PA-St. House: Legislative Chamber to Watch

Reasonable minds can disagree on what the single most important state legislature this November is going to be, whether it’s from the perspective of affecting redistricting or just from good governance, and whether it’s from the perspective of trying to pin down a Democratic trifecta or prevent a Republican trifecta. If you’d said it was trying to take over the Texas state House, in order to keep the GOP from having a lock on the Lone Star State and forcing something of a compromise map, I’d say that was a great pick. And if you’d said defending the New York state Senate, that’s a great pick too, as controlling the trifecta there going into 2012 will result in a much better congressional map. Holding the Ohio Assembly, picking up the Michigan Senate, or even focusing on California to push those chambers past the 2/3s mark to overcome that state’s ridiculous budget requirements; those are all great too.

But, at least for now, I’ve settled on the Keystone State’s House as the key legislative chamber. With the state Senate not in a position to flip away from GOP control this year, and with the distinct likelihood of losing the gubernatorial race (if nothing else, given the state’s well-documented eight-year itch), holding the state House is the Dems’ last line of defense in the redistricting trifecta, and the best way to make sure that a compromise map is on the table for 2012. Not that the 2002 map worked out that well for the GOP — it turned out to be something of a dummymander that fell apart when a strong wind blew the other direction — but we obviously don’t want to take the chance that they might get it more right next time.

With three vacancies having been just filled via special elections on Primary Day, the Democrats currently control the House by a 104-97 margin. That’s better than the previous 07-08 cycle, where the Dems had a 102-101 edge, but still one where a stiff wind could blow control back in to GOP hands, seeing as how they need to flip only four seats to take control. (You might notice that, at 203 members, this is one of the nation’s largest legislative bodies, although they’ve still got nothing on the New Hampshire House. Constituencies are only about 60,000 residents each, meaning that the races are usually low-dollar affairs dominated by the ground game instead, and by the machines, where they’re present.)

With the primaries having wrapped up, we also have the matchups set in place for November. In addition to that generic stiff wind, here’s one other way Dems are at a disadvantage this cycle: they have a lot more open seats to defend than do the Republicans. Rather than give you one giant table of every single district, I’m going to break them down by category. Most districts aren’t even going to get discussed, seeing as how nearly half of all races — 39 Democratic seats and 46 Republican seats — aren’t being contested by a major party, and how nearly two-thirds of all seats fall outside what I think of as “swing district” territory, i.e. with a Cook PVI between D+5 and R+5. (If you’re wondering how I calculated PVI at this level, Pennsylvania has made available both 2004 and 2008 presidential data for all precincts, so thanks to jeffmd we were able to calculate percentages for all its legislative districts.)

District Rep. PVI Obama/
McCain %
Bush %
’08 House
D/R %
107 Open
R+5 46/52 45/54 100/0 Columbia
137 Open
R+3 51/48 45/53 100/0 Northampton
122 Open
R+1 50/48 49/50 64/36 Carbon
48 Open
R+1 49/49 51/49 100/0 Washington
156 Open
D+2 56/43 50/49 53/47 Chester
114 Open
D+3 56/42 50/48 100/0 Lackawanna
119 Open
D+5 56/42 55/43 100/0 Luzerne
77 Open
D+6 60/38 52/47 70/30 Centre
161 Open
D+6 57/41 55/44 55/45 Delaware
141 Open
D+13 64/35 63/36 100/0 Bucks
194 Open
D+22 73/26 71/28 78/22 Montgomery
195 Open
D+42 93/7 92/8 91/9 Philadelphia

We’ll discuss Republican open seats below the fold, but there are only six of them, compared with twelve Dem seats. There are two bits of good news, though: two of those GOP open seats are in blue districts, compared with four here in Republican-leaning turf, so there may be some offsetting. And more importantly, three of these R+ seats here are in old-school rural Dem areas where there seems to be a sizable Democratic registration advantage, so similar to the PA-12 special election, a conservative Dem might be able to take advantage of the historic Democratic dominance at the local level even as the areas trend away at the national level.

HD-48 is very much a case in point; in fact, it’s in Washington County to the south of Pittsburgh, one of the hearts of PA-12, and its 49/49 split in 2008 and 51/49 split in 2004 very closely mirrors how the 12th (the only Kerry/McCain district in the nation, as you’ve no doubt heard) as a whole broke down. In HD-48, there were 7,488 votes for the various Dems in the primary, while there were 4,461 Republican votes. In addition, in two seats in northeastern coal country, HD-107 had 5,818 Democratic votes for the various candidates in the primary, while there were 4,088 Republican votes, and HD-122 had 6,166 Dem votes and 3,855 GOP votes. The exception among the four is HD-137, which is a more suburban seat outside of Bethlehem in the Lehigh Valley; this area, like many southeastern suburbs, moved rapidly in the Dems’ direction at the presidential level between 04 and 08, but there’s still a historic Republican advantage at the county and legislative level. Even here, though, there were 3,847 Dem votes to 3,439 GOP primary votes.

Now let’s turn to seats that aren’t open, but where a Democrat is sitting in a Republican-leaning district.

District Rep. PVI Obama/
McCain %
Bush %
’08 House
D/R %
83 Mirabito R+12 42/57 36/63 57/42 Lycoming
56 Casorio R+12 37/62 41/59 60/40 Westmoreland
125 Seip R+11 42/57 38/61 56/44 Berks
76 Hanna R+8 45/53 40/60 69/31 Centre
74 George R+8 44/53 41/58 63/37 Clearfield
10 Gibbons R+6 43/55 45/55 55/45 Beaver
54 Pallone R+5 44/55 46/53 100/0 Armstrong
116 Eachus R+5 46/52 45/54 100/0 Luzerne
55 Petrarca * R+5 44/55 47/52 100/0 Armstrong
130 Kessler R+4 49/49 43/56 56/44 Berks
46 White R+3 45/53 49/51 63/37 Allegheny
25 Markosek R+3 47/52 48/52 100/0 Allegheny
72 Burns * R+3 47/50 48/52 53/47 Cambria
13 Houghton R+3 51/48 44/55 48/46 Chester
73 Haluska R+2 48/50 48/51 100/0 Cambria
58 Harhai R+2 46/53 51/49 100/0 Fayette
51 Mahoney * R+2 47/51 49/50 67/0 Fayette
33 Dermody R+2 47/52 50/49 51/49 Allegheny
71 Barbin R+1 51/48 49/51 50/50 Cambria
52 Kula * R+1 48/51 51/48 100/0 Fayette
39 Levdansky R+1 48/51 52/48 53/47 Allegheny

These are, I would expect, for the most part conservative Dems who are well suited to their districts in rural areas or Pittsburgh’s collar counties. Between that and disparities in party strength in some of these counties, most of them have been easily re-elected in the past (see their 2008 totals) or left unopposed. In fact, note that four of them are unopposed this year; these are the ones with asterisks next to their names. This even goes as far up as R+5, where Joe Petrarca drew a pass. (Before we start patting ourselves on the back too much, there are some even more glaring omissions in terms of Republicans going uncontested in blue seats, which we’ll get to later.) Also worth a note, some of the ones who are in swingier districts (like Barbin, Dermody, and Levdansky) were the ones with the really close races in 2008, and may, depending on the quality of their challengers this year, be in more trouble than the Dems in redder districts.

Let’s look at one more table of Democrats, this time ones who are in Democratic-leaning districts but who still had close races in 2008 (“close” meaning a less than 10% margin of victory).

District Rep. PVI Obama/
McCain %
Bush %
’08 House
D/R %
151 Taylor D+4 57/42 52/47 51/49 Montgomery
157 Drucker D+4 57/42 52/48 51/49 Chester
70 Bradford D+5 59/40 53/47 51/49 Montgomery
113 Murphy D+11 65/33 58/40 52/48 Lackawanna
31 Santarsiero D+0 53/46 49/50 53/47 Bucks
50 DeWeese D+3 52/46 55/44 54/46 Fayette

Note that this is a very different batch of counties than the ones in the R+ districts. Most of these Dems are in Philadelphia’s suburbs and were either elected for the first time in either 2008 or 2006, so they’re still getting entrenched in counties where, if you look below the presidential toplines, there are still a lot of historic and organizational advantages for the Republicans. These seats will be a big test of whether these counties continue their decade-long demographic-driven march toward the Democrats, or if the national environment reverses that trend. There’s also one seat here that doesn’t really match: the district of former Speaker Mike Bill DeWeese, in the state’s southwestern corner. DeWeese is an old-timer (in office since 1976) who’s gotten badly tarred with the Bonusgate brush, which probably hurt his 2008 totals and has probably only made things worse lately. Residents of this district probably got saturated with tons of ads from the next-door WV-01 primary, so they too may be primed to be in the mood to rid themselves of a long-time but shady Rep.

Seats where Democrats are on the offense over the flip…

Now let’s look at the open seats currently held by Republicans.

District Rep. PVI Obama/
McCain %
Bush %
’08 House
D/R %
164 Open
D+13 66/33 60/39 0/100 Delaware
131 Open *
D+3 56/42 51/49 48/52 Lehigh
128 Open
R+5 49/50 42/57 48/52 Berks
41 Open
R+7 48/51 38/61 0/100 Lancaster
199 Open
R+12 42/56 35/64 35/65 Cumberland
85 Open
R+13 41/57 34/65 30/70 Snyder
108 Open
R+16 38/61 31/68 23/77 Northumberland

Obviously, there are two big possibilities here, including a D+13 seat that leaves you to wonder what it was doing in GOP hands in the first place. (The answer: HD-164 has been the seat since 1980 of Mario Civera Jr., the ranking Republican on Appropriations, and it’s in Delaware County, which is a historic GOP stronghold that still has a strong local machine even though it’s gone blue at the presidential level.) The D+3 seat, HD-131, is in the suburbs of Allentown, and just became open when GOP incumbent Karen Beyer lost her primary. A little further down, Sam Rohrer (who vacated the seat for his long-shot gubernatorial bid) put up tepid numbers in his 2008 re-election, but that may have more to do with his bad fit with his district (which is the nicer suburbs of Reading, typified by John Updike’s hometown of Shillington, not prime theo-con turf) than this district’s readiness to elect any Democrat.

Here’s the list of the Republicans who are sitting in blue districts. And, as promised, it has some races that went uncontested (marked by asterisks) that will have you wanting to pound your head into the desk…

District Rep. PVI Obama/
McCain %
Bush %
’08 House
D/R %
177 Taylor * D+15 66/33 65/34 41/59 Philadelphia
18 DiGirolamo * D+8 58/40 58/41 33/67 Bucks
162 Miccarelli D+8 59/40 58/41 43/57 Delaware
163 Micozzie D+7 59/39 57/42 41/59 Delaware
176 Scavello * D+7 62/38 53/46 0/100 Monroe
146 Quigley D+5 59/40 52/48 47/53 Montgomery
150 Vereb D+5 58/41 53/47 43/57 Montgomery
61 Harper D+4 57/43 52/48 44/56 Montgomery
152 Murt D+3 55/44 53/47 40/60 Montgomery
169 O’Brien * D+3 53/46 55/44 0/100 Philadelphia
142 Farry D+3 54/45 53/47 48/52 Bucks
172 Perzel D+2 52/47 53/46 34/66 Philadelphia
158 Ross D+1 55/44 48/52 0/100 Chester
167 Milne D+0 54/45 48/51 44/56 Chester
26 Hennessey D+0 55/44 47/52 48/52 Chester
14 Marshall D+0 50/48 52/48 41/59 Beaver
183 Harhart * D+0 53/46 49/50 0/87 Lehigh

So… just to recap, Dems failed to put forth a candidate in a D+15 district in Philadelphia (as well as a D+8 district in lower Bucks County and a D+7 one in the Poconos). Granted, this is in NE Philadelphia, the middle-class old-school white-ethnic part of town where there’s some residual Republican organizational strength, probably left over from the Frank Rizzo area (as seen not just by Taylor’s 59-41 win in 2008 but by the continued presence in the House of his neighbors, former Speakers Mike Dennis O’Brien — also uncontested this year — and John Perzel). Still… that free pass is just lame. At any rate, Perzel, even though he might have the least-blue district in Philly, may actually be the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, if only by virtue of being the most public face of the lingering legislative pay raise debacle that left both parties looking bad.

Finally, here is a handful of Republicans who are from Republican-leaning districts who still managed to have close (i.e. less than 10% margin) races in 2008, who weren’t already accounted for in the blue-district list.

District Rep. PVI Obama/
McCain %
Bush %
’08 House
D/R %
15 Christiana R+4 44/54 48/51 49/51 Beaver
57 Krieger R+10 40/58 41/58 48/52 Westmoreland
187 Day R+7 47/51 40/59 48/52 Berks
75 Gabler R+7 46/52 41/58 47/53 Clearfield

While I don’t presume to know enough about the local dynamics of these dozens of different races to the extent that I can predict outcomes, the disparities in number of open seats, and numbers of Dems in R+ seats vs. numbers of GOPers in D+ seats, suggest that the Republicans will be picking up seats here, although maybe not the net four flips needed to control the House. The real question seems to be how much these races get nationalized, and whether a favorable Republican year in general translates down to districts where there’s a historic Dem advantage (in the southwestern collar counties) or where demographics are moving in a Dem-favorable direction even while the local machinery remains in GOP hands (in the southeastern suburbs). The failure by the GOP to successfully nationalize the PA-12 special election is a good portent, but we’ll have to watch carefully.

UPDATE: By popular request, here’s the entire dataset as a Google Doc.

43 thoughts on “PA-St. House: Legislative Chamber to Watch”

  1. I notice one of the Democratic primary candidates for House district 19 is named T. Payne. Did he campaign on autotune or something?

    I am hopeful that Onorato will have coattails in Western PA and save seats there.

  2. However, it’s Bill Deweese, not Mike.

    Also, you wrote that you calculated PVI for all legislative districts. Any way you guys could post the whole table? Thanks!

  3. Legislative races get a bit too deep in the weeds for me. Obviously I hope Democrats do well but don’t except me to follow all this in any detail. Yikes! 🙂

  4. I saw you mentioned that there isn’t a Democratic candidate in HD-176.  I live there, and let me say that Mario Scavello is about as popular as Jesus here.  The Democrats couldn’t field a candidate because no one will run against Scavello.  That D+7 is a bit misleading because most people around split their tickets.

  5. I am thinking about throwing a diary together listing these districts with Corbett’s results.  Would be interesting to see what districts went for him since he is on the ballot.

  6. The Republicans could gain 2 districts over what they have now.

    1. Screw over Critz. Put Cambria County in the Shuster district where he can’t possibly win. Put Greene/Fayette in the Tim Murphy district, making it an uncomfortable 47% Obama district, and hope Murphy keeps getting reelected.

    2. Screw over Altmire. Take away his western counties and add the rest of Butler and Armstrong. This becomes a ~40% Obama district, too Republican for him to win. This will make Dahlkemper very safe.

    3. Shore up Gerlach, the only remaining Republican in the Philly burbs. Make a Murtha-shaped district out of the Republican parts of Bucks, Montgo, Berks, Chester, Delaware. This will be a 53% McCain district, and have a good chance of flipping to the Democrats in the next decade.

    4. Combine Kanjorski and Carney into the same district, eliminating 1 Democrat.

  7. Haven’t posted in forever (and I think even then it was under a different name). Glad to be back; this stuff is why I love reading SSP multiple times a day.

    Can anyone from PA give insight as to whether the partisan breakdown of the two party caucuses is as stark as that on the federal level? I imagine that a decent few of the Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs vote to the left (as we define it nationally) of some conservative Democrats in central PA and the Pittsburgh suburbs. Obviously, nothing but intuition, and I know that data might be hard to come by, but I’m curious.  

  8. Former Speaker O’Brien became Speaker when he voted with 101 Democrats to take over the House, despite being part of the 102 vote Republican “majority.”

    John Taylor is a local hero in his district who is safe as long as he runs and then the district flips, BUT, if control of the House came down to it, he might side with O’Brien (depends on which Republican they put up).  Taylor is VERY close to the Philly unions too.

    Neither was going to lose their district and by not recruiting serious opposition the Ds don’t force either guy to be partisan.

    And given that it is very possible we need one or both votes to control the House, this isn’t bad strategy.  

  9. Hopefully I’m wrong but I can say though with a fair amount of confidence that the 161st is not going to be an easy hold. The Republicans can really turn their guys out in that area, and the Democratic candidate, Walt Waite, is not a particurally strong candidate. He might be carried in by a huge number of Sestak/Lentz supporters.

  10. Democrats have no excuse to lose this since Obama won here by two to one. However, Democrats lost two winnable Republican seats in special elections in PA a few weeks ago by 60 point margins. Dems will probably screw this one up too.

  11. Thank you for your fascinating analysis, but please know that Bill DeWeese is not a “shady” character.

    A few facts: Tom Corbett is the Republican candidate for Governor, the former General Counsel of Waste Management, and the current Pennsylvania Attorney General. Bill DeWeese, one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, is fighting hard to ensure the massive natural gas exploration in his district is done safely and spearheaded the most stringent mining safety law in American history, among other things.

    Although corruption investigations of state office holders are typically handled by the feds, who have a 95 to 99 precent conviction rate, Corbett has embarked on a remarkable strategy to indict his political opponents and, specifically, powerful Democrats like Bill DeWeese, in order to shift legislative power to Republicans.

    This sounds like sour grapes, but consider the following. First, take a look at this motion: http://extras.mnginteractive.c

    Second, consider the following:

    * In Corbett’s political prosecutions, 272 – or 85 percent – of the 322 counts brought to court have been dismissed or ended in “not guilty” verdicts. Corbett won guilty verdicts in only 15 percent of the counts but succeeded in getting Democrats out of power or out of leadership just by charging them.

    * Corbett spent three years investigating DeWeese, was forced to exonerate him on Bonusgate, but came up with six unrelated counts.

    * Corbett charged that DeWeese had a ghost payroller on staff. This woman (who I know) has more than 100 witnesses ready to testify that she did legislative work on state time.

    * Corbett refused to prosecute a close ally. See:

    * Corbett is being sued by his own deputy attorney general for covering up criminal misconduct in his office. See  see

    PA has a wild man with no prosecutorial ethics hailing from one of the biggest polluters in the state and given the keys to the kingdom. And he’s wildly misusing his power. The ACLU is now involved.

    Democrats nationwide should understand the national implications of Corbett’s wild ride to power in one of the nation’s most important swing states.

    Keep those analyses coming. Thank you!

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