Pa. Democrats hope to cut GOP majorities in legislative contests

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Dozens of new faces will be joining the Pennsylvania Legislature next year because of retirements, and the national political mood has Democrats hopeful they can pick up seats and chip away at the large majorities Republicans have long enjoyed in both chambers.

But the Republican margins of 121-82 in the House and 34-16 in the Senate mean even the bluest of waves would likely fall short of flipping control. There's much at stake, because in the Pennsylvania Legislature the majority party has a dominant role in determining what happens.

Over the past two years, lawmakers have enacted tougher rules for surrendering guns in domestic violence cases, established grants to help make schools safer and overhauled pension benefits for future state government and public school employees. The Republican majorities have struggled to reach budget agreements with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, although this year's spending was completed before the July 1 deadline.

Perhaps the most contentious issue to face lawmakers in years has been the challenge of responding to a sweeping state grand jury report into the sexual abuse of children by priests. Late Wednesday, legislation stalled in the Senate on the last scheduled voting day of the two-year legislative session, leaving none of the grand jury's recommendations enacted.

"I think the General Assembly can do a better job," said Rep. Mike Carroll of Luzerne County, who heads House Democratic campaign efforts. "I think the people of Pennsylvania expect us to be a little bit more proactive with respect to policy judgments that account for where Pennsylvania is in the year 2018."

President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a lead campaign strategist for Senate Republicans, said the state's voters prioritize the issues of school taxes, jobs and the economy. He said his members have voted to boost education spending and avoided major tax increases.

"Those are the two biggest issues that consume over 50 percent of what voters care about," Scarnati said. "We have focused pretty well on those items."

Legislative races can be difficult to handicap, since they often come down to a few thousand or even a couple hundred votes.

Incumbents have an astronomical winning percentage. However, outcomes can be affected by races up the ballot. This year those include Wolf and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey leading in independent polls as they seek re-election, and vigorous congressional battles fueled by the state court decision in January to redraw district boundaries that had favored Republicans.

Open seats in the General Assembly are more likely to change hands, and that currently favors Democrats. In the House, Republicans are defending 21 open seats, Democrats just 12. Forty-nine House Democrats are unopposed, 22 Republicans. Meanwhile, 77 Republican House incumbents and just 21 Democrats have a challenger.

The most high-profile House departure is Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who had planned to run for Congress this year until the court redrew district boundaries, putting Reed's home in the same district as incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson. Reed is taking a job at a bank in his hometown.

The second-longest serving House member, Rep. Bob Godshall, R-Montgomery, is retiring after 36 years. The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Joe Markosek of Allegheny County, and the Democratic whip, Rep. Mike Hanna of Clinton County, are both leaving. Both have sons running to succeed them.

The House currently has four vacancies. Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland, quit this year to work for a manufacturing company. Three Democrats have died recently: Rep. Flo Fabrizio of Erie County in July, followed in the past week by Rep. Mike O'Brien of Philadelphia and Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich of Lackawanna County.

Senate retirements and vacancies this year are all in the Republican caucus.

They include Sen. Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County, the longtime Judiciary Committee chairman; Sen. John Eichelberger of Blair County, who lost a primary contest for a congressional seat; and Sen. Chuck McIlhinney of Bucks County.

Sen. Scott Wagner of York County left the General Assembly this year to focus on his run for governor, and Sen. Randy Vulakovich of Allegheny County lost a primary contest.

In both chambers, Democrats' hopes are strongest in southeastern Pennsylvania, where voters have been trending in their favor in recent years. Republicans are trying to expand gains they've made in increasingly conservative southwestern Pennsylvania.

Democratic targets include Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, who is facing a challenge from Rep. Tina Davis in Bucks County, and McIlhinney's seat, which pits Republican Rep. Marguerite Quinn against Democrat Steve Santarsiero, himself a former member of the state House. Democrats also hope to capture Vulakovich's seat.