Republicans have enjoyed an advantage in local politics for the past few off-years. They picked up local and state offices in 2009 and 2011. Could 2013 be the Democrats’ year? Or will the GOP regain their momentum?
Here’s a look at some of the most interesting races in Pa. Some of them made the list because they are truly competitive bellwethers. Others made the list because even if the final result is in doubt, the margin of victory will be telling. A few made the list because, well, they’re just plain interesting. An asterisk* denotes an incumbent.
1. PA Superior Court
Democrat Jack McVay Jr. vs. Republican Vic Stabile
The biggest inter-party contest on the ballot this November is a seat on the PA Superior Court. McVay is a judge who was elected to the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas in 2007 and was also an assistant Allegheny County solicitor. Stabile is a respected attorney in Harrisburg and was the chairman of the Cumberland County GOP. At the moment Stabile – who ran for the office in 2011 – has a wide fundraising advantage. But McVay has a stronger base in Western Pa. and the support of labor unions.
Why it matters: This is the only statewide race this year and a Stabile victory would be a show of force by the GOP since geographic factors favor McVay.
2. Lehigh County Executive
Democrat Tom Muller vs. Republican Scott Ott
Lehigh County Executive seems to be one of the few political offices that nobody wants. Don Cunningham resigned from the position in July, was replaced by Bill Hansell only for him to resign a month later for health reasons. Next, County Director of Administration Tom Muller, the Democratic nominee, found himself acting Executive. Finally, Matt Croslis was appointed.
Muller became a Democrat only last year, in large part to run against Ott in this race. Republican nominee Scott Ott is currently the Commissioners Vice Chairman and is a vocal tea party supporter. Some have even expressed fears that Ott’s die-hard conservatism could hurt other local Republicans.
Why it matters: If Ott, an unabashed conservative, is able to win in the moderate Lehigh Valley, it would be a major sign of strength of the party organization in the region. Dems have a 15 point registration advantage in Lehigh County.
3. Delaware County Council
Democrats Patricia Worrell and Bill Clinton vs. Republicans Mario Civera* and Dave White.*
Although Delaware County borders the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia, the Delco GOP has maintained an iron grip on local offices for decades. Perhaps this explains why several unions backed both Republican incumbents. Council Vice Chairman Mario Civera, a former state legislator, and Dave White are vying for another four year term. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated Patricia Worrell, the Chairwoman of the Chester Zoning Hearing Board, and Bill Clinton, a councilman from Upper Providence Township.
Why it matters: The Delco GOP is one of the strongest county parties in the Commonwealth. However, the Democrats have made inroads over the past ten years, and even-year elections have turned the county blue (Obama won by 21% in 2012). An unpopular Republican governor and state legislature could shift these suburbs to the left. To wit, the Democrats’ campaign has been roughly 100% focused on linking the Republicans to Corbett, while the GOP candidates notably distanced themselves from the Governor.
4. Harrisburg Mayor
Democrat Eric Papenfuse vs. “Republican” Dan Miller
The race for mayor of Harrisburg has been one of the more fluid with a number of independent and write-in candidates jumping in and out of the race. There will only be two names on the ballot: businessman Eric Papenfuse and City Controller Dan Miller. Papenfuse defeated Miller in the Democratic primary, but Miller waged a write-in campaign to win the Republican nomination. Lewis Butts and deputy public works director Aaron Johnson are both mounting long-shot write-in campaigns. At the moment, Papenfuse has momentum from a positive debate performance and a slew of local endorsements. Incumbent Linda Thompson finished 3rd in the primary.
Why it matters: Harrisburg city government has been mismanaged for years. The next mayor will be charged with enacting a plan from the state’s receiver and has the potential to set the tone for the capital city for decades to come. Also, Miller could become the first openly gay mayor of a major PA city.
5. Pittsburgh Mayor
Democrat Bill Peduto vs. Republican Josh Wander vs. Independent Les Ludwig
After a colorful primary, the mayoral race in Pittsburgh settled to three candidates. Democratic nominee Bill Peduto, if elected, would replace Luke Ravenstahl, whose administration has been clouded by federal investigations. Wander, a security consultant and dual citizen of Israel, has been traveling the globe in recent months and not campaigning. A Republican has not been outright mayor of the Steel City since the Great Depression. Ludwig, 80, is a former chemist and perennial candidate.
Why it matters: Peduto is a prohibitive favorite in the race, but he’s been at odds with lots of officials and factions in Pittsburgh over the years. This will be the first chance former Ravenstahl people and former Wagner people have to vote for (or against) Peduto. His margin of victory will provide a clearer picture of his mandate.
6. Philadelphia District Attorney
Democrat Seth Williams* vs. Republican Danny Alvarez
Any Democrat should easily win a general election race in Philadelphia and while Seth Williams is still favored to win, he hasn’t made things easy for himself. Allegations of cronyism and womanizing can hurt a Democratic politician even in the safety of the city. Danny Alvarez, an attorney who has worked in the DA’s office is seeking to make waves as the insurgent GOP nominee. One stunt, involving publicly challenging Williams to a debate seemed to have worked.
Why it matters: Williams is still likely to prevail, barring some major (additional) misstep. Alvarez, however, has been able to excite local Republicans and make a name for himself. If he performs well, like cracking 30 or 35% on election night, it could portend good things for his political future and for the state of the city GOP.
7. Erie County Executive
Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper vs. Republican Don Tucci
Pennsylvania’s fourth-largest city, Erie, is the gem of this northwestern county. Kathy Dahlkemper shook the race up this spring when the former Congresswoman upset incumbent County Executive Bruce Grossman. She faces Don Tucci, a businessman and Tea Party activist. The first-time candidate has had a difficult time preventing his private troubles from clouding his campaign. In February, Tucci’s girlfriend filed a restraining order against him.
Why it matters: Dahlkemper considered a bid for Governor in 2014 backed out to run for this. If she wins convincingly, Erie Exec is her chance to set up a statewide run or a return national politics.
8. Scranton Mayor
Democrat Bill Courtright vs. Republican James Mulligan
Outgoing mayor Chris Doherty, who was briefly a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2010, decided not to run for a fourth term. James Mulligan, an attorney, former Scranton solicitor, and the GOP nominee, aired his first commercial in recent weeks. According to the Times-Tribune, Mulligan has a history of unpaid debts, which is ironic since his Democratic opponent, Bill Courtright, is a city tax collector. The two candidates scheduled a debate for this week. Recently, Courtright and Doherty have argued over which one is to blame for a former tax office employee stealing unemployment benefits.
Why it matters: Scranton faces financial woes and it’s been twelve years since a Republican was the city’s mayor. Coupled with Democratic infighting, the GOP might have an opportunity to take back the Electric City – although it’s an uphill climb.
9. York County Court of Common Pleas
“Democrat” Mike Flannelly* vs. Republicans Todd Platts
In a quite unusual chain of events, Judge Mike Flannelly and former Congressman Todd Platts are running against each other for the third time this year in November. That’s because both candidates, despite being Republicans, each ran in the GOP and Democratic primaries in May. Platts won the more-contested GOP nomination and Flannelly the Democratic nod. This is especially ironic because Flannelly’s supporters are much more conservative than Platts’. Flannelly is also the incumbent in the race as he was appointed after the death of Judge Chuck Patterson. Platts has more political experience as a former six-term member of Congress. But the skill set doesn’t necessarily translate. The York County Bar Association voted him not qualified for the office.
Why it matters: Mostly this race made the list because it has an interesting narrative. That said, the race between Platts and Flannelly is a rematch of the contest between the establishment and grassroots wings of the Republican party. If Flannelly could defeat a former Congressman, as the Democratic nominee no less, it would show the power of the conservative movement in York County.
10. Allentown Mayor
Democrat (and “Republican”) Ed Pawlowski vs. Independent W. Michael Donovan
If this were a normal mayoral race for Allentown, Ed Pawlowski would cruise to re-election. A two-term incumbent, Pawlowski won the nominations in the Democratic and Republican parties. Pawlowski changed the complexion of the race when he announced he would run for Governor of Pennsylvania. The move allowed independent mayoral candidate and former Allentown City Council Vice President, W. Michael Donovan, to question his opponent’s priorities. So far, Pawlowski has not agreed to Donovan’s demand of taking part in three debates.
Why it matters: Pawlowski is all but certain to win. But you can bet his gubernatorial primary opponents are keeping a close eye on his margin of victory. A weaker-than-expected finish could damage his hopes to be the Democratic nominee against Tom Corbett.
11. State College Mayor
Democrat Elizabeth Goreham* vs. Republican Ron Madrid
Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, a Democrat, permitted a same-sex couple to be married at her State College home in August. Her acceptance of same-sex marriage came when state and local officials in the Keystone State undermined its ban. Her Republican opponent is Ron Madrid, a former State College Borough councilman and currently a Penn State faculty member.
Why it matters: In a word, 2014. Goreham is a big favorite in this liberal college town. But will her margin of victory be bigger than 2009 (when she won 62% to 30%)? PSU voters will be a major battleground demographic in the gubernatorial contest and this race could offer clues as to how motivated and mobilized Democrats there are.
12. Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas
Democrat Anne Gingrich Cornick vs. Republican Bill Tully
Gingrich Cornick is the former chief deputy public defender for Dauphin County with a background in criminal and civil law. Tully is the County’s First Assistant District Attorney and is of Counsel with a Harrisburg law firm. He served as Dauphin County solicitor for several years, including during discussions pertaining to the infamous Harrisburg incinerator.
Why it matters: Central Pa. has been a bastion GOP dominance for years. Republicans hold a 9-1 majority on the Dauphin County court; the current court also favors suburban judges over city residents 9 to 1. If that’s going to change, Democrats will need to do a better job wooing suburbanites (especially women; only 2 women have ever served on the bench) and turning out voters in the city. Higher turnout for the Harrisburg mayoral could boost their cause.
13. Pittston Area Magisterial Race
Democrat Alexandra Kokura vs. Republican Jerry Mecadon
The two candidates ran in both parties’ primaries – in a rare magisterial race that saw TV ads. Kokura is an attorney and family court Special Master while Mecadon is an attorney and Luzerne County Assistant Public Defender. The race is not following the usual party lines (e.g. Mecadon is close with Democratic Congressman Matt Cartwright). Rumors abound about Mecadon moving the current magisterial office out of City Hall, Kokura’s political ambitions, the man she defeated (Red O’Brien) and his new job with a local school district.
Why it matters: This made the list because it’s just plain fun local NEPA politics. The position has a six-year term and covers Pittston City, the boroughs of Avoca, Dupont, Duryea, Hughestown and Yatesville, as well as Jenkins and Pittston townships.