Top 5 PA Senate Races

PA's state Senate districts. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Pa. Senate has been a place where conservative legislation goes to simmer and moderate. Will Democratic gains make the chamber even more centrist? Here are the top 5 seats in play this year.

The GOP has controlled the state Senate for two decades, pushing, compressing and redrawing Democrats into a smaller and smaller share of the chamber. But the Pa. Supreme Court tossed a proposed map that would have preserved the party’s 30 to 20 majority. Add that to a much more aggressive and professional campaign operation than the caucus has seen in awhile, and operatives on both sides acknowledge that 2012 the Dems’ year.

They won’t gain the majority, but they could change Republicans’ math on a host of legislative initiatives like vouchers, tort reform and state budgets.

Seats are ranked by likeliness to switch party control.

Editor’s note: this is our first list of the fall; keep an eye out for regular updates on the state of the campaign for Pa. House and Senate. And in case you missed it, here is yesterday’s list of the top 10 Pa. House races.

SD-49. Open seat, Republican, most of Erie County

Sen. Jane Earll is Erie’s kind of Republican. Moderate, dispassionate and likeable, she’s managed to hold a Democratic-leaning seat for 16 years. Republicans are hoping that Janet Anderson can fill her shoes (almost literally, if you watch her latest TV ad). She’s got a resume that would make most candidates jealous: a former staffer for Earll and Tom Ridge, she spent years working on economic development issues in the region. But the Democratic candidate, Sean Wiley, is no slouch. An executive on the business side of St. Vincent Hospital and former county government employee, his profile is strong, too.

The math here is rough for the GOP. The President won this district by a healthy margin in 2008 and figures to do so again this year, and the district favors a Democrat in a generic race by double digits. Both candidates are on cable TV with positive ads; Anderson is also on broadcast. The latest proposed redistricting map doesn’t change this seat much.

SD-37. Open seat, southern Allegheny County and Peters Township, Washington County

D. Raja is one win away from being a rising star in the GOP. He defeated state Rep. Mark Mustio in a nasty three-way primary when Sen. John Pippy (R-Allegheny) announced his intent not to run again. An immigrant from India to Pittsburgh, Raja started a business that now employs 300. But he has baggage. He badly lost his 2011 race for Allegheny County Executive – including the Allegheny portion of SD-37, which comprises about 91 percent of the senate district. His business acumen are tainted by the fact that his company helps other businesses outsource jobs. But he has been personally successful, and he’s has hinted that he’ll spend whatever it takes to win this seat. The presidential race in this part of the world will boost the Republican.

The Democratic candidate, State Rep. Matt Smith, is popular in the Mt. Lebanon district where he was elected in 2006 (defeating Raja’s consultant Mark Harris, then a candidate). A talented campaigner long seen as having potential for higher office, he had initially declined to run for this seat because he expected Mustio to win the primary. But thanks to some grade-A shenanigans by Democrats, he subbed in to the ballot spot in addition to running for re-election to his House seat. Both candidates are on TV – Smith with a positive spot, Raja with a negative one. The latest proposed redistricting map doesn’t change this district much.

SD-15. Open seat, Republican, most of Dauphin County including the city of Harrisburg, parts of northern York County

This race is a clash of the insiders. Both candidates are well connected in Harrisburg and were the picks of the state’s party leaders to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin). Rob Teplitz, the Democrat, is Chief Counsel and Policy Director in the Pa. Auditor General’s office. He faces Republican John McNally, the former chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Committee and a partner at a local law firm.

The district came 3.8 points away from ousting Piccola in 2008, and Dems think the diminished presidential year turnout won’t hurt them as much as the absence of incumbency will hurt the GOP. Both candidates are on local cable. However, there’s a potential X factor for Dems: Alvin Q. Taylor, the man Teplitz barely defeated in the Democratic primary. Citing what he said was foul play, Taylor said in June that he would wage a write-in campaign. If he goes through with it, he could siphon key votes from Teplitz in what is likely to be a narrow race. Redistricting may help McNally, too, if indirectly. After this cycle the district changes drastically, dropping Dem-friendly Harrisburg areas in exchange for rural Perry County – so its value could shrink in the eyes of Democratic stakeholders who see limited long term possibility of keeping the seat.

SD-47, Elder Vogel, Republican, most of Beaver and Lawrence counties

If this were an open seat, it would be closer to the top of the list. Vogel won election in 2008 after incumbent Democratic Sen. Gerald J. LaValle resigned retired amid ethics concerns. The district retains a 27 point advantage for Democrats in voter registration (in western Pa., so that’s to be taken with a grain of salt). Democrat Kim Villella is a good candidate with a big family network and an impressive resume. She started a salon as a young woman and now she and her husband own several businesses in the district.

Expect the Democrats to lean heavily on the Corbett budget/Harrisburg Republicans angle in this race, because it would be tough to raise his negatives otherwise. That’s because Vogel, a farmer, has all the advantages of an incumbent plus he’s well-liked in the district. So far, Villella is on TV and Vogel is not. The proposed redistricting map would make this seat more Republican, but not prohibitively so.

SD-29. Dave Argall, Republican, all of Schuylkill County and parts of Berks, Carbon, Monroe, and Northampton counties.

Argall, who’s running for his first full term in the Senate, faced his toughest test in the primary. But he’s not out of the woods yet. Former Democratic State Rep. Tim Seip is a solid candidate and he has the ability to contest Argall’s home county. Argall was first elected to state House in 1985, ascended to the Senate after the passing of Sen. Jim Rhoades in 2009, and ran for Congress against Tim Holden in 2010. He was challenged from the right in April’s primary by businessman Brian Rich who, like Holden, hammered Argall with his vote for the midnight pay raise.

Seip is a social worker by trade and he represented southern Schuylkill County in the state House from 2006 until his defeat by Rep. Mike Tobash in 2010. If he’s able to get some momentum going and demonstrate credible fundraising, he will move this contest into the same conversation as the four races above. He’s not there yet. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats here 45 percent to 43. The proposed map would keep all of Schuylkill in the district, but become more GOP-friendly as it sheds its three eastern counties to pick up more of Berks.

9 thoughts on “Top 5 PA Senate Races

  1. It sure seems like a “bait and switch” in the Matt Smith vs. Raja race. The voters voted for Greg Parks, not Matt Smith. How is it that they can just put someone in that was not even part of the vote? Isn’t it time to give Raja a chance? He has proven he can do good things in the real world. It seems like it is time to give him a chance to make a difference in the State Legislature. Politics should be a commitment of duty not a cradle to grave career.

  2. Argall vs. Seip, really?? Seip will get buried. If you think this seat is in play it makes one question your analysis of the other four seats.

  3. Still wrong that you claim Sen. LaValle resigned because of ethics concerns. He was 77 and had 4 different pensions lined up.

    It’s a different story about Sen. LaValle’s wife.

  4. Sean Ramaley was and is a decent and ethical man and leader. In his case “not guilty” most certainly meant “innocent”. Any suggestion to the contrary is unfounded character assassination, similar to the politically motivated prosecution that unjustly targeted him.

    I, for one, hope Sean will make a return to public office.

  5. Sounds to me like Dems might pick up senate seats, come alot closer to control and maybe be able to stop Corbett’s disgraceful agenda.

  6. Being found not guilty keeps one out of prison. It does not mean “innocent,” and it does not mean “not dirty.”

  7. District 47:
    Sen. LaValle did not resign. He just retired.

    The 2008 Democratic candidate (Sean Ramaley) to replace him was indicted by Corbett and was found not-guilty, but of course the bonus gate investigation was completely transparent and fair.

    Ramaley had to drop out because of the indictment and his career was ruined even though he was found not-guilty.

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