5 things in Pa. politics to watch in 2018 | John Baer

Pennsylvania Budget
There’s actually a chance for change in Pa. politics. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Believe it or not, the normal state of Pennsylvania politics – a swamp of sameness and despair – could see systemic change in 2018.

I know, I know, wishful thinking.

Still. Signs are there. Stuff could happen. I surveyed a half-dozen insiders for five things that bear watching.

Thing one: that gerrymandering case.

Last week, one (Republican) Commonwealth Court judge said our congressional districts, ranked among the nation’s most partisan, should stay as drawn.

Ah, but the case is now before the (5-2) Democratic state Supreme Court; oral arguments Jan. 17.

We all know judges don’t (cough) play politics. But imagine if the high court rules the other way and orders the legislature to redraw lines for future elections, maybe even this year’s.

That could alter the face of our 18-member delegation to Washington: currently 13 Republicans, five Democrats, no women – which, if you think about it, sort of reflects the socio-cultural landscape of most of Pennsylvania.

(Speaking of which, watch for women running in 2018, and especially whether #MeToo translates into votes in ways that change that landscape.)

Thing two: resizing the legislature.

Talk about wishful thinking!

Yet there’s a bill (H.B. 153) to amend the constitution to trim the nation’s largest full-time legislature. It would cut the House from 203 to 151, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

(Coincidentally, 52 fewer lawmakers would also reduce Harrisburg’s crime rate and raise its collective IQ.)

The legislation passed both chambers last session. It needs to pass again this year, then go to voters as a ballot question. Not saying it’ll happen. Saying it could happen if pressure is brought in an election year by activists, citizens, et al. to push it.

Thing three: congressional races.

In additional to angst caused by President Trump in suburban Philly-area seats, there’s a special election March 13 in Western Pennsylvania already drawing national attention.

It’s for the seat of former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a married, pro-life Republican who resigned in October after reports he asked a lover to seek an abortion.

(Don’t our pols find so many ways to self-immolate?)

The district is Trumpland. The Democrat is 33-year-old Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran from a political family. The Republican is 59-year-old State Rep. Rick Saccone, a Trump supporter and Air Force veteran with experience in counterintelligence and international affairs.

This will be closely watched as a precursor to the 2018 midterm election, and a test of Trump’s standing in a key part of the state.

Thing four: the governor’s race.

The GOP primary to oppose Gov. Wolf holds promise. Democrats hope for a bloodbath. Republicans don’t know what to hope for.

They’ve got a woman (prominent Pittsburgh lawyer Laura Ellsworth), which is good. A rich, smooth corporate type (Pittsburgh biz consultant Paul Mango), which is normal. A rich, rowdy, blue-collar Trump type (York County State Sen. Scott Wagner), which is risky. And a long-time incumbent legislative leader (House Speaker Mike Turzai), which, given the popularity of our legislature, is mystifying.

Meanwhile, Wolf seeks reelection in a state that tends to reward all incumbents who avoid criminal charges (and some who don’t), and gets to watch the GOP spend money and energy on a four-way shootout.

Thing five: the Senate race.

It’s probably too early to jump on any 2018 Democratic wave. But it’s hard to see incumbent Sen. Bob Casey in any real trouble. Republican Lou Barletta is about as Trump-tied as one can get. And Casey’s upped his game and tweaked to the left on issues related to guns and abortion in ways probably making his managers yell out, “It’s alive!”

Now, all these electoral things will be impacted by whatever happens with Trump as the year progresses.

Any Trump bump, for example, helps Saccone, Wagner and Barletta. That could come from more money in everyday paychecks, progress on infrastructure, peace in the Middle East, or the sudden disappearance of Robert Mueller.

But, given the nature of politics these days, you know there are unseen twists and turns to come certain to give us more than just five things to watch.