PA has 203 state House districts, and winning a majority of them requires lots of work, a great deal of money, and a well-executed game plan. Here are the top 10 seats in play this year.
The GOP had its best year in decades in 2010 when the party gained a whopping 14 House seats. Democrats will need 10 seats to regain the majority.
It’s very unlikely that Democrats will get there, but 2012 is their chance to make as big a dent as possible before the GOP-friendly redistricting maps kick in for 2014.
Seats are ranked by likeliness to switch party control.
Editor’s note: this is our first list of the fall; keep an eye out for regular updates on the state of the campaign for PA House and Senate.
1. HD-74. Open seat, Democratic, most of Clearfield County
Long-time incumbent Bud George, a Democrat, is retiring at the end of this term. George won re-election in 2010 by 677 votes in this district that is trending red (albeit without spending any money on ads or voter contact). The presidential race is likely to help GOP performance here. The Republican candidate, Tommy Sankey, is a young businessman and accountant and a talented candidate. PoliticsPA named his the best website for a state House candidate in PA. The Democrats also have a top-tier candidate in County Commissioner Mark McCracken, who did better than any Dem had a right to when he ran for Congress against GT Thompson.
What makes this even more interesting: this seat will be in play in 2012, 2014 and beyond because redistricting doesn’t make this seat much better for the GOP. The proposed map would essentially rename HD-74 as HD-73, lumping most of Clearfield and some of Cambria county together. Current HD-73 incumbent Rep. Gary Haluska gets moved to HD-72, setting up either a retirement, a move to a new residence, or a primary with fellow Dem Rep. Frank Burns.
2. HD-39. Rick Saccone, Republican, southern Allegheny and eastern Washington counties
This is a rematch of 2010 when Saccone, boosted by a GOP wave year, ousted Rep. Dave Levdansky by 151 votes out of 21,371 cast (0.8 percent). When the proposed redistricting maps were tossed out and the current districts remained for 2012, Dems wasted no time getting Levdansky back on the ballot. Add that to Saccone’s conservative voting record and this Monongahela Valley district is the Democrats’ top pickup opportunity in the state.
3. HD-157. Warren Kampf, Republican, eastern Chester and parts of Montgomery counties including Phoenixville
This is another rematch. Kampf beat then-freshman Democrat Paul Drucker by 4 points in 2010, about 1,000 of 25,000 votes cast. Dems’ messaging statewide since 2011 is aimed at guys like Kampf who, after his election, have voted the party line (Corbett budgets and all). That said, Kampf has many friends in the private sector who view this race as a proxy battle in the ongoing cold war between business groups and trial lawyers like Drucker.
4. HD-83. Rick Mirabito, Democrat, Williamsport and nearby parts of Lycoming County
A businessman and restaurateur, Mirabito came to office in the wave of 2008. But unlike so many of his colleagues and thanks to a well-run campaign, he avoided the storm in 2010 and won re-election by about 5 points. Both times he defeated Dave Huffman, whose candidacies were clouded by serious personal issues involving an ex-wife and a restraining order. This year however, his opponent is Harry Rogers, a well-connected county employee who formerly chaired the Lycoming GOP. Rogers stepped on some toes during the primary, but most of the party is lined up behind him. And, if Mirabito holds on, he’s guaranteed a more GOP-friendly seat in 2014.
5. HD-156. Dan Truitt, Republican, parts of Chester County including West Chester
If there’s one man Democrats want to make pay for the ultrasound mandate bill, it’s Truitt – one of its original co-sponsors. The freshman Republican hasn’t voted like a man from a southeast Pa. swing district. The Democratic candidate is Bret Binder, an attorney from a family of attorneys (read: built-in fundraising network). He also owns part of a gourmet rice pudding shop in Haverford Township. Unlike 2010, the presidential race will bring out students at West Chester University (turnout in the district was 33.5 percent higher in 2008 than in 2010).
6. HD-71. Bryan Barbin, Democrat, Johnstown and surroundings in Cambria County
Barbin is a typical western Pa. Democrat: he’s pro-gun and the chairman of the House pro-life caucus. That hasn’t kept him out the GOP’s crosshairs for the past several years, though. In 2010 he won re-election by 187 votes. That was an improvement over his 2008 performance, when he scraped out a win by just 182 votes. The Republican candidate is better this year, too. Sherry Stalley was a reporter and anchor on local news for over two decades and has a head start on name ID. Barbin’s best hope? Mark Critz. The Congressman showed his ability to really get out the vote in Johnstown during the primary, and you can bet he’ll do the same in the general.
7. HD-3. Open seat, Democratic, part of Erie County
Rep. John Hornaman is retiring at the end of this term, setting up a battle between two young professionals. Ryan Bizzarro, the Democrat, comes from a prominent boxing family that owns real estate and businesses in and around Erie. He currently works for the Erie County Convention Center Authority. Jason Owen is an attorney and formerly the Executive Director of the Erie County GOP. Any open seat with reasonably close registration numbers (48 percent Dem, 42 percent GOP) is worth watching, and Republicans like their chances of a pickup.
8. HD-131. Justin Simmons, Republican, southern Lehigh County and part of Northampton County
Simmons beat moderate Republican Karen Beyer in the 2010 primary and cruised to a win in the general election. The former district staffer to two state Senators has stood strong on his ideological views, winning him the admiration of conservatives around Pa. But in 2012, this is a race where the presidential contest and Dem GOTV efforts matter; 40 percent of voters here live in the City of Allentown. The Democratic candidate is Kevin Deely, a high school English teacher and former union president – someone who will have little trouble drawing a contrast on education issues, or making a good impression on public education donors.
9. HD-25. Joe Markosek, Democrat, eastern Allegheny County including Monroeville, and Murrysville in Westmoreland County
A third rematch makes the list. Markosek withstood a challenge from Mike Doyle, the President of the Plum Borough Council, by an 8 point margin in 2010. But this year, the presidential race is likely to boost the Republican. Plus Doyle has a golden name – the same as the Democratic congressman from next door. As the minority Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Markosek will be well funded (he had about $350K back in May). But every dollar spent to keep this seat safe is a dollar that can’t go to other candidates on this list, so expect the GOP to push here regardless. And he’s taken a lot of votes in his 30 years in office.
10. HD-177. John Taylor, Republican, parts of Philadelphia including Port Richmond, Bridesburg and more
Taylor is one of the last Republicans in Philly whose office isn’t mandated by the city charter. For over a decade he’s cruised past opponents by double digits in presidential cycles and otherwise, but he’s got a more serious challenger this year. Democrat William Dunbar, 28, is a former staffer to Chaka Fattah and Tony Peyton and has been working the district hard. At about 67 percent, Obama performed far worse in this district than the rest of Philly in 2008 – but still well enough to be decisive. However, lest Dunbar’s status as an underdog be unclear, Taylor is well-regarded and brings home the bacon.
*Correction: an earlier version of this story said that George had won by just 400 votes.