The chances of flipping the Pa. legislature blue

Listen 15:03
Contenders for Pennsylvania's 151st legislative district seat, incumbent Republican Todd Stephens (left) and Democrat Jonathan Kassa. It's one of several districts Democrats are hoping to flip in the 2020 general election. (Photos from candidates' web pages)

Contenders for Pennsylvania's 151st legislative district seat, incumbent Republican Todd Stephens (left) and Democrat Jonathan Kassa. It's one of several districts Democrats are hoping to flip in the 2020 general election. (Photos from candidates' web pages)

Republicans have dominated state politics in Harrisburg for decades. For Democrats, gaining control of the General Assembly has been something of a holy grail — elusive, but they’re inching closer. And this year, there’s a chance both chambers could be up for grabs. 

WHYY political reporter Katie Meyer explains that while Democrats still face an uphill battle, their growing appeal in the suburbs could help them gain more seats in the Legislature.

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Interview highlights

On the number of seats Democrats would have to flip

Pennsylvania is one of the biggest state legislatures in the country. We have 253 people in there overall  — 203 in the House, 50 in the Senate. Democrats need to pick up nine seats in the House in order to flip it … and they need to get four seats in the Senate. That doesn’t sound like a lot when you talk about the entire numbers, because the chambers are so big. But that’s a tall order … Some of [the seats] have been solidly Republican for a long time. Some of them have been very popular incumbents. Some of them are open and that’ll be easier, but none of these races are shoo-ins. 

On Republican districts that could be vulnerable

When you talk to Democrats, the places they’re expecting to see the most gains are the places where they’ve seen the most gains in recent years, which is the Philadelphia suburbs. So there’s a couple vulnerable Republicans in there. And then because that’s not going to be enough for them to flip the chamber, you hit a ceiling in the Southeast at some point if you’re a Democrat trying to flip seats. So, for instance, former House Speaker Mike Turzai, a very conservative Republican, has retired. His seat is open and Democrats are making a very real bid to flip that seat. They are also looking at the suburbs of central Pennsylvania, like Dauphin County, Lancaster County.

On the chances Democrats have of flipping both chambers 

The quick answer here is it’s possible. It’s especially possible for the House, less so for the Senate. But absolutely not a sure thing.

The districts that flipped in 2018 — there were a lot of them, and they were kind of the low-hanging fruit. Those were the ones that were absolutely going to flip and were obvious choices to flip, so whichever ones are left this time, they’re going to be harder. They’re going to be more challenging for the Democrats to take over.

And I also think a really important thing to look at is even if neither chamber flips — like, say Republicans hold on to the House, they hold on to the Senate — Democrats probably will flip a couple of seats. And as the margins get closer, as the Democrats have more and more people and the Republicans have fewer in each chamber, it makes it easier for Democrats to get things done that they want to do, and it makes it harder on the flip side for Republicans to do the things that they want, so that’s significant. That’s something the Democrats have been coming back at for a while. They were in really small minorities and now they’ve been having better luck stymying big bills Republicans would like to pass.

So I think all of that is to say: again, I wouldn’t call it likely that both chambers would flip, but even if Democrats overtake some seats, say for instance if [Democrat] Jonathan Kassa beats [Republican state Rep.] Todd Stephens [in the 151st district in Montgomery County], there absolutely will be a shift in power.

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