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Why Democrats think it’s their best chance in a decade to take control of the Pa. House

They think a favorable redistricting process could boost their chances in November. But it's no slam dunk.

Democrats think a favorable redistricting could help boost their chances of taking control of the lower chamber of the General Assembly. But in a midterm election year with high inflation, that'll be easier said than done.
Democrats think a favorable redistricting could help boost their chances of taking control of the lower chamber of the General Assembly. But in a midterm election year with high inflation, that'll be easier said than done.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

America may be teetering on recession, President Joe Biden’s job rating is low, and the party in the White House almost always loses ground up and down the ballot in midterm election years.

And yet, Pennsylvania Democrats say they may be within striking distance of one of their longest-sought goals: upending the status quo in Harrisburg and taking control of at least one chamber of the legislature, which has been controlled by the GOP for more than a decade.

Party officials and strategists say that’s because November will be the first general election since Pennsylvania adopted new state House and Senate maps through redistricting. The maps slightly favor Republicans, according to independent analysts, but are more evenly split than the old ones, a shift Democrats say gives them a path.

“They make flipping the House a tossup,” Rep. Leanne Krueger (D., Delaware), chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said of the new maps. “For the first time in generations, we’re actually competing on a level playing field.”

Here’s a look at the landscape as the campaigns for the state legislature heat up:

What’s the makeup of the Pennsylvania legislature now?

In the 50-member state Senate, Republicans hold a seven-seat advantage and one independent caucuses with the GOP. In the 203-member House of Representatives, Republicans hold a 23-seat advantage.

That means for the control to change, Democrats would have to net four seats in the Senate and 12 in the House. Democrats face significant headwinds in both chambers, but the House is considered to be more of a tossup than the Senate.

Why the focus on the state House?

Redistricting, which happens every 10 years and is tied to population changes, resulted in a significant shift in the House — one that drew sharp objections and litigation from Republicans.

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. The previous map had 118 Republican-leaning districts and 85 Democratic-leaning ones. That’s a big swing in favor of Democrats.

In the Senate, there was less of a change, and the new districts were seen as ones aimed at preserving incumbents. That means the upper chamber is considered more safely Republican.

Where are House Democrats focusing?

House Democrats’ campaign arm says it’s targeting 14 districts where Biden won the majority, and almost all are in suburban communities.

Three of those districts — two in Allegheny County and one in the State College area — were newly drawn, so the seats are open with no incumbent. Five of the districts are open because a Republican incumbent retired — some because their districts were redrawn — or left the House to run for another office.

Democrats see open seats as a key opportunity. Flipping seats is always a challenge because incumbency is a powerful advantage, but in these open districts, Democrats don’t face that problem.

» READ MORE: Pa.’s new legislative maps could boost Democrats, reflecting a closely divided state

The remaining six districts are places where Democrats think they can flip a seat held by a Republican incumbent. All six are in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Is flipping those seats realistic?

It’s possible, but not even close to a lock. Democrats would also have to not only win most of the districts they’re targeting, but they’d have to hold the seats held by their own incumbents, some of whom are now in redder districts.

And some of us feel as if we’ve heard this all before. Like, fewer-than-two-years-ago before.

Democrats in 2020 were hopeful the energy of a presidential election year would help them flip the state House. They grew their caucus in the lower chamber during the “blue wave” midterms in 2018, and some observers thought Biden’s presidential run would lift candidates down-ballot.

The party fell far short. Democrats failed to flip seats they thought they could in the Philadelphia suburbs and Allegheny County, and House Republicans actually expanded their majority.

That cycle was seen as generally more favorable to Democrats nationally, as swing voters rejected Donald Trump and turnout surged.

» READ MORE: Suburban voters in Pennsylvania rejected Trump — but not the Republican Party

The landscape this year is different. While there are closely watched open races for U.S. Senate and governor at the top of the ticket, midterms virtually always see lower turnout than presidential elections. Even if Democrats perform well in those key races — both remain competitive — Republicans could maintain their advantages down-ballot, as Pennsylvania swing voters are known to split their ticket.

And, of course, voters will take to the polls after months of sticky inflation, high gas prices, and an unpopular Democrat in the White House.

A Franklin and Marshall poll released Thursday found that more than two in five respondents in Pennsylvania said they are “worse off” financially than a year ago, and just a third of registered voters in the state believe Biden is doing an “excellent” or “good” job.

Is 2022 still expected to be a strong year for Republicans?

That had been the conventional wisdom for months. But there have been a handful of signs that the expected “red wave” could be in question. It’s premature to say which party will have the advantage come November — what’s certain is it’s competitive.

Congress — controlled by Democrats — passed a massive health-care and climate bill, and inflation rates have started to slow. Democrats have outperformed projections in several swing districts outside Pennsylvania where special elections were held, and those races can sometimes be predictive of how midterm elections will shake out.

The most obvious shift in energy followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s June overturning of Roe v. Wade, a decision that ended a national constitutional right to abortion and threw the power to legislate the procedure to the states.

It means that the potential for new abortion restrictions in Pennsylvania rises significantly if Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly and take the governor’s office. (Abortion law in Pennsylvania did not change as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision. It is generally allowed to about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.)

The decision may be motivating newly registered voters. In Pennsylvania, women have significantly outpaced men in new registrations since June, according to Democratic voter data firm Target Smart, which said the state has had one of the nation’s biggest gender gaps in new registrations.

And the recent F&M survey found enthusiasm on the left has increased in recent months. The number of Democratic respondents who said they were very interested in the 2022 elections increased by 16 percentage points since May. The number of Republicans who said the same did not change.

Berwood A. Yost, a pollster at F&M, said another factor could be how the Democratic nominees for U.S. Senate and governor perform. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Senate candidate, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the gubernatorial nominee, are each running ahead of their opponents in recent polls.

“The way these top-tier races are shaping up,” he said, “if it boosts turnout, Democrats are more interested, and people are more likely to vote down-ballot, well, maybe the state House races will be a little more competitive.”