Democrats buoyed by election returns in Pennsylvania House

HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/01/17: The dome of the Pennsylvania State Capitol is seen.Reports of a possible armed protest prompted closure of the Pennsylvania Capitol and an extra security presence from Pennsylvania Capitol Police,

Democrats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are likely to make significant gains in the chamber, and some even see hope they could retake the majority once smoke clears from the Tuesday election they began with a 23-seat gap behind the Republicans.

With vote counting still underway, Democrats were facing a couple of potential losses in western Pennsylvania and one in Wilkes-Barre, while Republicans were trailing in key races outside Philadelphia and others near Harrisburg, the Poconos and the Pittsburgh area.

Democratic House leaders said at a Wednesday news conference in Philadelphia that their survey of county election results and analysis of how uncounted mail-in and provisional ballots are likely to shake out gave them confidence they will return to the majority for the first time in 12 years.

"Here, in the birthplace of our nation, in the birthplace of our democracy, it is much more than symbolic that we will finally have a woman that has the gavel in the Pennsylvania House," said Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, in line to become speaker if her party's predictions are correct.


Republicans hold the chamber 113-90, so Democrats would need a net pickup of 12 to retake the majority for the first time in 12 years. House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman cast doubt on McClinton's prediction.

"We believe the Democrats claiming the majority at this time is premature, and we’re continuing to monitor several close races across the commonwealth," Gottesman said.

More favorable district maps and wins by Democrats in high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate, along with Republican retirements, contributed to the shift.

"Redistricting had an effect, but I mean the biggest thing was having fair districts," said Trevor Southerland, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. "Pennsylvania, it’s a purple state and everybody knows that. It’s absurd to think our state House shouldn’t be competitive, and it was very competitive last night."

With more members in the House, the GOP had more targets to defend. The state Senate is expected to remain in Republican control.

Democrats won three House races in Allegheny County districts in which their candidates are not expected to serve. State Rep. Summer Lee was unopposed for another term but was also elected Tuesday to Congress. Rep. Austin Davis won reelection but was also elected lieutenant governor, on the ticket with Attorney General Josh Shapiro. And Rep. Tony Deluca easily won another term a month after his death from cancer.

Democratic leaders said Lee and Davis will be available to vote at the very start of the 2023-24 session in January, helping their party take over. It will be up to House speaker to schedule special elections to fill those vacancies next year.

Rep. Chris Sainato conceded his race in the Lawrence County district he has represented in Harrisburg for 28 years. Sainato, a Democrat, said his opponent won by going after his use of legislative expenses in television ads and direct mail. He was among a dwindling number of rural Democratic lawmakers from western Pennsylvania.

"Demographics have changed in western Pennsylvania," Sainato said in a phone interview Wednesday. "There was only four of us left when there used to be 20. I usually survive this thing."

A Democratic House majority would be a major boost to Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general who was just elected governor. House Democrats said they would stick together to maintain a governing majority even if it's narrow, pointing to their repeated votes to uphold vetoes of GOP bills during eight years under outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said at the news conference that a priority will be to give counties more advance time to start processing mail-in ballots before elections.

Majority status would also give Democrats greater leverage in dividing up billions in budget surplus, stimulus money and reserves, and would allow them to block five constitutional amendments that legislative Republicans have positioned for final votes early next year that could put them before voters in the May primary.