James Carville said famously, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Well, for Pennsylvania and its shifting power structure in its General Assembly, it’s got to be the maps.
Redistricting in the Keystone State was messy but the way that a special legislative commission eventually drew the maps made elections more competitive than they had in over 10 years.
“With a map that reflects the population more evenly, there’s the possibility that everybody’s voice will be heard, that everybody’s concerns will be heard, and that we will be represented more fairly,” said Carol Kuniholm of Fair Districts PA.
As of this morning, Democrats have a 101-100 advantage in the state House and are one victory away in the remaining two races in Bucks and Montgomery County from seizing the majority away from Republicans for the first time since 2010.
Pennsylvania will have some form of divided government either way, but having control of one chamber — the Senate remains solidly in Republican hands, at 28-22 — could give Governor-elect Josh Shapiro a better position to battle for his priorities in the Legislature.
“It’s an appropriate outcome, given the electoral makeup of Pennsylvania,” Kuniholm said.
How did we get to this point? Didn’t the GOP hold a commanding 113-90 advantage in the last session? How did Democrats get this close to the majority?
The answer rests with the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, served as chairman of the commission, which actually meant he was the tie-breaking vote on maps that will be used through 2030 for state House and Senate seats. Other members of the Commission included Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin), Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia/Delaware)
Nordenberg’s stated goal was to create House and Senate maps that better-reflect Pennsylvania’s political and demographic makeup.
“Republicans have been running on gerrymandered maps for decades, and they’re very upset that now they have to run on fair maps,” said Trevor Southerland, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“Pennsylvania is a purple state. It’s a toss-up state, and a 113-90 balance of power does not reflect that,” Mr. Sutherland continued. “So when you un-rig the maps and you have fair maps, look at where we are.”
There are more than 8.8 million registered voters in the Commonwealth with 4.04 million Democrats and nearly 3.5 million Republicans in addition to 1.3 million voters who are affiliated with another party or consider themselves independent.
However, the GOP has been able to make its own policy decisions without input from Democrats over the last decade, as few bills sponsored by Dems were able to pass both chambers of the General Assembly.
“We’ve been watching that really toxic dynamic in our state legislature, and we would suggest to leadership to rethink that as they start this next session,” Kuniholm said. “Both sides should think about how to make the legislative process work for everybody instead of shutting half of the population of Pennsylvania out completely.”
Though conventional political wisdom says few things are accomplished when a divided government is in power, Susan Gobreski, director of government policy for the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters disagrees.
“When people have to compete for support from the public, I think that that means that the public is more likely to get positive policies,” she told WESA. “People agree about much more than they disagree.”
The legislative maps certainly played a huge role in where things stand today, but the GOP’s fealty to former president Donald Trump may have also played a factor. Republicans are lamenting the selections of Mehmet Oz for U.S. Senate and Doug Mastriano for governor and the drag they may have had on down-ballot GOP candidates as well.
Lawmakers return to Harrisburg this week with caucuses expected to select their respective leaders. The projected majority will designate someone to stand for the chamber-wide contest for speaker on Jan. 3.
If Republicans control the chamber, that will likely be incumbent Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster). Should the majority shift to the Democrats, McClinton could become the state’s first female speaker.
One of the first orders of business will be to schedule special elections for three vacancies in the House for the seats of Summer Lee, Austin Davis and the late Anthony DeLuca. If the Democrats hold the speakership, those elections are likely to occur in March. If Republicans make the decision, filling those seats in the May 16 spring primary is much more likely.