Now that the results of the recent Primary Election are official, the successes enjoyed by progressive and Democratic Socialist backed candidates in Allegheny County are but the latest example of how well they, many of whom have been women, have been doing in these past few election cycles. Perhaps masked only by the unique situation, and dominant position, that will certainly surround the upcoming presidential election, 2020 promises to offer the same for down ballot races, only more so.
Starting in 2017 General Election, Anita Prizio and Mik Pappas won the 3rd Allegheny County Council District and 05-02-31st Magisterial Judicial District against sitting incumbents, with 51 and 55 percent of the vote, respectively. Then, in the 2018 Primary Election, Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee seized the nominations from two long serving Democratic state House incumbents in the 21st and 35th State House Districts, scoring 64 and 68 percent of the vote, respectively, and went on to win, unopposed, in the subsequent General Election. And, of course, Lindsey Williams prevailed in the 38th State Senate District contest, and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman went on to become the Lieutenant Governor, in that same General Election.
In the recent 2019 Primary Election, Bethany Hallam and Olivia Bennett overwhelmed the Democratic At-Large and 13th District incumbents in the Allegheny County Council, accruing 53 percent and 58 percent of the vote, respectively. Pam Harbin prevailed in the open Pittsburgh School Board Director race for the 4th District, receiving 54 percent of the vote and, after some early set-backs, Turhan Jenkins, seeking the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County District Attorney, tallied a respectable 41 percent of the vote, against a long-time incumbent. Now, with Allegheny County Public Defender Lisa Middleman promising to mount an independent campaign for District Attorney, this trend may well continue to the General Election this year.
Leaving aside, for the time being, which Democratic State House incumbents might be subject to similar Primary Election challenges next year, the question arises as to which Republican State House incumbents could be vulnerable to Democratic opponents in that General Election. That said, for all of the successes that Democratic nominees enjoyed throughout Allegheny County in 2018, it is, perhaps, some of their losses that might best answer that question.
That year, aside from state-wide victories in the Gubernatorial and U.S. Senatorial contests, along with a greatly narrowed 9 – 9 finish in the Congressional races (with a considerable assist from the new, and far more favorable, State Supreme Court imposed map), Democratic candidates picked up seats in both the State Senate and House which, when adding in subsequent Special Election wins, has placed them within 3 State Senate and 10 State House seats of seizing control of one or both of these legislative chambers. It should be noted that, at the State House level, Democratic gains were made exclusively in the counties that are included in the Philadelphia Media Market, the South Eastern part of the Commonwealth.
Nonetheless, as impressive as are 93 Democratic seats in the State House, it cannot be forgotten that at least 4 additional State House seats, in Allegheny County alone (nearly half of what are needed to achieve a majority), were within grasp, but left on the table with relatively narrow losses. The far greater Democratic performance in these Districts, over that in past races, illustrates that point. These seats include the 28th and 30th State House Districts in the North Hills and the 40th and 44th State House Districts in the South Hills and Western environs. Let’s now examine each of these seats, in turn.
From 2004 through 2010, no Democratic candidate managed to acquire even 30 percent of the vote in the 28th State House District. The Democratic candidate did, however, do marginally better in 2016, garnering 35 percent of the vote. But in 2018, the Democratic nominee, Emily Skopov, came within margin of error, against Majority Leader of the State House, Republican incumbent, Mike Turzai, winning 46 percent of the vote.
In contrast, the 30th State House District was briefly held by Democrat Shawn Flaherty, after a 2006 Special Election, resulting in a very, very narrow 50 – 50 win. However, he was quickly defeated in the follow up General Election that year, garnering only 46 percent of the vote against Republican Randy Vulakovich. When Vulakovich subsequently ascended to the State Senate, he was succeeded by Republican Hal English, who went on to win a series of uncontested elections, until he retired in 2018. That year, the Democratic nominee, Betsy Monroe, also came within margin of error by winning 48 percent of the vote in the contest to fill this open seat.
Both of these State House seats are completely encompassed within the 38th State Senate District. With the aforementioned retirement of Vulakovich, this open seat was very, very narrowly claimed by Democratic candidate Lindsey Williams last year in, essentially, a 50 – 50 photo finish. This, along with the respective close finishes that are outlined above, as well as increasingly strong showings in recent state-wide election contests, best makes the case that there is absolutely no reason why a similar outcome might not be in the cards for either, or both, of these State House seats next year.
But, during what promises to be a hyper politicized presidential election cycle next year, it is what happened with the other two State House Districts, the 40th and 44th, in the South Hills and Western part of Allegheny County, that is of particular interest. The importance of which will be explained shortly, it should first be noted here that the municipalities that make up the 40th State House District are a subset of the old 18th PA Congressional District and the 44th State House Districts is entirely situated within the new 17th PA Congressional District. Both State House Districts are entirely located within the 37th State Senate District, to which we soon turn. First, however, let’s have some background and context as to the recent groundwork that has been laid for these upcoming contests.
In the wake of U.S. Representative Tim Murphy’s resignation in 2017, Democratic candidate Conor Lamb very, very narrowly defeated the Republican nominee, State Representative Rick Saccone, by about 800 votes overall, a 50 – 50 win, in a Special Election for the old 18th PA Congressional District. That razor thin winning margin came out of the Allegheny County part of this District, where Lamb received 57 percent of the vote, and was largely driven by an arduous labor and progressive grass roots effort on his behalf, even though Lamb himself didn’t espouse particularly progressive positions.
After the state Supreme Court subsequently created a far more amenable Congressional District, Lamb switched his efforts to this new 17th PA Congressional District in the following General Election contest, where he went on to handily defeat incumbent U.S. Representative Keith Rothfus, garnering 56 percent of the vote, and accruing 59 percent in the Allegheny County part of the District alone. This victory was, again, largely driven by the strenuous efforts of the same groups who had handed Lamb his first win earlier that year.
When Lamb switched Congressional Districts for the General Election, an opening was left in the new, far more Republican friendly, 14th PA Congressional District. This vacancy was filled by the Senator from the 37th State Senate District, Republican Guy Reschenthaler. Domino like, Reschenthaler’s elevation to Congress, in turn, set up a 2019 Special Election in the 37th State Senate District itself.
As we now know, this became a race between Democratic nominee, Pam Iovina, and Republican candidate, D. Raja. From 2000 through 2008, Democratic candidates never received more than 34 percent of the vote in this District. In 2012, this drought was broken, temporarily, when Democratic nominee, Matt Smith, garnered 52 percent of the vote, in an open seat contest, against the very same Republican contender, D. Raja. Smith himself would resign before completing a single term, setting up a 2015 Special Election in which the Democratic nominee, Heather Arnet, would accrue only 45 percent of the vote against the aforementioned Republican, Reschenthaler. In 2016, past patterns would largely reassert themselves, with the Democratic candidate garnering a mere 39 percent of the vote.
However, in the 2019 Special Election, Iovino benefited greatly from the Herculean efforts expended by the same labor and progressive grassroots groups that had provided Lamb with his earlier margins of victory. When the smoke cleared, Iovino received 52 percent of the overall vote, 54 percent in the Allegheny County part of the District alone, and become a State Senator.
This, finally, brings us back to the point of the exercise, the 40th and 44th State House Districts. The Republican incumbents in both of these Districts retired, leaving two open seats in the 2018 General Election. John Mahr, the long-time Representative in the 40th State House District, had never even faced a challenge until the previous election cycle in 2016. In that case, the Democratic nominee garnered only 35 percent of the vote. However, the Blue Tide of 2018 would even lap at the shores of the inhospitable 40th, with the Democratic nominee, Sharon Guidi, receiving 44 percent of the vote. In Allegheny County, her share of the vote amounted to 48 percent, illustrating what a Black Hole it is for Democratic candidates in Peters Township, the Washington County part of the District.
The 44th State House District has been a bit more amenable to Democratic candidates, but nonetheless, since the long-time Representative, Republican Mark Mustio, first won this seat in a Special Election in 2003, the Democratic electoral take in this District languished in the 30’s and low 40’s at best. Indeed, by 2014 and 2016 Democrats failed to even field a candidate. However, in 2018, the Democratic nominee, Michele Knoll, came within striking distance of a victory, receiving 48 percent of the vote.
So, how does all of this fit into a road map to victory next year for Democratic candidates in these Districts? Most easily put, it’s a matter of examining, voting precinct by voting precinct, how Democratic candidates performed in each of the contests that have been outlined above and then extrapolating that performance for the upcoming races. Specifically, if you take the highest percentage of the vote, in each voting precinct, that was garnered by Democratic candidates in those contests that are appropriate to each District, adjusted to the total voter turnout percent for a particular relevant election, the amount of votes by which the hypothetical Democratic candidate in 2020 might be expected to prevail can be projected.
First, we examine the 40th State House District. In the 2018 Special Election for the old 18th Congressional District, Lamb outpolled Saccone by about 400 votes in those voting precincts that overlap with the 40th State House District. In those same voting precincts, Iovino received 46 percent of the vote against Raja in the 37th State Senate District Special Election, just a few short months ago. Using the highest percentage of the vote that was garnered by Lamb, Iovino or Guidi, and the total voter turnout percent in the 2018 General Election for the 40th State House District, the hypothetical Democratic candidate in the upcoming 2020 election can be projected to prevail by about 300 votes. Not a bad target for this particular District at all.
Next, we turn to the 44th State House District. In the 2018 General Election for the new 17th Congressional District, Lamb bested Rothfus by about 1,400 votes in those voting precincts that are also a part of the 44th State House District. Iovino received 48 percent of the vote, in these voting precincts, against Raja in the 37th State Senate District Special Election earlier this year. Using the highest percentage of the vote that was obtained by Lamb, Iovino, Knoll or Lamb in the 2018 Special Election for the old 18th Congressional District, and the total voter turnout percent in the 2018 General Election for the 44th State House District, the hypothetical Democratic candidate in the upcoming 2020 election can be expected to win by over 2,000 votes, or 53 percent of the vote. This is not an insignificant amount in what, perhaps, promises to be the biggest State House seat targeted by Allegheny County Democrats in the upcoming election cycle.
Of course, the Special Election for the 37th State Senate District was only meant to fill the unexpired term until that District came up for election in its’ own right in the next regularly scheduled election. That particular election just so happens to coincide with those contests for the 40th and 44th State House Districts next year. This, then, presents yet another opportunity for the activists in this district to again show their mettle.
In those voting precincts that are also a part of the 37th State Senate District, Lamb outpolled Rothfus by about 10,000 votes, 58 percent, in the 2018 General Election for the new 17th Congressional District, and bested Saccone by over 11,000 votes, 56 percent, in the Special Election for the old 18th Congressional District. Knoll came within margin of error, acquiring a very close 49 percent of the vote, in the 44th State House District race, with Guidi scoring 44 percent of the vote in the contest for the 40th State House District last year, respectively. Of course, as was outlined above, Iovino herself won the district itself with 52 percent of the vote in the Special Election earlier this year.
Using the highest percentage of the vote that was accrued by Lamb, Iovino, Knoll, Guidi or Lamb in the 2018 Special Election for the old 18th Congressional District, and the total voter turnout in the 2019 Special Election for the 37th State Senate District itself, Iovino can be projected to prevail by nearly 8,000 votes, 57 percent of the vote. That’s 5 percent greater than was her finish earlier this year.
All this said, there’s yet one more aspect to all of this that merits attention, the upcoming 2019 General Election to the 5th Allegheny County Council District. This County Council District includes many of the municipalities that are situated within the confines of the various Districts that have been examined above. As such, we may yet see an earlier repeat of these recent phenomena, as well as a precursor to what may come to pass in 2020.
In those voting precincts that are also a part of the 5th Allegheny County Council, Lamb outpolled Rothfus by about 7,500 votes in the 2018 General Election for the new 17th Congressional District, and bested Saccone by over 9,000 votes in the Special Election for the old 18th Congressional District. Iovino received 58 percent of the vote, an advantage of about 2,500 votes, over Raja in the 37th State Senate District Special Election earlier this year and Guidi came within margin of error, scoring 48 percent of the vote in the contest for the 40th State House District last year.
Using the highest percentage of the vote that was garnered by either Lamb, Iovino, Guidi or Lamb in the 2018 Special Election for the old 18th Congressional District, and the total voter turnout in the 2019 Special Election for the 37th State Senate District, the Democratic nominee in the upcoming 2019 General Election for the 5th Allegheny County Council District, Thomas Duerr, can be projected to prevail against Republican incumbent Sue Means by over 6,000 votes, 62 percent of the vote, flipping yet another County Council District into the Democratic column.
The vast majority of the State House seats that can be expected to be in play during the 2020 General Election are, again, situated in the counties that are located in the South Eastern part of the state, the Philadelphia Media Market. Nonetheless, given the trends in the 40th and 44th State House Districts, the 37th State Senate District, as well as in the other Districts that have been examined above, along with the fact that labor and progressive groups in this region have certainly found and honed their ability to organize and sustain victories for Democratic candidates, there is every reason to believe that this effort can continue to be carried out on these down ballot races in this part of the Commonwealth during the 2020 presidential election cycle next year. In short, to paraphrase the late, great Joe Strummer, former front man for The Clash, “They’ve found their niche, and now they have to continue working it like a coal seam.”
Perhaps more important though, in the long term, such a full court press at the State House level next year could well further narrow the margin in that Chamber, or even flip it. With the Governor’s Mansion already now in Democratic hands, a sympathetic Democratic majority on the State Supreme Court and an opportunity to also take the State Senate, this would cement the Democrats position, affording them a far, far greater measure of leverage going into the reapportionment efforts that will follow the release of the decennial Census figures next year, something that was sorely lacking over the past two decades.