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Retiring area GOP lawmakers could mean more Dems (and less clout) in Harrisburg - thanks to Donald Trump

With seven (so far) area Republican lawmakers leaving the Pennsylvania legislature, regional politics faces a shake-up in elections, and in influence in Harrisburg.

Among local GOP lawmakers leaving the legislature are, from left, Rep. John Taylor, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney & Sen. Stewart Greenleaf
Among local GOP lawmakers leaving the legislature are, from left, Rep. John Taylor, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney & Sen. Stewart GreenleafRead more-- Staff

They're lining up to get out.

Philly metro-area Republicans are leaving the legislature in numbers unmatched anywhere in the state. So far, seven (one is already gone) aren't seeking reelection. And that number is expected to rise.

What's going on?

Reasons for leaving range from personal issues to not wanting to go through the process again. But there's an underlying element, too: fear of an anti-Donald Trump Democratic wave.

"I don't think there's a doubt the southeast is under electoral pressure we [Republicans] didn't manufacture or deserve."

So says Philly Rep. John Taylor, a popular, pragmatic incumbent leaving Harrisburg after 34 years.

He no longer enjoys seeking reelection in his Fishtown/Port Richmond Philly district, which is just 28 percent GOP; and where he's constantly tied to Trump.

"I've had enough," he tells me.

Meanwhile, an upstate Republican consultant working multiple legislative campaigns says the southeast will be bloody for the GOP this year.

"Our polling down there is not good. Other parts of the state are fine, but not down there. We're going to lose seats," says the consultant, who didn't want to be named out of concern his clients wouldn't be pleased about his disclosing such negative news about fellow Republicans.

Dislike of Trump and GOP policies, especially among women and independents, is registering big in regional polls of legislative districts, say insiders in both parties.

This is absent any campaigning, based almost exclusively on reaction to the president. And it's unusual. Our state legislative races rarely get impacted by national affairs. This year is shaping up differently – because of Trump.

House Democratic Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Carroll, of Luzerne County, says, "Enthusiasm in Southeast Pennsylvania is sky-high among Democrats. We've got a number of female candidates, and the prospect of picking up a solid number of seats."

In addition to Taylor, other Republicans leaving (so far) are Montgomery County Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, Bucks County Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, Chester County Rep. Harry Lewis, Bucks County Rep. Kathy Watson and Montgomery County Rep. Bob Godshall.

Bucks County Rep. Scott Petri left at the end of 2017 to head the Philadelphia Parking Authority (and bump his salary from $87,100 to $210,000; yeah, I know, don't get me started on the parking authority).

A special election in concert with the May 15 statewide primary is scheduled to fill Petri's seat, an early test of GOP strength.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders say Trump won't be on the ballot and who knows what happens going forward.

"Between now and November is a political eternity," says Sen. Guy Reschenthaler (R., Allegheny), chairman of the Senate GOP Campaign Committee. "Lots can change."

That's true. And one can argue retirements in the southeast make sense, Trump or no Trump. Petri had financial reason to leave. Others have served many years, or are at an age when average folks retire.

But longevity in the legislature, even past retirement age, is common, often the norm. And legislative retirees this year (an expected 15 to 20 statewide) are all Republicans. No Democratic incumbent has yet talked about leaving.

(Bucks County Democratic Rep. Tina Davis says she's running for the Senate seat long held by GOP Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, who, rumor had it, was considering retiring. But a Tomlinson campaign spokesman tells me Tomlinson is running again. And Davis, according to the Associated Press, intends to file for House and Senate. Point is, she's not looking to leave.)

Finally, while it's all but certain that Republicans retain majorities in Harrisburg, GOP retirements could alter the nature of those majorities, and cost the southeast legislative influence.

The region's losing five committee chairmen, and already lost one other.

Taylor heads the House Transportation Committee. His absence won't be good for SEPTA. Greenleaf, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a leader in criminal justice reform. McIlhinney, chairman of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, is a force in changing liquor laws. Watson chairs the House Children and Youth Committee, Godshall chairs the House Consumer Affairs Committee and Petri was chairman of Gaming Oversight.

Collectively, the area's seven retirees represent 167 years of legislative experience. And, politically, their absences from House and Senate GOP caucuses – since southeast Republicans tend to be moderates – will increase conservative clout in each.

Bottom line? Politics can be a moveable feast, and 2018 promises movement.