Pivotal Northeast Philly race tilts red as Pa. Legislature remains up in the air

Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg

In this file photo from Nov. 19, 2019, the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible through the trees in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania’s legislative candidates urged patience late Tuesday night and said they were confident in the vote-tallying process, even as millions of ballots remain to be counted and control of the Legislature remains unknown.

“Be steadfast that we will get those numbers,” said Jonathan Kassa, a Democrat running to replace Republican incumbent Rep. Todd Stephens in the 151st Legislative District. “Whenever that might be, we can react accordingly.”

Democrats have hoped a swell of support for Biden will translate into success down the ticket. Republicans have controlled both chambers of the statehouse since 2011, and have had a majority in the Pa. Senate since the mid 1990s. However, over the past few elections Democrats have slowly eroded the GOP’s grip.

This year, nine House seats and four Senate seats need to flip in order for the Democrats to take control of both chambers.

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In late October, the Cook Political Report moved the Pennsylvania House from “lean R” to “toss up.” The nonpartisan election-forecasting service said it made the change because it expected Biden’s polling advantage indicated potential increased support for down-ticket Democrats.

Republicans have a tighter grip on the state Senate. Cook forecasted the GOP as likely to continue to hold a majority there.

The final result is not yet clear.

As of midnight on Tuesday, Democrats had fallen substantially behind in a state legislative race many saw as crucial to retaking the chamber: the 170th District in Northeast Philadelphia. 

Rep. Martina White, of Somerton, built a following in the Far Northeast with support from unions and police. She’s held the seat since 2015 and last year was named chair of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee.

White’s challenger is Mike Doyle, a realtor and activist. Doyle recently had to answer for some 2016 Facebook posts, unearthed by the GOP, in which he used the n-word, and posted a picture of a cemetery covered in anti-Semitic graffiti. He claimed the posts were made to mock another Facebook user’s racism and bigotry, but the revelations lost him the support of the city’s teachers union. He did benefit from a last-minute endorsement from Mike Meehan, the former leader of Philadelphia’s Republican Party.

Doyle said late Tuesday he was holding out hope that uncounted mail ballots could make up the gap. Either way, he reiterated that he trusted the process.

“I feel like our democracy will do what it’s supposed to do,” Doyle told WHYY.

Both Democrats and Republicans have poured an unprecedented amount of money into this year’s Pennsylvania Statehouse races.

All told, the parties’ House and Senate campaign committees have raised more than $35 million, according to a Pennsylvania Capital-Star analysis. That figure doesn’t include the final two weeks of the race, for which reports are not yet available. By comparison, those committees raised $26 and $20 million in the past two election cycles.

Democrats, and groups supporting them, have outspent Republicans in competitive districts by a margin of more than 3 to 1, according to the Inquirer.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf poured $500,000 of his own cash into the races. After six years of wrestling with Republican majorities, a flip would ostensibly allow him to advance some of his legislative priorities in the final two years of his term, including raising the minimum wage, increasing environmental protections and passing statewide LGBTQ protections.

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