Guest Column: GOP Control of State Senate Likely

Democratic State Senate Leader Jay Costa declared in a recent Post-Gazette article that his party was “on the cusp” of taking back control there. Could that happen in November? Potentially, perhaps — but it’s not likely.  Hamstrung by poor candidate recruitment which has begat even poorer campaign fundraising, it’s clear that Democrats, who picked up three Senate seats in 2012, will be hard pressed not to actually lose ground this fall — a net gain by the Senate GOP is actually the likeliest scenario today.

A district by district review shows that State Senate Democrats are not close to taking control of that Chamber in November, which the GOP now holds with a 27-23 margin.

Starting Gate:

Looking at the 25 odd-numbered Senate seats which are not up this year plus those Senators who are on the ballot this fall but unopposed produces a 17-17 R/D split between the two parties.  Note that the GOP has already picked up the 38th District – Sens. Vulakovich (R) and Ferlo (D) were put together there in redistricting but then Ferlo decided to retire.  The Democrats, inexplicably, could not field a candidate though 50% of the District’s voters are Democrats.

Of the remaining 16 contested state Senate races on the November ballot, our analysis shows Republicans are favored in eight and the Democrats in three; meanwhile there are two GOP leaning districts and one Democrat leaning district – which together makes it 27-21 R/D, with two toss-ups.  Below is a detailed look at these 16 seats.

Republican Favored: 6th, 10th, 12th, 16th, 24th, and 44th in greater Southeast Pa. and the 28th & 36th in central Pa.

Nowhere is the Senate Democrat’s poor recruiting job more evident than in greater southeastern Pennsylvania, where the recent electoral trends should provide them with favorable headwinds. In the two districts in Bucks County – the 6th and the 10th, along with the 12th that straddles the Bucks/Montgomery County line — Republican incumbents Tommy Tomlinson, Chuck McIlhinney and Stu Greenleaf respectively have more than $500,000 combined in their campaign treasuries.  Their Democratic opponents have about $26,000 combined cash on hand (CoH). (All the campaign fundraising numbers mentioned here come from the candidates’ most recent filings in mid-June with the Sec. of State’s office.)

Sen. Costa stated that Senate Democrats would benefit from Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf’s strength at the top of the ticket, boasting that their efforts are “tied at the hip.”  But remember that in 2006 those GOP incumbents all managed to win even though the very popular Ed Rendell – in a terrific year for Democrats across the country – secured those districts by landslide proportions: 75%, 67% and 69% respectively. Even if Wolf carries these districts in November, no one (not even Sen. Costa) can think Wolf will recreate Rendell’s margins there.  These three Republican incumbents are battle-tested and have an overwhelming fundraising edge, not to mention that costly TV/radio rates in the Philadelphia media market make it harder for challengers to “buy” name ID.  Polls in the 6th and 10th put both GOP incumbents comfortably ahead.  Plus, none of these districts changed very much in redistricting, so the Republican incumbents don’t need to introduce themselves to new voters.

Emblematic of the Democrat recruiting woes here, the Democrat nominee in the 10th District, political neophyte Steve Cickay, made headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer recently – but only because Rendell, Sen. Anthony Williams and other Democratic leaders publicly said they wanted to dump him and swap in another candidate. Rendell recently endorsed Cickay, however half-heartedly.

In Lehigh County’s 16th District – the second most Democratic district held by a Republican – popular GOP incumbent Pat Browne has $313,000 CoH while his opponent, Walter Felton, has less than $500.  And incredibly, Felton just became the new Democratic Party Chairman in Lehigh County which means he’ll have even less time to spend on his own campaign.

In the 44th District Republican incumbent John Rafferty has more than 4 times the CoH of his opponent, Chester County Democratic Commissioner Kathi Cozzone. And the GOP incumbent in the 24th District, Bob Mensch, didn’t have an opponent until local Democrats put together a write-in effort.  Both districts sport a GOP registration advantage.

The two central Pennsylvania districts – the 28th in York County and the 36th in Lancaster County — are overwhelmingly Republican and will not be seriously contested by the Democrats.

Democratic favored: 2nd & 4th districts in Philadelphia and the 22nd in Northeast Pa.

Incumbent 2nd District Democrat Christine Tartaglione survived a spirited primary challenge while her neighbor, indicted incumbent Leanna Washington, lost her primary in the 4th District.  Nevertheless, both districts are overwhelmingly Democratic and will remain that way.  Likewise, 22nd District incumbent John Blake from Scranton will easily win re-election to his seat, home to nearly 60,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

Republican Leaning: 40th District in Poconos and the 50th in northwest Pa.

During redistricting the 40th District was moved from Allegheny County to Monroe and Northampton counties, where long-time GOP House member Mario Scavello is favored to win.  Monroe County is a difficult place to campaign – especially for challengers — as many people live in gated communities and the north Jersey/NYC expats who moved there read the Bergen Record of New Jersey as often as they do the local Pocono Record…so it’s harder for an unknown candidate to get noticed there.  Plus the district is split between the Philadelphia, Scranton and NYC media markets which puts more strain on a candidate’s budget.  All this augurs poorly for Democratic activist/attorney Mark Aurand, who surprised observers and bested two more establishment Democrats in their May primary.  The well-known Scavello has 200 times more CoH now than Aurand.

The 50th District, in the “great northwest” as the folks there like to say, is a battle for the open seat of the retiring Republican incumbent Bob Robbins. Both Robbins, and his GOP predecessor, Roy Wilt, have endorsed four-term GOP State Rep. Michele Brooks, who now holds the same State House seat that Robbins did before he ascended to the Senate in 1990.  Brooks has nearly $75,000 CoH while her Democratic opponent, attorney Michael Muha, has less than $500.

Democratic Leaning: 46th District in far southwestern Pa.

First-term incumbent Democrat Tim Solobay represents the 46th District which is dominated by Washington and Greene counties.  His 53% win in 2010 gives him the distinction of being the Democrat with the closest winning margin that year.  Registration there favors the Democrats but like much of the region its people are voting more and more Republican – both counties went strongly for Mitt Romney in 2012.  Solobay has not made many enemies in Harrisburg and is outpacing his GOP opponent, Washington County businesswoman Camera Bartolotta, in fundraising; both parties look to be focusing their efforts in other districts.

Toss-Ups: Open seats in 26th District in Delaware & Chester counties; 32nd District which contains all of Fayette & Somerset counties and several towns in Westmoreland County

Both districts offer great opportunities to the party that does not currently hold the seat. The 26th, being vacated by GOP incumbent Ted Erickson, has a Republican registration edge but its people have been voting more Democratic in the past 10 years at the national and state-wide level.  Though the race is a toss-up, it’s clearly the Democrat’s best hopes for a take-away this year, as they believe local Plumber’s union business manager John Kane can wrest this seat away from the GOP by beating Delaware County Councilman and small business owner Tom McGarrigle.

Both McGarrigle and Kane are well funded and together have already raised more than one million dollars –this will be the most expensive senate race in the state. Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who represents the neighboring 9th District, is heavily invested in this race, just as many regional and state unions are on board with Kane (though McGarrigle did just snag the AFSCME endorsement). The local GOP is better funded and has a superior organization to call on, but to win McGarrigle will almost certainly need to run ahead of the top of the ticket.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the state, the 32nd District, being vacated by the retiring Democratic incumbent Rich Kasunic, represents the Senate Republican’s best chance at a take-away.  Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnatti is heavily invested in this race, and is strongly backing the Republican, small business owner Pat Stefano, who owns and operates his family’s third-generation printing company.  Stefano squares off against Democratic State Rep. Deb Kula.  Both candidates hail from Fayette County, long a Democratic bastion. The 32nd District is a reverse mirror image of the 26th in that it holds a Democratic registration edge but Mitt Romney won its two main counties in 2012, Fayette and Somerset.  This seat sits partially in the Pittsburgh TV market and also in the Johnstown-Altoona market, which will drive up the cost of campaigning.

To summarize, the Senate currently sits at 27-23 in favor of the GOP.  Though campaigns are unpredictable and there’s still lots of politicking still left, looking at the key 2014 races it appears that the Republican advantage brings it to 27 seats while the Democrats are at 21, with two toss up races. If the Democrats win both they will only be back to where they are now, but if the GOP can win either or both of the toss-ups, they can get back to what has been their more “normal” majority of 29.

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP consultant, is the Political Director at the Pa. Business Council, home to PEG PAC, the state’s oldest pro-business political action committee.

Reader Poll: Republicans Will Hold State Senate

Harrisburg-Capitol-steps2The Republican Party will maintain their longstanding majority in the Pennsylvania State Senate.

That is the belief, at least, of our readers after we laid out the plan for Democrats to flip the chamber. The current partisan breakdown is 27 Republicans to 23 Democrats.

558 readers believe that the GOP will stay in the majority.

Meanwhile, just 356 respondents chose the Democrats to take the two or three seats (depending on whether Wolf-Stack wins and breaks a tie) necessary to control the Senate.

The full results are included below:

Which Party Will Control the State Senate After the November Elections?

  • Republicans (61%)
  • Democrats (39%)

Total Voters: 914

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DEP: Water Wells Were Contaminated by Drilling 243 Times

gas-drillingPennsylvania’s environmental groups have been pushing for a long time to have the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) release the number of drilling incidents that have resulted in water contamination. Yesterday, they finally got their wish.

According to the Associated Press, there have been 243 cases of water wells being contaminated as a result of oil and natural gas drilling since 2008.

In addition to the environmental groups, the AP and various other new agencies also filed several open-record requests and even lawsuits in order to view the documents.

According to the documents, the problems included methane gas contaminating the wells as well as wastewater spilling into the supply. In some instances, the water wells just went completely dry.

The AP found that problems occurred in twenty-two counties throughout the state with most of them occurring in the Northeast.

“I guess this is a step in the right direction,” Thomas Au of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club chapter said of the public release of documents on drinking well problems. “But this is something that should have been made public a long time ago.”

Meanwhile, the Marcellus Shale Coalition blamed the state’s geology for the issues.

“[Pennsylvania] has longstanding water well-related challenges, a function of our region’s unique geology — where stray methane gas is frequently present in and around shallow aquifers,” MSC President Dave Spigelmyer responded in a statement. “Our industry works closely and tirelessly with regulators and others to ensure that we protect our environment, striving for zero incidents.”

SD-26: McGarrigle Announces Support for Severance Tax

Tom-McGarrigleIt’s not every day a Republican supports a tax, let alone a tax on natural gas drilling. Yet Tom McGarrigle is out to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.

The contest for the State Senate’s 26th district is one of the most competitive in the commonwealth and could very well determine control of the chamber.

GOP nominee Tom McGarrigle sought to illustrate his policy (and moderate) bona fides by calling for a 4% severance tax on natural gas drilling in an op-ed for the Delaware County Daily Times.

“This was a summer of missed opportunity in Harrisburg,” McGarrigle wrote. “That missed opportunity – the chance to impose a severance tax on corporations extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale – will hurt homeowners in the form of higher property taxes and Pennsylvania students in the form of less money in our classrooms.”

McGarrigle acknowledged that the concept of a severance tax was “taboo among Republicans in the Legislature.” He asserted that the revenue generated would go to funding schools, which would in turn reduce property taxes.

“We have a booming natural gas industry that is making billions of dollars annually,” the Delaware County Council Chairman explained. “Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s fee on Marcellus Shale natural-gas wells is the lowest among 11 states. The severance tax of 4 percent that I have proposed will put Pennsylvania in the middle of the pack compared to other states. Natural gas companies would pay their fair share, and it would not hinder the future development of the industry.”

McGarrigle is currently running against Democratic nominee John Kane, the head of Plumbers Local 690.

Reader Poll: Who Will Control the State Senate?

PA_State_Senate_districts_by_party_svgThe State Senate has been a Republican stronghold for years, but Democrats believe this could be their year to finally become the majority.

The current composition of the upper chamber gives the GOP a four seat advantage (27 to 23) but with Tom Wolf holding a solid lead in the Governor’s race, his party is hoping his coattails are long enough to drag in the sufficient number of Senators to hand the chamber to the Dems.

To accomplish this, though, the Democrats would have to prevail in a number of closely contested races. As broken down by Thomas Fitzgerald of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the current Democratic plan is to hold two seats in Western PA (which is becoming more conservative) and pick up three seats in Eastern PA (which is becoming more progressive).

This will be a tough task for Democrats, the equivalent of drawing a straight flush in poker. Still, the Dems believe a blue wave led by Wolf would provide enough momentum to pull off just such a feat.

Republicans counter that the incumbency advantage, as well as the tendency for midterm electorates to lean more conservative than presidential electorates, favors the GOP.

So, we ask you our dear readers, which party will control the State Senate after the November elections?

Which Party Will Control the State Senate After the November Elections?

  • Republicans (61%)
  • Democrats (39%)

Total Voters: 914

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State Agencies Keep Deleted Emails for Only Five Days

email-logoAccording to an AP report, members of Pennsylvania state agencies are instructed on how to deal with managing their state email inbox. Deleted emails are kept for only five days before they are deleted permanently.

This means they can no longer be accessed by the public or the press through the Right-to-Know law. For instance, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette used the Right-to-Know law to discover only five emails sent by the Ron Tomalis, the special education adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett who will officially resign on Tuesday.

Emily Grannis, a legal fellow with the Committee for Freedom of the Press, summarises the problem with this practice of allowing public officials and employees to delete their own emails.

“You’re leaving it up to the person who created the record to determine whether or not it needs to be archived. That’s a problem,” Grannis said.

Dan Egan, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Office of Administration, disagrees. He explained that most of the emails are “chatter” and not the sort of emails that could be considered public records. Still, transparency advocates do not understand why the emails must be permanently removed after five days.

“That’s an amazing amount of discretion to give every public employee who may not have any legal training,” said Melissa Melewsky, media counsel with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

“We could keep it for longer,” Egan said. “But there would be an additional expense for storage.”

Open government advocates around the country certainly believe that would be a useful expense. Interestingly, school districts across the state utilize systems that retain deleted emails for months or longer according to Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Administrators Association.

These reports raise a number of questions concerning whether important public records are being destroyed and who exactly gets to decide what are public records.

SD-10: Rendell Endorses Cickay

cickay rendellSteve Cickay, the Democratic nominee for State Senate in PA’s 10th district, received the support of former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell last week.

“I heartily welcome Governor Rendell’s support,” said Cickay, “and am ready to go to the Senate to improve support for education, expand employment, and protect the environment for all Pennsylvanians. The people in District 10 have had enough of Corbett and McIlhinney. They’re tired of the incumbent Senator who has consistently voted to underfund education, against decent paying middle-class jobs, and to support Big Oil over the safety of our environment.”

While the support of Gov. Rendell is practically a Democratic ritual at this point, for Cickay it represents an important victory.

Just last month, Rendell was leading a group of influential Democrats who were urging Cickay to step aside under the theory that former PA-8 congressional candidate Shaughnessy Naughton would have a better chance of defeating GOP State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney.

Cickay, however, refused and pledged to fight on.

“I met with Steve Cickay and we discussed some ideas about his campaign,” Rendell told PoliticsPA. “He’s a Democrat, like I said he has every right to stay in. Tom Wolf is on the ballot and I think he’ll have a big effect in Bucks County and anything can happen.”

With all that drama behind him, the Democratic nominee is focusing on the contest ahead.

“Too often my opponent proposes studies with the purpose of delaying concrete action, or keeps important remedial legislation permanently bottled up in Senate committees,” Cickay stated. “I plan instead to get things done on a wide variety of issues where many of the people in District 10 clearly want action, not just talk.”

The 10th district comprises most of central and eastern Bucks County.

PA-165: GOP Rep. Adolph Gets Wealthy New Opponent

Bill-AdolphRepublican Bill Adolph’s re-election may be a bit more difficult than he and his staff had anticipated.

Slated to run against Jeremy Fearn, a Democrat with little funding until a month ago, Adolph may have even had his sights set on becoming the next Speaker of the House.

Adolph handily defeated Fearn in 2012, 63.2% to 36.8% and has served since 1998.

Fearn withdrew from the race on July 29th, and Hadley filed nominating petitions with the state’s election bureau this past Monday.

Until 75 days before an election, state election law permits parties to present nomination paperwork for another candidate. Hadley’s paperwork was filed 77 days before the November 4th election.

The Delaware County Republican Party thinks the last minute candidate switch was deliberate and sneaky.

“This was a backroom deal struck by Democrat party leaders looking to reward a major donor. The fact that they waited until hours before the deadline to file the paperwork indicates they were trying to do this in secret.  Many residents were unaware the Fearn had even withdrawn his name from the ballot –so there was no opportunity to for other potential Democrat candidates to throw their name in the ring for consideration,” stated Delaware County GOP Chairman Andy Reilly.

Hadley donated more than $150,000 to Democrats this year.

Between August 14 and 16, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party conducted phone surveys to search for Fearn’s replacement. Delaware County’s area code is 610, however the filed petitions display that people from both the 215 and 717 area codes were polled, according to Reilly.

Local voters may not have even known that Fearn withdrew from the race, due to the timing of his dropping out and Hadley’s subsequent filing of the petitions.

Delaware County is the 5th most populous PA county and three of its last four PA House Representatives have been Republican.

The GOP controls most offices in the county, however the area has become increasingly Democratic in recent years, as its communities border Philadelphia.

Rep. Adolph raised $463,492 during his 2012 campaign, and has raised a total of $1,934,238 since 1998. This money will surely help as Charles Hadley prepares to make a run for his seat this November.

Update: Barry Caro, Hadley’s campaign manager, contested the notion that his candidate is a hedge fund manager. He asserted that Hadley is a venture capitalist who works with small medical device companies. Caro also made clear that his candidate has the support of the local party and county chairs as well as Jeremy Fearn himself.

“We’re excited for the upcoming campaign,” Caro told PoliticsPA “because it provides a contrast between a leader of failed politics, the guy that actually wrote the Corbett budgets, and a local businessman who’s worked with small town entrepreneurs to create new technology that’s in place in pretty much every operating room across the U.S. today”

FBI Investigating Organization Linked with State Rep. Dwight Evans

wolf-ad-evans“What do you not understand about the word no?”

That’s what State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia) said in response to requests for comments about the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., or OARC. Evans, who founded the nonprofit organization designed to help the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, said he was not aware of any investigation by the FBI.

According to four individuals with adverse dealings with OARC, however, the FBI is snooping around OARC, focusing particularly on the organization’s finances.

“They indicated they were investigating multiple things, but they did not reveal what those were,” Peter Meadow, who was interviewed by the FBI about OARC, said. Meadow is a lawyer who represented Sadiki Travick, who co-owned a restaurant with OARC.

“They don’t give you much information,” Germantown publisher Foster said of the FBI agents “But I have to say I got the feeling there was activity going on. They focused a lot on nonprofits and certainly on OARC and their operations.” Foster’s neighborhood newspapers published articles critical of OARC.

Evans, a powerful state representative and a close Wolf ally, does not run OARC; in fact, he is not even a board member. What he has done as a legislator is help deliver tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to the nonprofit based in his 203rd district–$29 million in state funds since 2000.

Major questions have arisen, and perhaps prompted an FBI investigation, about the use of that money. A state investigation into OARC ended with the nonprofit giving $1.2 million back to the state government and forgoing an addition $1.8 million that would have gone to OARC. The organization admitted no wrongdoing as a part of the settlement. The City of Philadelphia claims that OARC still owes them $256,000 for jazz festivals held in 2010 and 2011. According to one confidential report submitted to the state Inspector General’s Office, OARC improperly used $12 million in state grants between 2006 and 2011.

One incident pointed out by the state investigators was state money used to promote Wine Down Wednesdays at OARC’s and Travick’s restaurant. In total, $110,000 over two years to sponsor this event at the restaurant.

“They asked questions about OARC and the money OARC allocated to the restaurant,” Travick said. “They wanted to know how the money was spent.”

The FBI may continue to ask questions about OARC; voters, meanwhile, may begin to ask questions about State Rep. Dwight Evans’ use of state money. Evans was Democratic Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee but was voted out in 2010 because his colleagues felt he was granting too much money to his own district.

SD-10: Second Poll Shows McIlhinney with Big Lead

McIlhinneyOne poll can be an outlier, but two point to a trend.

A day after we reported on a poll in the race for the State Senate’s 10th district, PoliticsPA obtained a second survey – this time from a Republican operative – that confirms the incumbent holds the advantage.

A survey from GOP pollster Susquehanna Polling and Research Polling found incumbent Republican State Senator Chuck McIlhinney with a 55% to 27% lead. When respondents were told more about the candidates, it widened to a 56% to 24% margin. These numbers are strikingly similar to the toplines from Democratic pollster Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies poll, which had McIlhinney at a similar level but Cickay with about ten more points.

Meanwhile, the Senator has a 36% favorability rating against a 10% unfavorability rating. 37% know of him but have no opinion, meaning just 17% of respondents don’t know him.

Cickay, on the other hand, was not known by 60% of respondents. 18% knew him but had no opinion, while 9% of those polled had a favorable view towards the Democrat and 11% had an unfavorable view.

As in the 39th Street Strategies poll, this survey leaned towards Republicans (they made up 46% of those polled compared to the 40% who were Democrats). Yet Tom Wolf still led Tom Corbett the gubernatorial race by a four-point margin, 47% to 43%.

As we mentioned last time, so far at least Wolf’s coattails don’t seem to be working in the 10th Senate district.

The poll was conducted by landline and mobile phones and surveyed 300 respondents from July 21st to 23rd. The margin of error is +/- 5.65%.

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