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.

September 3rd, 2014 | Posted in Front Page Stories, Guest Commentary, Harrisburg, Top Stories | 7 Comments

7 thoughts on “Guest Column: GOP Control of State Senate Likely”

  1. J Cannon says:

    It is going to be interesting with Kula & Stefano. Who wrote that script for the Stefano commercial? It’s understandable why he might not want to identify as a republican, but the rest of the commercial is amateurish. If there is any hope of picking up that seat, somebody had better start taking this campaign seriously. Why would you even think about a script that asks more questions than it answers? Why does any businessperson have to skip a paycheck? Does that not cause a question about his business practices? Does he appear noble? Yes. Smart to draw attention? Probably not.
    If this is really a best effort? There has to be a good reason why Stefano is running. Other than pick me, I’m different, not a lot there.

  2. Josh says:

    Chris did a good analysis here. It’s as good as anyone else’s and better than all but one other I’ve seen on the state senate. Chris may be an R, but he’s both an establishment guy and a realist. There’s no fluff here, just solid thinking. What I noticed is that some partisan Ds are crabbing about it. C’mon guys, gotta drop that party devotion and just look at cold numbers.

  3. Jeremy says:

    There are so few responses to the column because no one really knows what to expect. Wolf will unseat Corbett which will break with 80 years of re-election history. Will that have an impact down ballot? The simple answer is …. Yes! But, the real question is how much? And no one knows. It is very, very hard to say.

    As a Democrat, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dem’s won the State Senate. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans retained it either.

    Another important question is… Why isn’t fresh start putting money into competitive State Senate races? It would be a different dynamic if Wolf wins with a Dem State Senate.

  4. I don’t know where PoliticsPA got their campaign finance numbers for Mike Muha, but they’re wrong. In fact, the analysis is sloppy. When the cycle is up, I suggest you guys take a closer look at Michelle Brooks’ numbers. She did poorly in a candidate forum recently. She thought bringing renewable manufacturing to PA wouldn’t work because the PA climate isn’t conducive to solar energy production. Yea, science and facts are difficult for her to figure out – let alone economics. Nonetheless, she hasn’t done herself any favors all summer. The question is with the General Assembly out of session, where has she been? Where are her public events? Why won’t she agree to a public debate with Mr. Muha? Maybe you guys should get on the ball and quiz the Brooks camp about their campaign rather than incorrectly citing some campaign finance report from 9 months ago and writing up some Republican hit pieces.

  5. The Lizard says:

    @Realist. When PoliticsPA gets a Republican consultant to write an analysis without any balance, what’s the point? Same thing we’ve been hearing from that bunch for awhile. With Wolf up by 25, will there be NO effect downticket? The SD 40 race won’t be all about money.

  6. Ryan says:

    Good analysis.

  7. Realist says:


    I guess no D’s have any objections to this.

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