After years of Republican dominance, Democrats and their supporters in Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate see a path to take control of both chambers this year.
For the past several election cycles, Democrats have been slowly chipping away at strong GOP margins. And now, just nine Republican seats in the House and four in the Senate would have to flip to blue in order for power in Harrisburg to change hands.
Just because they’re in the realm of possibility, though, doesn’t mean the legislature will have a dramatic shift.
Election prognosticators at the Cook Political Report still have both chambers ranked as “lean Republican,” which means there’s a better shot of continued GOP control than not.
And as Democrats stake out vulnerable Republican seats, Republicans are doing the same thing. Several Democrats are hanging on to seats in reddening areas and could be ousted.
These potential flips tend to follow larger trends in Pennsylvania’s shifting political geography.
For years, former union strongholds in the northeast and western parts of the state have been turning redder — a trend thrown into sharp relief by President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory in the commonwealth.
At the same time, the suburbs around Democratic strongholds of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have been getting bluer, and Republicans are having an increasingly hard time holding on to seats in those populous counties.
Those trends aren’t new. But Ben Forstate, a political analyst, noted, he’s also seeing a version of that same suburban blue-shift in the less populous suburbs of Central Pennsylvania, in counties such as Dauphin and Lancaster.
“[Democrats] have been running really strong campaigns, and this is not an area where Democrats even contemplated competing seriously prior to, like, 2016,” he said.
Democrats got a taste of overwhelming legislative victory two years ago, in the midterm elections. They nearly swept the Philadelphia suburbs, picking off vulnerable incumbents and hanging on to most of their own risky seats.
All told, they added 11 seats in the House and five in the Senate.
Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College and longtime Pennsylvania political analyst, said those major victories also came with a downside: Most of the contests left for the general election are tougher, more uphill battles for Democrats.
Madonna, who has been observing the legislature for thirty-odd years, noted that Democrats are certainly closer to regaining control than they’ve been in the last 10 years when they lost the House for the last time amid a Tea Party wave.
But he added, he still thinks they could hit a ceiling.
“Could you rule it out completely?” he asked of either chamber flipping. “No, but it’s still a stiff challenge for the Democrats to do it.”
Forstate agrees. Most of the “low-hanging fruit,” he said, has already been turned blue.
“In some cases, the fundamentals are just against them,” he said. “The party registration is either just very Republican, or they’re more rural, or there’s a representative who has been there for years and is very locally popular.”
Take, for instance, the 151st District in Montgomery County.
It’s been held by state Rep. Todd Stephens, a young, moderate, relatively popular Republican, since 2011. The district has been on Democrats’ list for years, and Stephens has so far been able to fend off challengers. But the races are getting closer, Forstate noted. Two years ago, he won by fewer than 1,000 votes.
“He is popular,” he said. “But that’s a narrow margin and there’s going to be higher turnout [in the general election]. We’ll see.”
There are other factors at play, too. Namely, what happens at the top of the ticket.
If either Trump or Joe Biden wins by a landslide, they’ll likely pull the down-ballot races along with them. If the presidential race is closer, state House and Senate outcomes could be a little more unpredictable.
“In the landslide scenario, [Democrats] could possibly pick up nine [House] seats, in addition to holding on to some of those rural seats that they would need for their majority,” Forstate said. “The overall political environment is becoming very good for Democrats.”
Of course, whether there could be a “landslide scenario” is unknown.
Biden currently leads Trump by about seven points in an average of Pennsylvania polling.
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