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Corbett, Toomey win state; GOP captures U.S. House

State Attorney General Tom Corbett and former Rep. Pat Toomey led a GOP tide in Pennsylvania that mirrored the national surge that carried Republicans to control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Toomey had a narrow advantage in most pre-election polling but the Democrat held a surprising lead for much of the night until Mr. Toomey’s strength in the center of the state allowed him to come from behind. In the end, the former Club for Growth leader won his seat by the closest margin of any Pennsylvania Senate race in at least 40 years. Mr. Toomey’s candidacy had forced the incumbent, Sen. Arlen Specter, to flee the Republican Party. His win added to the GOP Senate gains that left them just short of control of that chamber as well.

Pennsylvania Democrats represented a disproportionate share of the party’s congressional casualties. At least six Democratic seats, half of the party’s strength in the state delegation, fell to the GOP. The losses fell heavily on the class of 2006 and 2008, the big surge years for Democrats here and across the county. The losers included Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, the Erie freshman who fell to Butler auto dealer Mike Kelly. Across the state, other members of the Democrats’ conservative Blue Dog coalition were losing or in unexpectedly tight races. The GOP also picked up two seats in the Philadelphia suburbs and two more in the state’s northeastern corner.

The results could set the stage for impasse in Washington. Even while in the minority in both Houses, Republicans had proved surprisingly adept at frustrating the Obama agenda. In his first two years, the president still managed to push through a consequential if controversial list of accomplishments, including health care reform, the economic stimulus package and an expansion of children’s health insurance.

The GOP has vowed to attempt to repeal the health measure, although for all their momentum Tuesday, they still fell far short of the numbers that would be needed to override a presidential veto. The parties will also continue to battle over whether and how to extend Bush-era tax cuts. The president’s bipartisan deficit commission, due to issue a report in December, could produce some fodder for compromise in the divided Capitol, but the still more conservative cast of many of the new Republican lawmakers adds one more challenge on the road to compromise.

In Harrisburg, Republican gains won’t mean smooth sailing. A deficit projected at anywhere between $2 billion and $5 billion was already guaranteed to make for difficult budget decisions for whoever prevailed Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Senate race offered a clear choice between a staunch economic conservative and a liberal Democrat who had bucked his party in wresting the nomination from Mr. Specter, but had been a reliable and unapologetic supporter of Obama administration policies ranging from the economic stimulus to health care reform.

Throughout the campaign, the candidates vied to portray one another as extremist enablers of Wall Street. Mr. Sestak relentlessly reminded voters that his opponent had worked as an investment banker before moving to Pennsylvania and working with his brothers on a chain of family restaurants.

Mr. Toomey, a three-term congressman who left office before the financial meltdown, responded that Mr. Sestak had voted for the Bush administration’s bailouts of big banks and followed that with unwavering support of the Obama administration’s spending to jump start the stalled economy.

The Pennsylvania seat they fought over had been a Republican one for 40 years before Mr. Specter’s startling decision to switch parties last year. He has held it for 30 years and former Sen. Richard Schweiker for the previous decade.

The seat represented a potential stepping-stone for the GOP long shot to a Senate majority. They needed a net gain of 10 seats. Their first switch came in Indiana, as Sen. Dan Coats, as expected, captured the seat left open by Sen. Evan Bayh’s decision to retire. In West Virginia, however, Gov. Joe Manchin survived a surprisingly competitive race against businessman John Raese in the special election to fill the last two years of the seat opened with the death of Senate legend Robert Byrd.

In Kentucky, Rand Paul, the tea party darling, secured the GOP-held seat left open by the retirement of Sen. Jim Bunning in a wild race filled with charges of idol worship and the head stomping of an anti-Paul activist by one of his supporters.

The GOP gained another early victory in closely watched Florida, where Marco Rubio, anointed by conservative figures ranging from tea party activists to South Carolina’s conservative firebrand, Sen. Jim DeMint, won by a surprising margin in the three-way race for a Florida Senate seat.

The Pennsylvania race for governor, one of 37 battles for governors’ mansions across the country, was a matchup of two fiscal conservatives who promised to change the culture of Harrisburg. The match pitted two Allegheny County residents, and Mr. Corbett parlayed his local roots and a relentless advertising assault against the Democrat, to score a rare Republican victory in their home county. Mr. Corbett polled 206,140 to Mr. Onorato’s 205,805. Mr. Sestak, meanwhile, came out of the county with a margin of more than 40,000 votes.

Mr. Corbett started with the key advantage of the months of headlines generated by his office’s prosecutions of legislative figures accused of using public resources for electioneering. Pointing to his experience leading a county with lower unemployment than the rest of the state, Mr. Onorato insisted that his record demonstrated an ability turn around its recession-wracked economy. His credentials as a government reformer rested on his successful support for a consolidation of the county’s row offices, but that one-time transformation lacked the enduring headline-generating ability of the legislative perp walks that followed the grand jury probe of the Bonusgate investigation.

In the face of a primary challenge from the right from Rep. Sam Rohrer, an extreme economic conservative, Mr. Corbett pledged early in his campaign that he would not raise taxes in any form. Mr. Onorato mocked him for his pledge, but at the same time said he had no plans to raise taxes with the exception of his support for a severance tax on natural gas deposits.

The results continued a decades-long pattern of the two major parties trading control of the governor’s office every eight years. Throughout the campaign, neither candidate offered anything resembling a blueprint for the difficult budget decisions awaiting the next administration. Barring a quick return to prosperity, those tough but inevitable decisions could jeopardize another Harrisburg tradition — that every governor since the two-term limit was established in 1968 has been elected twice.

Both statewide Democrats built early leads as they came out of the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia with healthy margins. In the populous counties surrounding Philadelphia, increasingly the fulcrum of Pennsylvania politics, there was a mixed result. Bucks and Chester counties went for the Republicans, while Montgomery and Delaware counties gave majorities to the Democrats.

Those counties formed the cores of two of the big Republican House pickups — the 7th District, Mr. Sestak’s seat, won by former prosecutor and Specter aide Pat Meehan, and the 8th, where former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick defeated Rep. Pat Murphy, the Blue Dog Democrat who had ousted him in 2006.

The Pennsylvania U.S. House field was a key battleground in the overall GOP effort to recapture the speakers’ gavel that they lost in 2006. That election cycle along with the 2008 presidential year provided a shift toward Democratic dominance of the state’s House delegation. For Democrats, the downside of that success was a field of low-hanging fruit for the GOP this year.

The GOP gains helped determine not only the overall control of the House but the answer to the long-running debate over whether Pennsylvania was shifting from a recurring battleground to a more reliably Democratic state.

Counties in the Philadelphia suburbs and the Lehigh Valley, once solidly Republican, have moved to the Democratic column over the last 15 years. State GOP officials looked to last night’s results to counter that trend.

Mr. Corbett’s victory increased the stakes in the trench warfare over the state House, now controlled by the Democrats. While the final margin wasn’t certain, it was clear Republicans knocked off enough incumbents to seize control. Among the House seats Republicans successfully targeted were several Westmoreland County incumbents. Republican challenger Eli Evankovich defeated Rep. John Pallone, and George Dunbar was leading Rep. James Casorio. Democratic gains were countered, however, by the fact that Rep. John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, the former GOP speaker of the House, lost his seat after a storm of bad publicity arising from his indictment in the ongoing Bonusgate case.

That county, like much of southwestern Pennsylvania beyond the Allegheny County borders, has been increasingly hospitable to Republicans at the state and national levels.

A Republican takeover of the state House would give the GOP complete control of the 2011 redistricting process, when the governor and the Legislature will have to agree on a congressional map that’s expected to give Pennsylvania one less seat than its current allotment of 19. The result could make for an uncomfortable 2012 primary for two of the surviving Democratic House members. One clear option for Republicans hoping to boost their congressional presence over the next decade would be to draw a new district that would force two Democratic lawmakers to run against one another.

Politics Editor James O’Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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