Commissioner Marty Nothstein, but it appears Nothstein gets a consolation prize.

    Nothstein seems to have narrowly won the special election to fill the rest of Dent’s term in the old 15th District. So if he runs for office in the future, he can call himself a former congressman.

  • Connor Lamb – 17th District (Allegheny, Beaver Counties). Lamb won a special election in April to fill the term of a retiring Republican congressman for a different district. He had to face another incumbent Republican, Keith Rothfus in the new district west of Pittsburgh (it was the only race in the country between two incumbent members of Congress).

    Lamb served in the Marines and declared early he wouldn’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for Speaker if the Democrats take control. He won a comfortable victory over Rothfus, 56 to 44 percent.

A bridge too far

Democrats also targeted some Republican incumbents in more rural districts in central and western Pennsylvania.

While they failed to win any, their candidates ran respectably in districts that voted heavily for Trump in 2016.

They came closest in the 16th district in western Pennsylvania, which includes Erie and four other counties.

Democrat Ron DiNicola led in the returns for much of the evening, but finally lost to four-term GOP incumbent Rep. Mike Kelly by four points.

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