HARRISBURG - A week out from Election Day and the attacks were coming fast and furious:
"Kane silent on SEPTA strike."
"Tom McGarrigle Lies About Taxes in New Ad."
Democrat John Kane and Republican Tom McGarrigle are locked in a bitter and costly war over the state Senate seat being vacated by Edwin "Ted" Erickson, a Republican from Delaware County who took office in 2001.
Control of the upper chamber - safely held for almost four decades by Republicans - may turn on votes cast Tuesday in Erickson's district, which includes parts of Delaware and Chester Counties.
In 2010, the GOP controlled the 50-seat Senate by a comfortable 10-seat margin. Democrats have been chipping away at the Republican hold on the upper chamber, picking up three seats in 2012 to bring it to 27-23.
To tilt the balance of power, here's the way Democrats see it playing out: They have to retain two districts in Western Pennsylvania that are trending Republican, take the 26th District and a second seat in the Southeastern part of the state, and win the new 40th District in the Poconos.
"It's imperative that the Senate flips," said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), Campaign Committee chairman. "So much is on the line."
And Democratic challenger Tom Wolf has to prevail in his effort to unseat Gov. Corbett.
With a 25-25 tie, the deciding vote would land with the lieutenant governor, who if Wolf wins would be Mike Stack, a sitting senator from Philadelphia.
Republican Party leaders say they are confident both chambers will remain solidly in GOP hands. In fact, officials believe they may boost their numbers Nov. 4.
"We're feeling pretty good about the Senate," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the state Republican Party. The Democrats "are running uphill."
A veritable demographic gumbo, the 26th Senate District stretches from the rowhouse neighborhoods of Upper Darby along the west Philadelphia border to the horse farms of Westtown Township in Chester County.
Unlike many districts throughout the state held solidly by one party, this district is split nearly equally on voter registration. Though Democrats often win the district in statewide and national office elections, voters largely support GOP candidates in local races.
The $3.2 million contest so far has been marked by negative TV ads and mailers and a steady stream of accusations by the candidates - some creeping into the personal realm over delinquent taxes and a child born out of wedlock - that could make it among the costliest races in Senate history.
"People are tired of the negativity," said Kane, a plumbers' union chief who spent the morning at a union job site and greeting commuters at the SEPTA 69th Street Transportation Center.
That was just a few hours before the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee issued a news release accusing McGarrigle of lying in his new TV ad about tax delinquency dating to the early 1990s.
Virginia Davis, spokeswoman for the McGarrigle campaign, said: "The facts are Tom McGarrigle paid all of his taxes."
The McGarrigle campaign hit back with a broadside against Kane, a SEPTA board member, for his "silence" on the SEPTA union's threat to strike.
"He has been silent to this point when he could be advocating for the priorities of residents who rely on SEPTA for their commute to and from work," said McGarrigle.
Kane called it "grandstanding."
"As a member of the SEPTA board, I personally understand the economic driver that SEPTA is for our entire region," he said. "I want nothing more than to avoid a strike, which is why I am working closely with the rest of the SEPTA board members."
A recent McGarrigle campaign poll - in which most of those surveyed were Republican - shows him with a 16-point lead; Kane's people say their polling shows a win within reach.
"I think the pulse of this campaign is good," said McGarrigle, chairman of the Delaware County Council, who was also working the SEPTA stations Tuesday morning. "We're going to try to convince the undecideds."
He said the top issue in the district was lagging education funding and rising property taxes.
McGarrigle said a Marcellus Shale drilling tax would go a long way toward solving those issues, even as the state's top Republican, Gov. Corbett, has maintained his opposition.
Kane, too, supports a shale tax and closing the so-called Delaware loophole, which allows companies to incorporate in Delaware to avoid Pennsylvania taxes.
The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee is pouring money into another Southeast race: the Sixth District in lower Bucks County - a seat held by Republican Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson.
The former Republican stronghold was redrawn in 2010 and now favors Democratic candidates.
Tomlinson, long considered among the moderate Republicans in the General Assembly, is pushing a Marcellus Shale tax.
Challenger Kimberly Rose, a chiropractor and Northampton Township supervisor, has promoted an agenda focused on increasing education funding, equality rights, and women's health care.
"We've invested in that race," said Hughes. "That's a very viable seat."
In other Senate races to watch, Democrat Steve Cickay is challenging Sen. Chuck McIlliney in the 10th District in lower Bucks County, and in Montgomery County, incumbent Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican, faces off against Democrat Ruth S. Damsker.
In the Fourth Senatorial District in Philadelphia, three candidates - Art Haywood, a Democrat; Robin Gilchrist, a Republican; and Ines Reyes, an independent - are seeking to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Leanna Washington, a Democrat, after her March arrest on corruption charges.
With half the Senate up for reelection, the winners of contested races next week could play a role in an internal fight for leadership of the upper chamber.
Some conservative lawmakers, frustrated at what they see as efforts to block their agenda - and that of Corbett - are threatening to try to unseat Sen. Dominic Pileggi as Republican leader in caucus elections Nov. 12.
Under Senate rules, newly elected members, not the departing members, choose new leadership.
McGarrigle, for his part, says that, if elected, he would cast his vote for his fellow Delaware Countian.
"Dominic Pileggi has been a great supporter," he said. "I'd vote for him."
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