For once, Democrats think they can pick up seats in Pa.’s GOP-held state legislature
"I would not be surprised if we took double-digit seats," said one Democrat.
Democrat Dave Delloso has never run for office before. And, for better or for worse, he sometimes sounds like it.
Earlier this year, he sat down with a labor organization in hopes of winning its support for his bid for the state House.
As the president of Teamsters Local 312 in Delaware County, he felt as if he were at a "home game," and took a shot at a classic union boogeyman.
"Look, it's not like I hate rich people," he said he joked. "I'm sure they taste good with A1."
Delloso is a blunt talker, a former truck driver, and a veteran who has railed against "giant corporations who can afford teams of lobbyists" paying "less and less" in taxes. In other words, Democrats think, he's a good fit for the Pennsylvania's 162nd District, a mostly white, working- and middle-class area with many union households.
In Tuesday's election, a number of first-time candidates are running for the state's General Assembly on the Democratic ticket. Democrats are hoping that anger at President Trump — as well as fresh-faced contenders with close ties to their district — will help them chip away at the Republican Party's majorities in the state legislature.
"The candidates are of such quality that I would not be surprised if we took double-digit seats," said Tommy McDonald, vice president of the Campaign Group, a Democratic television ad firm.
The vast majority of Democrats interviewed said they can't take back the state House, which Republicans control by 121-82, or the state Senate, where the GOP holds a super-majority.
"The numbers are just too daunting," said former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
But Democrats argue that by running candidates who have the right résumés for their districts, including in areas where the party doesn't normally compete, they are laying the groundwork to take control of the state House in the future.
"That's the building blocks to a majority, whether it's two years from now or four years from now," said McDonald.
Examples of such candidates, he said, are "a business owner [that] fits her Phoenixville district to a 'T,'" "a prosecutor [that] fits her Montgomery County district to a T,'" and "a former Republican D.A. who's running in Washington County."
Call it the Conor Lamb strategy, for the congressman who ran as a moderate Democrat in a conservative district in a 2018 special election, and won.
Republicans said Democrats may campaign for the state legislature as if they match their districts, but, in reality, they don't.
"They're wolves in sheep's clothing," said Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's Republican Party. "Conor Lamb has gone to D.C. and voted with Nancy Pelosi 90 percent of the time."
In 2016, Republicans won 19 state House seats in districts where Hillary Clinton got a majority of the votes, and Democrats won 17 seats in districts where Trump got a majority of the votes.
One such race is in Chester County, where Democrat Melissa Shusterman is running against Republican state Rep. Warren Kampf, who recently acknowledged that polls had him trailing. Clinton took the district by double digits.
Shusterman has eschewed labels and pitched herself as a "common-sense candidate." She has been endorsed by traditionally Democrat-leaning groups, such as the union representing teachers, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, which often backs Republicans.
She became a candidate a few days after Clinton lost the presidential election to Trump. Her son, who worked for Clinton's campaign, told her that he believed the country was not ready for a "smart, qualified woman in office."
"That was it," she said. "The next day, I was running."
Kampf acknowledged that his reelection bid hasn't been easy.
"There is a discontent with Washington, D.C., that I'm trying to contend with," he said. "I think I will win, but there are forces outside my district that are impacting it."
Still, he believes his voting record in the Capitol will appeal to voters in his district, which he said is nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and includes a sizable independent voting bloc.
He said he has voted to boost state funding for public schools and has pushed for gun regulations, including universal background checks.
"My feeling is that people in my district know me, know my record, and respect that," said Kampf.
Rendell said that although Clinton won several districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania held by GOP state lawmakers, "those Republicans do a pretty good job voting on issues aligned with constituents."
Another factor that limits Democrats, he said, is the state legislature's gerrymandered districts: "They're still maps drawn by a heavily partisan Republican Party."
For Democrats, picking up seats in this election and 2020 is critical for just that reason: redistricting. The legislature is in control of redrawing congressional district maps after the U.S. Census, and whichever party holds the majority is best positioned to draw the lines in their favor.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant, said "it's entirely possible that the Democrats will pick up a couple seats in the state House in November."
He noted that there are several open seats in the General Assembly, where no one has an incumbent advantage, and "historically, the midterms benefit the party not holding the White House."
Outside groups are pouring money into the state legislative races. The pro-Democratic Pennsylvania Fund for Change has spent more than $2 million so far. Republicans said the organization is sending voters misleading mailings, and noted it took $1.4 million from a "dark-money" group.
Forward Majority, a pro-Democratic super PAC, is targeting 24 seats, up from 20 in September. The group's spokesman, Philip Shulman, is one of the few Democrats who said his party has a shot at winning the state House this year.
"We certainly feel optimistic about our chances," he said. "The energy on the ground is something that a lot of people have never seen before. If you put that together with investment we're making and investments we know other groups are making, we feel that's a game-changer and hasn't been a factor in previous elections."
Gerow disagreed: "I don't think there's any way in God's green earth they take the majority."