Control of Pa. Legislature rests in voters’ hands

First Posted: 11/2/2008

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The majority party in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives gets to drive the bus while the minority party can only stand on the roadside yelling for it to stop.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to put Republicans instead of Democrats in the driver’s seat, and thereby end the General Assembly’s divided power of the past two years.

Republican control of the Senate is not expected to change much, if at all, while the Democrats risk losing their tenuous one-seat edge in the House. Most are predicting only a slight shift in either direction.

"I’d be really surprised if we saw either party make a break in terms of opening up a wide margin in the state House," said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick. "It’s much more likely that we’re watching a couple of seats late into election night Tuesday and still wondering who’s going to be the majority party."

House Democrats hoping for a little breathing room are focusing on districts in Philadelphia and its suburbs, a region where longtime GOP incumbents are retiring at the same time that voter registration is turning more Democratic.

Five seats in the southeast — which has fueled electoral success for Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Bob Casey in recent years — are being vacated by veteran GOP incumbents: Carole Rubley, Art Hershey, David Steil, Ron Raymond and George Kenney. Among them they have 106 years in the Legislature.

House Republicans see a road map to reclaiming the majority in southwestern Pennsylvania, where a handful of Democratic incumbents narrowly survived the last election and many Democratic voters have moderate or conservative positions on the issues.

Their primary targets are Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, and the seat that retiring Rep. Tom Tangretti, D-Westmoreland, has represented for two decades. They also see potential pickups in Johnstown area seats opening due to the retirements of Cambria County Reps. Ed Wojnaroski and Tom Yewcic. They have targets of their own in the southeast, and are watching scattered races in Erie and districts north of Pittsburgh.

Both sides are waiting to see what happens.

"There’s no changing the terrain," said Rep. Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, his caucus’ chief political strategist.

"You can’t buy anything right now, either TV or cable or mail, that can change things. The communications plans have pretty much all been executed," he said. "Now it’s all about that last weekend of walking the neighborhoods and asking people to vote."

Rep. Mike Turzai of Allegheny County, who is coordinating the House Republicans’ campaign efforts, said enthusiasm over the presidential campaign means turnout should not be much of an issue. Instead, he said the challenge for candidates has been to find ways to reach more voters.

"People have had to talk to a wider pool of voters than they normally would talk to," said Turzai. He estimates that 25 or 30 House races are currently competitive.

In the Senate, which Republicans control by a 29-21 margin, Democratic campaign strategists have mapped out a thread-the-needle scenario that would still leave them a vote short of a tie.

That plan involves picking up the Westmoreland County seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Regola; winning the district that was held by Sen. Jim Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, before he died in a car accident a few weeks ago; and upsetting Sen. Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, by riding on what they hope will be heavy turnout for Democratic presidential nominee in Harrisburg.

The best hopes for Republican gains in the Senate are in Beaver County, where Democratic Sen. Gerald LaValle is stepping down, and in Montgomery County, where a spirited race is under way to replace Democratic Sen. Connie Williams.

The presidential campaign has been so unusual that it’s difficult to say how it might affect the legislative races down the ballot. Republicans are counting on a strong vote for presidential nominee John McCain in the west, while Democrats are optimistic that Obama’s lead and a strong get-out-the-vote push will be a shot in the arm to city and suburban candidates.

The landmark legislative election of 2006, in which 24 incumbents were defeated, also could pay a lingering role, as some freshmen who won narrow victories that year now find themselves in tough re-election campaigns.

The mixture of factors in legislative races this year also includes voter frustration at the lack of additional property tax cuts, an ongoing criminal investigation into improper use of legislative staff and public funds for campaigns, and strong public sentiment along the Interstate 80 corridor against a Democrat-led effort to fund transportation needs by tolling the highway.

There are 20 retirements among the House’s 203 districts — 13 currently held by Republicans and seven by Democrats. Also, one Democrat was defeated in the spring primary, while another incumbent Democrat failed to qualify for the ballot.

A "special category" race pits Rep. Frank Andrews Shimkus, a Lackawanna County Democrat, running as a Republican against the Democrat who beat him in the primary. Shimkus has said he will continue to serve as a Democrat if elected.

In the Senate, seven seats are open due to retirement, 14 are incumbents with opposition and four are running unopposed. The other 25 senators are not up for election until 2010.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

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