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Why Pa. Democrats being inches from controlling the state House is significant — win or lose

The Democratic Party has netted at least 11 seats in the Pennsylvania House, with a caucus that ranges from leftist activists in Philly to a gun-toting budget hawk in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee held a press conference in front of Independence Hall to discuss 2022 election results and to announce the projected they projected they would win control of the House.
Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee held a press conference in front of Independence Hall to discuss 2022 election results and to announce the projected they projected they would win control of the House.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania Democrats are inches from taking control of the state House for the first time in 12 years and even if they fall short, strategists and officials say, the party defied political gravity.

That’s because Harrisburg observers didn’t expect 2022 to be the year. With inflation at generational highs and an unpopular Democratic president, historical precedent suggested Republicans could have strengthened their grip on the legislature they’ve controlled for most of the last three decades.

Instead, the GOP is facing the potentially historic setback of losing control of the state House — an outcome that’s part of a national surge of Democratic victories in state legislative races.

The results in Pennsylvania are undoubtedly tied to new legislative maps adopted ahead of this year’s election.

Some also point to Republican weakness at the top of the ticket, saying Doug Mastriano, the candidate for governor who ran a far-right campaign and denies the results of the 2020 election, alienated swing voters. Republican insiders have feared for months that he would sabotage their down-ballot candidates.

“His entire campaign was run by subtracting and dividing instead of adding and multiplying,” said Sam Chen, a Republican strategist. “He isolated people of his own party.”

Mastriano’s campaign spent next to nothing on television advertising, meaning Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro ruled the airwaves, elevating the issue of abortion rights and defining the standard-bearer for the Republican Party as an unacceptable extremist — with little counterargument.

Shapiro trounced Mastriano by 15 percentage points, according to unofficial returns. For down-ballot Republicans, overcoming that gap requires a Herculean effort, which may have made all the difference in swing districts where House Democrats held on.

» READ MORE: Some Pa. Republicans want to push Trump aside after their election losses

In an era of geographic sorting of the parties — Democrats typically cluster in metropolitan areas, Republicans in exurbs — even several moderate or conservative Democrats kept their seats in counties that have gotten redder since 2016.

That allowed the party to net at least 11 seats in the state House and stitch together a caucus that ranges from leftist activists in Philly to a gun-toting budget hawk in northeastern Pennsylvania.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can pull it all off and win the majority. The race for control of Harrisburg’s 203-member chamber is coming down to just two districts in the Philadelphia suburbs where the candidates are separated by just a handful of votes, and the outcome may not be clear until next week or later.

Republicans would need to win both to maintain control of the House. At best, their 23-seat majority will have dwindled to one seat. If Democrats win one of the two remaining seats, the party will hold a narrow majority.

There are other open questions. Democrat Tony DeLuca died last month after ballots had already been finalized, and he was reelected in a suburban Pittsburgh district that leans Democratic. It means Republicans and Democrats could be tied at 101 seats apiece come the beginning of the next session, adding to the uncertainty.

Still, the fact that Democratic control is foreseeable underscores the seismic impact of redistricting and the trickle-down effect of the top of the ticket.

The effect of redistricting

Even some of the most optimistic Democrats thought the political environment was impossible to overcome. The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which spent $4 million in Pennsylvania in 2020, spent less than a quarter of that this year, choosing to focus more on states where they were defending majorities.

But redistricting ahead of this year resulted in maps that independent analysts say are more evenly split than before, when the districts favored Republicans.

The map paved the way for Democrats to oust at least three incumbents in the Philadelphia suburbs, flip at least four open seats that had been previously held by Republicans who retired, and take three newly-drawn districts.

Berwood Yost, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall, said the new maps combined with Mastriano’s shortcomings was a “recipe for Democratic advantage.”

“When you’re looking for explanations about what happened this year, there’s the traditional relationships that you see between higher level offices and lower level offices,” he said. “But then you also have to factor in whether it’s an open seat or not, which means generally that those relationships will be strong.”

» READ MORE: The race for control of the Pa. state House comes down to these two districts

Republicans still control the state Senate. Only half the seats were up for election, and the new districts were seen as aimed at preserving incumbents, meaning the upper chamber was considered more safely Republican.

The new House map produced 102 Republican-leaning districts and 101 Democratic-leaning ones, according to the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which conducted an analysis for The Inquirer in February.

House Republicans challenged the new maps, saying they created gerrymandered districts, but courts rejected the claims.

Chris Nicholas, a veteran Republican consultant, called the new maps “social justice-oriented redistricting” and said it was the No. 1 factor that hurt the House GOP. He pointed to Delaware County’s redrawn 168th District, a seat held by Republican Rep. Chris Quinn since 2016 and that Democrats have repeatedly targeted.

”OK, guess what,” Nicholas said, “you beat him because his district had changed so much.”

How abortion made a difference

The Democrat who won, Lisa Borowski, doesn’t dispute the role that redistricting played. Radnor Township had before been split between two districts, but is now entirely in the 168th. Borowski is a commissioner in Radnor Township, giving her name recognition in half of the district.

She said she also had a robust door-knocking operation and heard frequently from voters that they were concerned a Republican-controlled legislature would restrict abortion access.

“I think that people underestimated, or really thought that the abortion issue had kind of waned in people’s minds,” she said. “And that’s not what we heard.”

The issue was supercharged by Mastriano, who has supported banning abortion without exceptions. Even Republicans running for the state House who didn’t agree with that position and tried to separate themselves from Mastriano were branded as extreme.

“It’s very hard to run away from the top of the ticket,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist. “Voters are very skeptical, and if you’re in the same party as the top of the ticket, quite frankly, they don’t believe you.”

» READ MORE: The outcome of state legislative races will shape the future of abortion

The changing landscape around abortion played an obvious role in legislative races across the country, with state governments now exercising total control over abortion policy. The DLCC cited the issue when it announced Friday that Democrats had defended every state legislative majority they held nationwide.

Trent Armitage, the campaigns director with Forward Majority, a national PAC that boosts Democrats in state legislatures, pointed to Michigan, where Democrats also outperformed expectations and won seats, even in exurban districts that have trended red.

“The Supreme Court really forced voters to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on at the local level?’” he said.

The PAC, one of several national groups that invested in Pennsylvania, poured $2 million into the state and targeted 10 districts.

» READ MORE: National groups are pouring millions into Pa. to try to sway state legislative races in the home stretch

One was the 118th District, which includes parts of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties west of Scranton. Democratic incumbent Rep. Mike Carroll retired, leaving an open seat in the district that former President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2020.

Democrat Jim Haddock tried to appeal to voters across the ideological spectrum. He sent out mailers that showed him with his shotgun and his hunting hound, and emphasized that he’s not big on new taxes and has a background in business.

He also talked about his strong support of “protecting women’s rights” and aligned closely with Shapiro.

The district clearly responded. Some even hung his signs next to Trump flags.

“One of my slogans was ‘best of both worlds,’” he said. “I just told them I will hold to my issues and fight for the issues that are near and dear to my area. That’s my job.”

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.