GOP likely to keep control in Pennsylvania Legislature

But Democrats hope to pick up several seats in state races

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HARRISBURG -- While Democrats in the state Senate have their best shot in decades to flip several Republican-held seats, control of both chambers of the Pennsylvania Legislature is likely to remain in GOP hands when balloting concludes.

That doesn't mean Democrats are disheartened about state voters heading to the polls in a little more than a week. The potential for picking up two, perhaps three, Senate districts would be a major victory in a chamber that has been reluctant to budge from its divide of 30 Republicans and 20 Democrats.

As for the state House of Representatives, the 2010 elections brought a wave of freshman Republicans that hoisted the majority to its current split of 109-91. Another three seats are vacant in the 203-member chamber, including two that were held by Republicans.

Addressing a Republican Party gathering late last month, House Speaker Sam Smith was bullish about the chances his already large caucus may again add members.

"Sitting on a pretty healthy majority like that, some people might think you're just going to be on defense to protect what you have, but that's not the case -- we're going on the attack," Mr. Smith said, predicting a majority of between 109 and 112 Republicans.

Rep. David Reed, an Indiana Republican and head of his caucus' campaign efforts, on Friday said he prefers to leave the numerical predictions to others.

But he was confident about their work in defending several vulnerable freshmen in the state's southeast as well as the odds of defeating several longtime Democratic incumbents, such as Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville.

"I think we're going to do very well on Nov. 6," Mr. Reed said. "Not only will we maintain the majority but I think we'll do pretty well in gaining several seats."

Democrats are optimistic about their chances to grab back one Allegheny County seat that the GOP flipped in 2010. Freshman Rep. Rick Saccone of Elizabeth is in a rematch with former Democratic Rep. David Levdansky, a contest that observers have recently described as a toss-up.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also zeroing in on a handful of Democratic districts in Western Pennsylvania -- Reps. Rob Matzie of Ambridge, Peter Daley of California and Chris Sainato of New Castle -- along with the Lycoming County seat held by Rep. Rick Mirabito and retiring veteran Clearfield County legislator Camille "Bud" George.

Democratic hopes in the air

Still, House Democratic Campaign Committee chairman Brendan Boyle says he sees "a gentle breeze" blowing in his party's favor.

He points to the January state Supreme Court decision invalidating the legislative maps redrawn last year under the GOP majority as providing a small boost to his side, along with the governor's dragging approval rating.

"The fact that Tom Corbett is unpopular as governor, the fact that he proceeded to push through the largest cuts to education in state history and every single Republican voted for those cuts, those are factors," Mr. Boyle said.

The controversy that erupted over the state's now-paused voter identification law also motivated portions of the Democratic base, Mr. Boyle said.

"I feel very comfortable saying that when the House reconvenes in January, there will be more Democrats serving than there are today," he said, predicting that neither side will see unusually high numbers in its wins or losses.

Mr. Reed disagreed on the impact of either running under the legislative boundaries drawn in 2001 or the voter ID dispute. As for ripple effects from the governor's poll numbers, he added that Democrats are talking about Mr. Corbett "because they can't talk about President Obama, who isn't as popular as he was."

One seat that appears solidly in Democratic possession is the 50th Legislative District, previously represented by Bill DeWeese.

The longtime Greene County lawmaker was convicted in February on corruption charges. As primary voters were heading to the polls in April, a Dauphin County judge sentenced him to at least 21/2 years in state prison. He sought to remain on the ballot, but was kicked off in August by a state appellate judge.

Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder, who lost to DeWeese in the 2010 primary, replaced him as the party's nominee. She faces Republican Mark Fischer of Waynesburg.

In the state Senate, Democrats have found themselves defending few seats as they attempt to gain a foothold in Erie, southern Allegheny County and Harrisburg.

The Erie district previously represented by retiring state Sen. Jane Earll arguably gives Democrats their best shot at an addition, given the area's history of voting Democratic and sizable registration advantage. There, Republican Janet Anderson is facing Democrat Sean Wiley.

In Western Pennsylvania, Republican D. Raja is battling Democratic state Rep. Matt Smith of Mt. Lebanon to keep the seat vacated by Sen. John Pippy within GOP control.

Mr. Raja won a brutal three-way primary, while Mr. Smith was chosen by party leaders after the successful Democratic primary write-in candidate, Greg Parks, withdrew. As in the primary, a series of scathing ads have slammed Mr. Raja for outsourcing jobs as a businessman and Mr. Smith for counting his first term in the Legislature toward his state pension after pledging not to.

A victory by Mr. Smith would result in a special election to replace him in the state House. That wouldn't be the only vacancy to follow this round of balloting -- the contest for state auditor general features two current state representatives, Republican John Maher of Upper St. Clair and Eugene DePasquale of York, guaranteeing a special election to replace one of them.

Senate Democrats also are aiming for a win in the Harrisburg area, where the battle to succeed Republican Sen. Jeffrey Piccola has become a nail-biter with increasingly nasty flyers flooding mailboxes.

That race -- which like the Smith-Raja contest would have had dramatically different district boundaries without the Supreme Court decision tossing new legislative maps -- pits former Dauphin County Republican Committee chairman John McNally against longtime auditor general's office staffer Rob Teplitz.

"We feel very proud of the operation we've put together, the candidates we recruited and the campaigns they've run," said Aren Platt, executive director for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. "We're feeling very good and confident in the final days before the election."

electionspa - state

Harrisburg Bureau chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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