Pa. Democrats fret over state Senate races

Pennsylvania State Capitol (NewsWorks file photo)

Pennsylvania State Capitol (NewsWorks file photo)

While Pennsylvania Democrats are optimistic about winning the presidential race Tuesday, some party leaders worry about state Senate contests.

Democrats hold a voter registration edge in Pennsylvania, but the 50-member state Senate has 31 Republicans and only 19 Democrats.

If the Republicans can flip three Democratic seats to the GOP, they’ll have a veto-proof majority in the Senate. And they’ve poured campaign cash into capturing seats in the Erie, Johnstown, and Harrisburg areas.

In Erie, Democratic incumbent Sean Wiley is challenged by Dan Laughlin. In the 35th District near Johnstown, Sen. John Wozniak is retiring, and Democratic Ed Cernic is running against Republican prosecutor Wayne Langerholc.And in the Harrisburg area, Democratic incumbent Rob Teplitz is challenged by Republican John DiSanto.

I spoke to Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa Friday, and he said he isn’t conceding any of those races. But, he said, it’s primarily Republican gerrymandering that have put the seats in play.

Legislative boundaries were redrawn after the 2010 U.S. Census, and the process extended to 2013, so this is the first election for half the districts under the new lines.

Of the Johnstown-area district, Costa said, “They took a 52 percent-performing Democratic district and made it a 42 percent-performing Democratic district.” The same thing happened in the Erie and Harrisburg districts, he said, where Democratic incumbents are now threatened.

My call to the Republican leadership wasn’t returned, but I imagine they’d tell me they have good candidates and appealing policies to voters.

A Democratic year?

There are about 900,000 more Democrats than Republicans in the state, and they tend to show up in numbers most in presidential election years. So conventional wisdom holds that this would be a good year for Democrats.

Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick said enthusiasm and turnout vary by region, and Donald Trump has some ardent supporters.

“With energy among Republicans in a lot of western and central areas of the state, Democrats have reasons to be concerned about those districts where they might have open seats or vulnerable incumbents,” he said.

A key figure in the Republican effort is state Sen. Scott Wagner, a hard-edged conservative who won his office running against party leaders in 2014. He’s poured a good bit of his campaign cash and some of his personal wealth into trying to unseat Democrats this year.

Democrats aren’t just playing defense, though.

They think they have a shot at the Republican seat in Delaware County, held by former state Rep. Tom Killion. He’s been there only since a special election in April. He’s challenged by Democrat Marty Molloy.

Even if the GOP gets a super-majority in the state Senate, it’s expected the state House will still hold enough Democrats to sustain a gubernatorial veto.

But Costa said it’s a bad thing for the Senate — and for citizens — to have a lopsided partisan balance in the chamber.

“You can’t build consensus then, and the things that are on the extreme get passed,” he said. “We need competitive seats, and a composition of the chamber that allows us to talk about the issues and reach a consensus somewhere in the middle.

“Common ground is what we need.”

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