Democrats set sights on state House

Pay-raise resentment, Iraq war may open door to 8-seat gain

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HARRISBURG -- Democrats in the state House are thinking big.

The party that has been out of power in the House since early 1995 says it could pull off a net gain of eight seats this November, enough to regain control of the chamber.

"After 12 years of a Republican majority and its failed leadership, voters are ready to elect an accountable, responsible and responsive Democratic House," said House Democratic leader H. William DeWeese, of Waynesburg, who would be likely to become the new speaker of the House if the Democrats take over.

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell also is beating the drum for a Democratic House.

"Don't just elect me as governor and Bob Casey to the U.S. Senate," he told a construction union group last week. "I want to see us elect Democratic legislators."

Republicans took control of the House in 1995, starting off with a bare majority of 102-101, and gradually built it to the current 109-94 margin.

"I strongly disagree" that Democrats can win back the House this year, Republican State Committee Director Scott J. Migli said.

He said House GOP leaders "have recruited a great bunch of candidates who will focus on lower taxes and better education. House Republicans are raising a lot of campaign money and have always been successful in their ground game," meaning meeting voters and getting them to the polls.

Al Bowman, spokesman for the House Republican Campaign Committee, disputed Mr. DeWeese's claims that Democrats would be "more accountable to voters."

If Democrats run the Legislature, Mr. Bowman said, "Take out your pay stub and look at the line that says 'state taxes,' because that will double."

There's no question Democrats have an uphill battle to pick up eight or more seats.

"Is it a longshot? Probably, but it's possible," said Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

A lot of voters still are fuming over the July 2005 pay raise, which cost 17 incumbent lawmakers, 13 of them Republicans, their seats in the May primary, he said.

Voter anger cuts both ways, of course, and could threaten some incumbent Democrats as well as Republicans.

"When there is great voter dissatisfaction with incumbents, there is a stronger possibility that legislators of both parties who have held onto their seats by narrow margins in the past may find themselves displaced," Mr. Baldino said.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, sees Republicans facing political problems stemming from the continuing unpopularity of President Bush and the Iraq war, and pointed to Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bob Casey's lead in the polls over Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

Targeted races

Mr. Frankel thinks Democrats have opportunities for gains in Allegheny County, suburban Philadelphia, State College and Reading.

One seat he's aiming at is that of Rep. Tom Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon, who lost the May primary to Mark Harris, a politically conservative college student.

Democratic lawyer Matt Smith could win that swing seat, which was held by Democrat Greg Fajt, of Mt. Lebanon, in the mid-1990s, Mr. Frankel said. Mr. Fajt is now state revenue secretary.

Mr. Frankel also sees Democrat Chelsa Wagner, a lawyer and niece of state Auditor General Jack Wagner, with a good chance to oust incumbent GOP Rep. Mike Diven, of Brookline.

Mr. Diven was elected as a Democrat two years ago but turned Republican last year after years of feuding with Democratic officials such as Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Wagner. Mr. Diven got onto the ballot this year only through a write-in effort.

If Democrats win those two seats, it would continue a Democratic trend started this year when Rep. Shawn Flaherty, D-Fox Chapel, won an election to finish the term of Republican Rep. Jeff Habay, who resigned after being convicted of using office workers for campaign work on state time. Mr. Flaherty faces Republican challenger Randy Vulakovich, a former Shaler police officer, in November for a full term.

Democrats also see themselves with chances in the southeast because of the popularity of Mr. Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, who is seeking re-election Nov. 7.

Mr. Frankel is optimistic Democrats could pick up as many as five or six House seats in the Philadelphia suburbs. Counties such as Montgomery and Chester had traditionally been solid GOP areas but Democrats have made gains in recent years.

Democratic Rep. Daylin Leach won a GOP House seat in 2002 and two more Democrats, Reps. Josh Shapiro and Mike Gerber, took over two other GOP seats in the 2004 election.

A Democratic candidate for state Senate, Andrew Dinniman, won a Chester County Senate seat his year in a district that had elected Republicans for 100 years.

But GOP State Director Migli doesn't see Mr. Rendell with long coattails. "That's a myth," he said. Mr. Bowman said Republicans gained House seats in 2002, the first time Mr. Rendell ran for governor.

In Mr. Rendell's nearly four years as governor, Republican leaders have controlled both the House and Senate, making his relations with the Legislature often rocky.

Having at least the House in Democratic hands "would make a huge difference" in getting his legislative proposals approved, the governor said.

Mr. Baldino, the Wilkes professor, said raising sufficient campaign funds is often a problem for Democratic challengers. But Mr. Rendell, a prodigious fund-raiser with nearly $14 million on hand, could help Democratic candidates by sharing the wealth, he added.

"If he wins big for governor, he could carry some Democrats in with him," Mr. Baldino said.

Of those 43 district with no incumbent in the race this fall, 26 are now held by Republicans and 17 by Democrats.

Democrats have their eyes on a seat near Reading that has been held by longtime GOP Rep. Dennis Leh, who's leaving because he lost the primary. Another open seat is in Centre County, near State College, where GOP Rep. Lynn Herman is retiring.

It would be a major upset for Democrats to win one in "the "T,"' the rural, wooded, conservative middle of the state made up of Central Pennsylvania and the tier north of Interstate 80. Most legislators from there are Republicans.

But Mr. Frankel said the Democratic candidate in Centre County district, Centre County Commissioner Scott Conklin, is well known and has a shot.

Pennsylvania isn't the only state where Democrats are looking to make gains in November.

"The 2006 state legislative elections could rival those of the historic 1994 elections, when the GOP picked up more than 500 seats in state houses" around the nation, said Tim Storey of the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Historically, the party that controls the White House has lost seats in state houses in midterm elections, as November's will be, NCSL officials said. Democrat Bill Clinton was president in 1994 when the GOP made its gains.

And with Mr. Bush's approval ratings staying low at about 30 percent, "It will be the Democrats that have the most to gain," Mr. Storey said.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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