Even if a blue wave hits, Republican lawmakers favored to keep control in Harrisburg

No neutral observer thinks Democrats can retake either chamber of the state legislature this year.

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State Rep. Tina Davis, a Democrat, knocks on doors in Bucks County in her attempt to win Pennsylvania's 6th Senatorial District. (Jim Saksa/Keystone Crossroads)

State Rep. Tina Davis, a Democrat, knocks on doors in Bucks County in her attempt to win Pennsylvania's 6th Senatorial District. (Jim Saksa/Keystone Crossroads)

“Do you walk that slow?”

Tina Davis is impatient. It’s cold and blustery on this Sunday morning in Levittown, but it’s not the weather that has her so eager to get going. Davis is a Democratic state representative challenging long-time incumbent Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson for the Pennsylvania 6th Senate District seat, and she’s the underdog. If she wants a shot at winning, Davis knows she needs to out-hustle her opponent.

Incumbents usually have a big leg up on their challengers — more than 90 percent of state legislators win reelection. But registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in this part of Bucks County, and the district backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

Over the last few months, Democrats seem to be more motivated to vote in the upcoming midterms than Republicans, and have donated more money. While the enthusiasm and money gaps have narrowed in recent weeks, forecasters still expect a blue wave to sweep Democrats into control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Harrisburg, though, isn’t Washington D.C., and in Pennsylvania, operatives from both parties expect only a blue ripple to hit the General Assembly. No neutral observer thinks Democrats can retake either chamber of the state legislature this year.

Still, if Democrats can manage to win seats long held by the GOP, like the 6th Senate District, they might get close.

Tomlinson has represented Lower Bucks County in the state Senate since 1995. A moderate who has backed gun control legislation and severance taxes on natural gas drilling, he’s well-known, well-liked, and well-funded.

Still, Davis beat Tomlinson in early fundraising cycles and, so far, her small army of volunteers has knocked on 60,000 doors across this suburban district on Philadelphia’s northern border. Now, she wants to add a few dozen more to the tally before a rally later this afternoon.

Davis knows she can be impatient, but she’s selling it to voters as a virtue, not a vice, telling them that the General Assembly would do well with a little more urgency.

At the door of a Republican woman who says she’s still undecided, Davis talks about her efforts to fight the opioid crisis.

“I got the recovery house bill through — it took me four years,” Davis says. “It took me a long time — and it shouldn’t happen, it shouldn’t have taken four years.”

The woman agrees with Davis, but still looks unconvinced. Davis tries a different tactic: She says the Republicans in Harrisburg used to work across the aisle, but no longer. Bipartisanship ended in 2016, she argues, when the number of Democrats in the state House dropped to just 82 and the GOP’s majority grew to 121 representatives. “They were very conservative, ultra extreme, from the Western end of Pennsylvania,” she says. “[They’ve] taken over the whole state house, so we’re not getting anything done.”

Davis points to a bill that would have provided child victims of sex abuse a two-year window to file civil lawsuits against their alleged attackers, breathing new life into cases  in which the statute of limitations has already expired. After passing the state House by a 171-23, GOP leadership in the state Senate refused to let the bill come to a floor vote. The voter looks concerned, but not quite swayed.

It’s unclear whether accusing the GOP of running a do-nothing General Assembly will resonate with voters. While Republican leaders kept the sex victims legislation and other popular bills — like congressional redistricting reform — from coming to floor votes, the most recent session was still relatively productive, legislatively.

After years of late budgets and partisan impasse in Harrisburg, the General Assembly and the governor passed a budget on time this year. They also passed a popular bill requiring gun owners who have a protection from abuse order filed against them to immediately relinquish their firearms to the authorities.

In recent years, lawmakers and the governor also agreed on pension reform, modernization of the state liquor system and legalization of medical marijuana.

Other achievements included bills against hazing, a crack-down on repeat drunk drivers, protections for human trafficking victims from prosecution for sex crimes they may have been forced to commit, and ending driver license suspensions for drug-related convictions, among others.

Still, Democrats, and some Republicans, say that many initiatives were needlessly delayed for years because Republican leaders deferred to the caucus’ most conservative members. Davis argues that reducing the GOP’s majorities will help, even if it means excising the most moderate Republicans from Harrisburg.

The undecided Republican voter isn’t happy  with how partisan things have become. She notes how the two sides seem to only vilify one another in campaign ads. She can’t even watch the news anymore. “It’s worse than a soap opera,” the woman, who declined to give her name, says. “I’d rather watch Bravo.”

The candidate leaves some campaign literature — all positive — and thanks the woman for her time.

It’s voters like this that Democrats across the state are hoping they can convince — results-focused independents and moderate Republicans disgusted by the hyper-partisan rhetoric out of Washington D.C., echoes of which can be heard in Harrisburg.

New challengers

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by 815,000.  The governor, attorney general, treasurer and controller are all Democrats. This election, the Democrats at the top of the ticket seem to be cruising to victory: Governor Tom Wolf enjoys a commanding lead in the polls, as does Senator Bob Casey. And if things break well for the party, Democrats could end up winning a majority of  Pennsylvania’s 18 Congressional districts.

But none of that is enough to turn the General Assembly blue. After the last election, the GOP gained a 39 seat majority in the state House — 121 to 82. The state Senate reflects the same pattern. Since Scott Wagner resigned to run for governor, the GOP has held a 33 to 16 advantage in the state Senate — that’s two Republican senators for every Democrat.

“The state Senate in Pennsylvania — except for one sixteen month period back in the early 1990s — has been in Republican Party hands since 1980,” said Terry Madonna, director at the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “The state Senate, I joke and say, has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. And now they have the largest majority any party has had in modern history.”

Davis, like a lot of Democrats, blames the imbalance between her party’s performance in statewide races and the state legislature on gerrymandering.

“We have such a lopsided House right now,” she said. “We have so many Republicans from the rural and western areas that are going to stay there, [and it’s] because of gerrymandering.”

Republican media strategist Charlie Gerow bristles at the notion that its partisan district lines that keep his party in power in Harrisburg. After all, state legislative boundaries are drawn by a five-person commission — the two parties’ leaders from the state House and Senate, plus a neutral fifth commissioner — that’s constrained by a constitutional provision requiring districts be “compact and contiguous.” The provision orders to the commission to avoid splitting municipalities and counties into separate districts “unless absolutely necessary.”

Unlike the state’s congressional map, which was a partisan product until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared it unconstitutionally gerrymandered and put in place a new map earlier this year, legislative remappings have been somewhat bipartisan affairs. The last maps were approved by the commission by a 4-1 vote.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit Republicans, said Larry Ceisler, a political analyst and Democrat. It just means that many of the Democrats in Harrisburg were happy to go along with it.

“Their incumbents wanted to have safe seats, and many of them really didn’t care weather they were in the majority or the minority — basically, they wanted to pick up a paycheck. So they cut themselves safe seats, to the detriment of the party gaining the majority,” said Ceisler.

Meanwhile, Ceisler says the state GOP has done its job with aplomb.

“Republicans seem to be better at running these races than Democrats are,” he said. “They put more resources into the races, probably more professionalism in the running of the races.”

(The Pennsylvania Senate)

Things are shaping up to be different this year, though. Democrats have launched their own funding funnel to support state legislative races to counteract the GOP. The State Supreme Court-ordered redistricting of the U.S. Congressional districts made many parts of the state competitive for the first time in years, which may offer down ballot Democrats a chance to ride Congressional coattails. Trump’s election has energized the grassroots of the Democratic party.

In Pennsylvania, there’s a new crop of party leaders eager to compete, including Davis in Lower Bucks.

In 2016, she co-founded a Pennsylvania chapter of Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “We needed a change, and we needed a pipeline,” she said. “I kept hearing the same thing from stakeholders, union leaders… they were disappointed in the way things were being run.”

State senatorial districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania, including the 6th District. (The Pa. Senate)

This year, Democrats are on the ballot in 24 of the 25 senate races, compared to just 19 in 2014 and 2016. Giving even safe seats attention forces incumbents to spend time and money on their own campaigns, rather than help their partisan peers in tougher elections fundraise. It’s a sharp departure from the past. In 2014, the Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate in Allegheny County’s 38th District — even though the party enjoyed a registration advantage there.

This year, Allegheny Democrat Lindsey Williams says that her internal polls show her up against Republican Jeremy Shaffer, who successfully primaried Sen. Randy Vulakovich. While internal polls should always be taken with a grain of salt, there are indications that her results may be worth considering. Shaffer has gone negative — calling Williams as a “socialist,” in ads and deploying fake yard signs with the misleading party label — suggesting the Republican feels threatened enough to run through the mud.

State senatorial districts in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including the 38th District. (The Pa. Senate)

In State College, Senate Majority leader Jake Corman is facing a tougher than usual race against Democratic challenger Ezra Nanes, who has been criticizing Corman for inaction on the sex abuse bill. Internal polling by Nanes shows the candidate’s 17-point deficit against Corman disappeared after voters listened to pitches from both campaigns. In years passed, Corman, representing a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 13,000, would have been able to spend his considerable campaign warchest helping other Republicans win. That’s what he did in 2014. But, now, Corman may need to spend his money closer to home.  

Like Nanes and other Democratic candidates, Tina Davis has used the Senate’s failure to vote on a sex victims bill to dig at her opponent. Meanwhile, Tomlinson says he supports the bill, and would be open to returning to Harrisburg for a lame-duck session to vote on it after the election.

Democrats have also released an ad targeting Corman, Tomlinson and other Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, plus the Lehigh Valley’s Pat Browne, who faces a tough reelection fight against Mark Pinsely, a small business owner and progressive activist.

Tomlinson did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

Power Shift

All of the analysts and operatives — Democrats and Republicans alike — interviewed for this story predicted that the GOP’s majorities in the state legislature will shrink, but not disappear. The Democrats are simply too far behind in the General Assembly to jump into control after a single election.

Just how small the gap gets will depend on races like the 6th Senate District.

The district is one of nine where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, yet Republicans win at the polls.

“Nine Republicans senators represent districts with more registered Democrats than Republicans,” Republican consultant Christopher Nicholas said. “No Democrat senator represents a district with more Republicans.”

If Democrats controlled those nine seats the state Senate would be evenly split, 25-25. Republican state representatives also won 19 districts that went for Clinton in 2016, and flipping those would bring the house to near parity.  

But registration figures can be misleading. Nicholas admits that the 38th, along with some of the other districts where Democrats nominally outnumber Republicans, is more right-leaning than the numbers suggest. “Your voter registration is a lagging indicator of where you are politically,” he said.

The electorate has been shifting in Pennsylvania for two decades. White working-class voters clustered across the commonwealth’s Rust Belt — long a bedrock of the Democratic party — have slowly shifted away from the party over the last 20 years, feeling abandoned by Democrats who embraced free trade and competitive labor market reforms they blame for the decline of mining and manufacturing.

President Donald Trump’s embrace of protectionist trade policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric only hastened the blue-collar shift toward the GOP, which has long been a closer match to them on social issues.

Meanwhile, Democrats have made inroads among affluent, college-educated suburbanites living on the outskirts of the state’s major cities.

But even as suburban voters have slowly abandoned them in national races, the GOP has, so far, managed to maintain loyalty in Pennsylvania’s legislative races.

Talking to voters door-to-door, Davis doesn’t lead with with her party registration or any of the hotbed issues of the day; in Lower Bucks, none of the candidates’ lawn signs mention party affiliation.  

Instead, Davis asks nearly everyone she sees, in a neighborly way, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Even though national politics often seem to shade every thing these days, state legislative races like this one can often come down to retail politics. After an hour of canvassing on a recent Sunday morning, there have been as many conversations about expecting mothers in the neighborhood as expected legislation in Harrisburg.

Later that afternoon, Davis throws a rally for her volunteers at Bailey’s Bar and Grille. There’s free food and beer, and the Philadelphia Eagles are on every TV. About three dozen people show up, including Brian Masgay, a purchasing manager from Bensalem.

“I have two children in their twenties — I’m more concerned about their future than my future,” he says. “Basically, just the way things are going… the government doesn’t function, it just doesn’t function.”

“I’ve been a Republican since I was 18 years old,” Masgay says. But no longer. “Their performance over the last six, seven years has just driven me away from them.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s a Democrat. “I consider myself an independent.”

Masgay doesn’t know yet who he’ll vote for in the Congressional election — Brian Fitzpatrick, the Republican incumbent, has pitched himself as a true moderate, but Masgray isn’t so sure. Nor is he impressed by the Democratic challenger, Scott Wallace, who’s a few feet away, chatting with volunteers between bites of baked ziti.

Pa. Senate candidate Tina Davis (left) poses with Lt. Gov candidate John Fetterman (center) and congressional candidate Scott Wallace at a bar in Bucks County. (Jim Saksa/Keystone Crossroads)

But Masgray’s fully behind Davis. “I have voted for Tommy [Tomlinson] in the past, but quite honestly, he’s been our state senator since I’ve moved into the area, and it’s time for a change, it’s just time for a change,” he says. “I’m looking for candidates that aren’t radical one way or the other, and Tina is definitely one of them.”

If Davis can convince other moderate Republicans to follow Masgay’s example, she just might eke out ahead on November 6th.

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