State GOP looks forward to 2010
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Democrats and Republicans are laying the groundwork for next year's state House races, contests that could shift the state's political balance through the next Harrisburg administration and, at the congressional level, for the next decade.
Republicans have been in the minority in the House since 2006, but political history and state and national polling results give them hope of recapturing the Speaker's gavel and potentially a chance to control redistricting.
"I'm convinced that we have a strong opportunity of taking back the majority," said Rep. Mike Turzai, Bradford Woods, the Republican whip, as he cited a handful of House seat targets that could reverse the Democrats' slim 103-99 advantage.
Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, acknowledged that some of the party's House members face tough races, but he argued that is true on both sides of the aisle.
"I think it's going to be a tough year for all incumbents," he said. "I think there are going to be some traditionally safe seats that are far more competitive than people would expect."
Despite a 1.2 million Democratic registration edge in the state, recent polls and election results, as well as long-term historic trends, present warning signs for the Democrats.
Tim Storey, of the National Council of State Legislatures, pointed out that in all but two midterm elections since 1900, the party holding the White House has suffered a net loss of legislative seats across the nation. The only exceptions were 1934, with the nation in the grip of the Depression, and 2002, as post-9-11 support for the Bush administration galvanized support for GOP candidates up and down the ballot.
While Pennsylvania-specific factors were in play in both cases, the last two times that control of the state House shifted came in mid-term elections that produced national waves of support for the party that prevailed in Harrisburg.
In 1994, the Republicans, aided by one Democratic legislator's defection, captured the state House as they rode a tide of national GOP gains that also ushered in a Republican Congressional majority for the first time in decades. In 2006, the chamber reverted to Democratic control as that party took over the U.S. House as well.
Pennsylvania's race for governor appears wide open at this point. But if the Republican nominee managed to win as candidates did in Virginia and New Jersey this year, control of the House would determine whether Democrats are shut out of control in state government. Republicans likely don't run that risk: Their 30-20 Senate margin could be eroded but is large enough that it is unlikely to be reversed.
Among the many issues that could turn on the state House results is the Congressional redistricting that will be voted on by the Legislature elected next year. The legislative redistricting that will follow the 2010 Census is controlled by a bipartisan commission. But the Congressional map is up to the Legislature and the governor, determined in a process just like any normal bill.
The last time around, the GOP had complete control of the process. The result was a map calculated to favor Republicans. Initially it worked as planned, producing a big shift toward the GOP in the state's delegation in the 2002 elections. By the end of the decade, however, the Democratic tides of 2006 and 2008 had reversed that margin.
Whether Pennsylvania's 2010 will be as good a year for Republicans as 1994, or for Democrats as 2008, depends on variables that have yet to play out. Chief among them is the economy. Unless unemployment figures begin to decline soon, the jobs climate figures are likely to stir winds at the back of Republican candidates. A turn toward prosperity, on the other hand, would allow the White House to make the case that Democratic policies successfully combated an inherited economic crisis.
The acquittal of former state Rep. Sean Ramaley Thursday came just in time to spoil Attorney General Tom Corbett's Pennsylvania Society weekend. But more prosecutions are pending, with the potential not just to influence the state's overall political climate, but to produce unanticipated open seats on the November ballot.
Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshal College political analyst, noted that beyond the headline issues such as the economy, the distribution of open seats would be one of the most important influences on the two parties' chances.
"With incumbent protection in the way districts are drawn we're still not talking about tidal wave elections," he said. "This will be a narrow thing one way or the other ... We'll have a better feel in January, when people start making retirement announcements. Open seats are still key."
One pending vacancy seen as a prime target of opportunity by Republicans is the Chester County seat held by Rep. Barbara McIlvaine Smith. After first winning the seat in 2006 in a race so close that it wasn't resolved until weeks after the polls closed, Ms. Smith was re-elected easily in 2008, but she has announced that she won't defend the seat next year. Mr. Turzai said the GOP is optimistic of reclaiming the district, which had been Republican until her election.
"I can tell you one district we think we can pick up is the 71st," said Robert Gleason, the state Republican chairman, referring to a seat in his Cambria County back yard. It was an open seat in 2008 when the incumbent, Rep. Bryan Barbin, edged his Republican opponent by fewer than 200 votes.
Mr. Turzai also cited several local Democrats as potential targets. He said the GOP was recruiting candidates for several suburban districts, including those of veteran Democratic Reps. Frank Dermody in the Allegheny Valley and Joe Markosek in eastern suburbs including Monroeville. Mr. Dermody has beaten back well-funded GOP challenges in each of the last two general elections. Mr. Markosek was unopposed in the 2008 general election but his district extends into Westmoreland County, an area of increasing Republican strength in recent elections.
Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County Republican chairman, said the party also hoped to mount a strong challenge to Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, whose election to a formerly Republican seat helped bring about the Democratic majority. He said they had already had one candidate, although he declined to identify the potential challenger.
Jim Burn, the Allegheny County Democratic chairman, said that one Republican seat that the party hoped to challenge was that of Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon. Mr. Burn said, however, that the Democrats hadn't yet settled on a challenger for Mr. Mustio, who won a comfortable victory in 2008.
"One thing that's different about this time around; we're seeing people who want to run," said Mr. Gleason, the state GOP chair. "The last two cycles, I had to beg people to run."
Mr. Gleason pointed to the recent statewide judicial elections as an omen of GOP prospects in 2010. Reversing the pattern of 2008, Republican areas consistently produced higher turnouts than Democratic areas, propelling the GOP candidates to victory in six of the seven contested seats.
Turnout always falls in mid-term elections compared to presidential years, and that is likely to be particularly true after the large registration surges among younger voters and minorities that came with President Barack Obama's 2008 victory.
"The  electorate will be whiter and older," said Mr. Madonna.
Mr. Ardo, the state Democratic Party spokesman, didn't identify any particular Republican House targets for his party, but said, "There are certainly places around the Commonwealth where there are open seats. There are going to be opportunities for the Democrats in upcoming elections; there's no question about that."
He dismissed Mr. Gleason's suggestion that low-profile judicial elections were a reliable guide to other contests.
"Certainly it's a worrisome year, but I think it's also an unprecedented environment ... The challenge for the Democrats is to explain to a wider constituency why voting for them is in their self-interest," he said. "We'll just have to make sure our message is clear and concise.''
But the NCSL's Mr. Storey cautioned that "there are a number of trends that do not bode well for the Democrats in 2010, not the least of which is that they've done so well in the last three elections."
Mr. Storey pointed out that, nationally, the Democrats' state legislative strength is now at its highest point since 1994, when, two years after the election of another Democratic president, a Republican tide brought a net national loss of 514 Democratic legislative seats.
First Published December 13, 2009 12:00 am