ELECTIONS

Pa. Democrats are on the verge of flipping the House of Reps for first time in a decade

Bethany Rodgers Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

Pennsylvania government in Harrisburg could be on the brink of a partisan power shift.

The outcome of a few too-close-to-call races should soon decide whether Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in a decade. Republicans have already recaptured a majority in the commonwealth’s Senate, and outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf will be replaced by fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro.

But the dynamic in Harrisburg could still shift if the House of Representatives flips from Republican to Democrat.

By Thursday evening, Democrats had won 101 House seats and Republicans had 100, leaving two races that the Associated press had yet to call. Just a couple votes separated the candidates in one of those contests, and the mail-in ballot count is still underway across the state.

Clinching a majority could empower Democrats to derail Republican initiatives on abortion and elections and give Shapiro a better shot at advancing his agenda in the formative first years of his administration.

Democratic lawmakers are so confident they’ve locked down a majority that they held a jubilant press conference Wednesday, crediting new redistricting maps for helping their party pick up seats in the House.

“One thing we’ve seen, after decades of gerrymandered maps, that it turns out 50% of Pennsylvania voters vote Democrat,” state Rep. Joanna McClinton, the House Democratic leader, said at the press conference. “It’s an amazing thing, what a fair opportunity and fair maps and fair districts will provide.”

But Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP consultant in Pennsylvania, said he thinks Democrats are celebrating too soon.

"I think it's premature for any party to say they now control the state House," he said. "Because it's just not clear yet."

Fate of abortion amendment up in the air

Constitutional amendments to curtail abortion rights and curb the governor’s powers are almost certainly stalled under a Democrat-led House, says Joe Corrigan, a Democratic strategist who has worked on Pennsylvania legislative races.

Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers rammed through a proposal aimed at establishing that there is no constitutional right to an abortion in the commonwealth. The same measure would add voter ID and election auditing requirements and make it easier for legislators to undo executive branch regulations. 

Wolf has filed a lawsuit to block the package from moving forward, arguing that it’s improper to combine so many topics into a single bill. 

But the attempted constitutional change could be derailed regardless, since these amendments have to pass in two successive legislative sessions before ending up on the ballot. And that won't happen with Democrats in control of the House, Corrigan said. 

Gov. Tom Wolf has sometimes been at loggerheads with the GOP-controlled General Assembly during his term.

Even if Republicans retake the House in two years, they’d have to start the amendment process all over again, he added. 

“That’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “The constitutional amendment process is essentially killed for four years at least.”

Shapiro’s agenda could get a boost

Wolf has often been at odds with the GOP-held General Assembly, using his veto pen to fight back against legislative initiatives he opposes. 

Lawmakers have responded by advancing proposals to amend the Pennsylvania constitution, a process that circumvents the governor’s veto. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro departs after voting at the Rydal Elementary School West polling location on Nov. 8, 2022, in Rydal, Pennsylvania.

But if Democrats take the House, Shapiro could work with that chamber to advance his agenda — and Nicholas says a handful of Senate seats would act as “the bulwark against total Democratic control of state government.”

Still, Shapiro might even succeed in getting his proposals through the Senate with the help of some deal-making, Corrigan said, noting that the state is sitting on a large budget surplus.

“I have a feeling that there's going to be a lot of development in those Republican Senate districts,” he said.

The House could have its first female leader

During Wednesday’s press conference, legislative Democrats not only predicted they’d win a House majority but also that McClinton would be elected Pennsylvania’s first female House speaker. 

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, McClinton said the GOP-led General Assembly has spent the last couple of years “obsessed” with the results of the 2020 presidential election and has ignored the issues that matter to average Pennsylvanians.

“We've had an agenda to defend democracy for a long time, and we finally will get ready to enact it as we go into 2023,” she said. 

House Rep. Joanna E. McClinton rallies the crowd inside the sprawling Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks at the Election Night party for Josh Shapiro on Nov. 8, 2022. McClinton has been nominated by the state Democratic caucus to be the next Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

But Nicholas says Democrats could face some challenges electing a House speaker in January because of vacancies in their caucus. 

Democratic Rep. Tony DeLuca died in October, and there will have to be a special election to refill his seat; state Rep. Summer Lee will be sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in January after her congressional win this week.

“So I'm not clear how that works, if you win a majority on Election Day but then with your vacancies and people moving up, you can't keep that,” Nicholas said. 

How Democrats gained ground

New legislative district lines changed the playing field for Democrats this election.

Earlier this year, a redistricting panel — made up of four legislative leaders and a nonpartisan chair— approved the new House and Senate maps. Republicans blasted the House map design as a Democratic gerrymander, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff filed one of several legal challenges against the plan. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, tossed out these lawsuits and upheld the panel’s district designs. 

Nicholas agrees that the new House boundaries were a major factor, saying the new map “really put the screws to the Republicans.” A number of GOP incumbents decided against standing for reelection at all because their reshaped districts were so left-leaning, he said. 

Lisa Borowski, a Democrat who has deposed incumbent GOP state Rep. Chris Quinn, said the new lines essentially evened the playing field between her and her opponent. 

She’s served for several years as an official in Radnor Township, an area in the Philadelphia suburbs that became part of Quinn’s new district. So each candidate was campaigning in communities where they’d run previously and in some where they hadn’t. 

A preliminary map of proposed new state House districts in Pennsylvania.

In a Facebook post, Quinn acknowledged he’d “faced a hard, uphill battle in a newly redrawn Democratic-leaning district and, unfortunately, came up short.”

But Borowski said the races weren’t just about these new lines. Voters were worried about attacks on abortion rights, economic difficulties and efforts to discredit the elections and undermine democratic institutions. 

“And I think some of the candidates, the extreme candidates at the top of the ticket here, brought that to light even more, even for us and for our down-ballot races,” she said.

PA Senate race 2022

On the state Senate side, a trio of GOP state representatives helped their party retain its 28-seat majority.

State Reps. Tracy Pennycuick, Frank Farry and Rosemary Brown won their Senate races by 5, 10 and 11 percentage points, according to Senate Republican Campaign Committee communications director Michael Straw. Each was replacing a retiring Republican state senator.

Straw said their margins of victory were remarkable because each was in a 1-point district during the 2020 presidential election.

"We won all three open state Senate seats. We think that it was a pretty good night for the Republicans in the state Senate," Straw said.

"Considering the entire environment that we're seeing nationally, the Republicans fared pretty well."

Straw added that he believes Pennycook, Farry and Brown each won because they are "experienced legislators" who focused on veterans affairs, halting inflation and tough-on-crime issues.

“Senate Republicans’ success at the ballot box on Tuesday demonstrates that Pennsylvanians still believe in our mission of fighting against higher taxes and promoting safer communities,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-34) said in a press release. “I congratulate my colleagues for their hard-fought wins in every corner of the state.”