In fight for control of Pa. legislature, Philly suburbs a battleground

HARRISBURG — Although tipping the balance of power in Pennsylvania’s legislature this year is a heavy lift, Democrats are gearing up for a fierce fight to chip away at the commanding majorities Republicans hold in the House and Senate.

Tuesday’s primary will be the opening act for that effort, although the general election in the fall will be the real test of whether the political controversies engulfing the Trump White House trickle down to shape local races.

Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) put it this way: “All the angst is going to rest in November and not so much here in May.”

Half the seats in the 50-member Senate, as well as all 203 in the House, are up for grabs this year. And with an unusually high number of retirements in both legislative chambers, particularly of lawmakers in the Philadelphia area, both parties believe this year’s election could shift the political dynamic in the Capitol.

“I don’t want to throw the ‘M’ word around — ‘majority’ — but with every news cycle where that guy in the White House does something even crazier than before … a monumental pickup seems more and more a possibility,” Nathan Davidson, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said of capturing a significant number of Republican seats.

For Democrats, the ultimate hope is to pick up enough seats in the next two election cycles — this year and 2020 — to have a more prominent voice, if not the upper hand, in shaping maps for congressional and state legislative seats come 2021.

It will be a difficult task. In the House, Republicans have a 119-81 edge over Democrats (there are three vacancies). In the Senate, the GOP now commands a veto-proof majority: 34 of the 50 seats are held by Republicans.

And though the House has flip-flopped over the last decade between Democratic and Republican control, the Senate has been firmly in the hands of the GOP for decades.

In the House, 28 lawmakers are either retiring — including longtime Philadelphia State Reps. Curtis Thomas, John Taylor, and Bill Keller — or have already left the chamber, such as Republican Rep. Scott Petri of Bucks County, now the head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Three-quarters of those seats are or were held by Republicans.

Come November, many of the battleground races will be in the Philadelphia suburbs (also home to several districts now held by GOP members) that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election — evidence to Democrats that they are ripe for the taking.

In Philadelphia, there are several crowded Democratic primaries, including a four-way contest for Keller’s 184th District seat among retired Philadelphia Police Detective Nicholas DiDonato Jr., former WHYY reporter Elizabeth Fiedler, legislative aide Jonathan Rowan, and lawyer Tom Wyatt.

Another city-based primary where Democrats are elbowing each other to snag a win is the race for Taylor’s 177th District seat in the Northeast. In that contest, four Democrats — law student Maggie Borski, daughter of former U.S. Rep. Bob Borski; immigration lawyer Joseph Hohenstein; union plasterer Sean Kilkenny; and community activist and organizer Dan Martino — are vying to take on Republican Patty-Pat Kozlowski, a onetime City Council aide, in November. Kozlowski is running unopposed.

In the Senate, 25 seats are up for re-election. Of those, seven are currently held by Democrats who are running for re-election without primary challengers, said David Marshall, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

The remaining 18 seats are held by Republicans — four of whom are not running for re-election: Sens. Chuck McIlhinney of Bucks County and Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County, who are retiring; Sen. Scott Wagner of York County, who is running for governor, and Sen. John Eichelberger of Blair County, who is running for Congress.

Democrats say they are mounting a challenge in every Senate district on the ballot this year except one — the seat held by Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne).

Both parties expect Senate races in the Philadelphia suburbs to be among the most competitive. And, as they are in House races, Democrats are targeting several districts in counties ringing Philadelphia that supported Clinton in 2016.

In Bucks County, Democratic State Rep. Tina Davis is challenging longtime State Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson. And in Delaware County, two Democrats — Swarthmore Mayor Tim Kearney and former Philadelphia prosecutor Tanner Rouse — are vying for the chance to challenge incumbent State Sen. Thomas McGarrigle in the fall.