Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A midterms nail-biter in Bucks County means bad news for Pa. Democrats. But this is Bucks! | Maria Panaritis

In Bucks County, a nail biter of a state Senate race has Democrats feeling blue as the blue wave passes them by in this purple suburb of Philadelphia.

Bucks County Democrat Tina Davis stands with former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in a Levittown restaurant, telling supporters that her bid for Republican incumbent Tommy Tomlinson's Pa. Senate seat was too close to call on Wednesday morning, Nov. 7, 2018.
Bucks County Democrat Tina Davis stands with former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in a Levittown restaurant, telling supporters that her bid for Republican incumbent Tommy Tomlinson's Pa. Senate seat was too close to call on Wednesday morning, Nov. 7, 2018.Read moreMARIA PANARITIS / Staff

It was around 11:45 on election night when perhaps the most dramatic moment of the midterms in Pennsylvania went down in a Levittown strip mall.

A Democrat named Tina Davis was holed up inside a fluorescent-lit campaign office as her nightlong lead over a 28-year veteran Republican state lawmaker vanished. This happened at the same time that, a mile up the road at a Sheraton hotel, fellow Democrat Scott Wallace was conceding defeat to Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

A $28 million race for a single congressional seat ended in defeat for Democrats in Bucks County. And Davis' bid to win a state Senate seat from an entrenched Republican entered electoral limbo. The midterms played out like trench warfare between Republicans and Democrats in Bucks County, an outlier among the blue Philly metro area, where getting an inch is not gotten very easily.

While liberals elsewhere were rejoicing over victories Wednesday morning, Bucks was just wiping the sweat off from a tug-of-war between voters from both parties. Turnout was high across the board. Republicans more easily backed Democrats Gov. Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, but clung to their GOP congressman and were picky about splitting their ticket further down the ballot.

"These are tough, tough fights," Fitzpatrick told jubilant supporters even as Republicans nationally lost control of the House. "These elections in these districts are tough."

I wasn't with Fitzpatrick or with Wallace on Tuesday night. But I had given it a shot.

I had swung through Wallace's election party, only to be immediately unimpressed. The energy level among the crowd was low for a guy running as a Democrat in these red-meat midterms. It was almost as though Wallace were an out-of-state candidate who had simply dropped a bag of money onto Bucks and hoped it would make him a Lipton-Cup-O-Soup Democratic victor.

Oh. Wait. Scratch "almost as though" from that last sentence.

It was an odd scene given that, for several hours Tuesday afternoon, I had followed down-ballot Democrat Davis as she checked in on eight polling places in Bristol, Bensalem, Trevose, and Middletown Township. These are places where Democrats vote Republican unless they really like the message or the person.

Turnout was high even in wards that contained about even numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats. At one, turnout was nearly 70 percent — well beyond numbers they'd seen during the Trump-Clinton presidential contest in 2016.

There were hardly any Wallace signs anywhere on the streets. There were no poll workers for him at voting sites. His campaign didn't think either was a priority, I later found out. This reminded me of the wet-blanket Hillary Clinton vibe I felt in 2016 during a roll through Easton.

So at 10:30 p.m., seeing that the vote count in Davis' race was tightening, I bailed on Wallace. Down the road I went, to a plate-glass storefront wallpapered in campaign signs. Inside, I saw Davis and her people huddled as voting returns came in.

Davis has survived eight years in the overwhelmingly Republican and male-dominated state House of Representatives. She co-founded Emerge Pennsylvania, a group that in recent months has trained many of the newcomer women candidates who, angered by Trump's presidency, ran for or won state elected office posts just this week.

And yet, when she decided to run for Republican Sen. Tommy Tomlinson's seat, she couldn't get support from certain out-of-state groups looking to spend in Pennsylvania. They didn't want to back a woman in her 50s, only women 40 and under — the kind of women Davis had been working to recruit into the political system through Emerge.

"I'm friends with all these girls," Davis had told me earlier in the day, betraying no bitterness if she harbored any.

Davis won her House seat on Tuesday night. But by midnight her campaign against Tomlinson seemed to fall short.

"It is razor thin," Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who once held the Fitzpatrick congressional seat, announced as he and Davis met supporters inside an Italian restaurant near her office. "It is too close to call."

Davis was down 100 votes.

54,319 for Tommy; 54,219 for Tina.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Davis told the group, "besides having kids."

Everyone laughed.

Then, Davis cried.

Tomlinson, whom I recently urged voters to reject on the basis that his Republican leaders in Harrisburg had voted against victims of clergy sexual abuse, declared victory on Facebook Wednesday.

Not so fast, Tommy. The Davis campaign is lawyering up and will be at the board of elections on Friday when the county certifies the vote results. Then again next week, when county officials tackle provisional, military, and overseas ballots.

Things will be complicated.

In other words, things will be classic Bucks.