Today’s guest post is by Jeff Ditzler, longtime DDHQ election data gatherer. He continues an earlier exploration of Pennsylvania contests with a review of the upcoming special election in SD-37.
In a previous piece, I detailed the bumper crop of special elections occurring in Pennsylvania this spring: one for Congress, three for the state Senate, and at least two for the state House. Today, I’d like to focus on what might be the most important single election: the race to replace state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, who was elected to Congress last November, in the Thirty-Seventh District in suburban Pittsburgh. The election will occur April 2. Not only is it the most likely to switch parties (the two state House elections, held last Tuesday, were Democratic holds, and the other two state Senate elections and Congressional election, scheduled for May 21, are in safely Republican districts), but whether it switches parties could decide whether Democrats have a plausible chance at taking control of the state Senate for the first time since 1994.
The Thirty-Seventh District
State Senator Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican, was elected to Congress last November, setting up a special election to replace him this coming April 2. The two major party candidates, chosen by their parties’ committees, are Democrat Pam Iovino, a 23-year Navy veteran, and Republican D. Raja, the Allegheny County GOP chairman and co-founder of CEI, a software company. The seat is Republican-leaning: President Trump carried it by a 51-45% margin in 2016, and it has only elected a Democratic senator twice since the 1970s. However, the area was at the center of the upset victory of U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D) in March 2018, and Raja was defeated by former state Sen. Matt Smith (D) for the seat in 2012, fueling Democratic hopes in the district. (Smith resigned in May 2015 to take a position with the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and Reschenthaler replaced him in a special election.) If Iovino defeats Raja, Democrats will have twenty-two state senators, putting them three seats away from the majority.
Democratic State Senate Targets
The race to replace Matt Smith, mentioned above, was part of a losing streak for Pennsylvania Democrats in the state Senate. After gaining three open seats in 2012 to cut the Republican majority to 27-23, its narrowest point since the Democrats last had the majority in 1994, they lost three seats in both 2014 and 2016 to fall to sixteen seats, their worst showing since 1950. They recovered in 2018, picking up five seats for a 29-21 Republican edge in the Senate. This included two seats where incumbent Republicans lost to Democrats, which had not happened since 2000.
Looking forward to 2020, there are three plausible targets for Democrats in the state Senate (odd-numbered seats are up in presidential election years). These are the Ninth District, a seat Hillary Clinton carried by a double-digit percentage in 2016 in the Philadelphia suburbs; the Fifteenth District, a narrowly pro-Trump district based around Harrisburg that was in Democratic hands from 2013-17; and the Forty-Ninth District, based in Erie, which was also Democratic from 2013-17 and which voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton.
|Pennsylvania Senators up in 2020 in Swing Districts|
|9||Chester (part), Delaware (part)||Tom Killion (R)||Clinton +13.4%|
|49||Erie (part)||Dan Laughlin (R)||Clinton +1.6%|
|45||Allegheny (part)||Jim Brewster (D)||Trump +0.7%|
|11||Berks (part)||Judy Schwank (D)||Clinton +2.8%|
|15||Dauphin (part), Perry||John DiSanto (R)||Trump +4.8%|
|37||Allegheny (part), Washington (part)||OPEN||Trump +5.8%|
|13||Lancaster (part)||Scott Martin (R)||Trump +6.2%|
Source for 2016 data: Daily Kos Elections
This makes it clear why the upcoming special election is so important to Democratic hopes of taking the Pennsylvania Senate. If Democrats sweep all three of the potential targets and don’t lose any they currently hold, and Iovino defeats Raja, the Senate will be tied at twenty-five members of each party, which Lt. Gov. John Fetterman would break in the Democrats’ favor. If they pick up three seats, defend their own, and Raja defeats Iovino, the Republicans will have a 26-24 majority. To get the fourth pickup, Democrats have two options. Raja would be up for a full term in 2020, giving Democrats another chance to take the district. However, defeating him as an incumbent, while not impossible, would be harder than defeating him for an open seat. The only other Republican-held seat up in 2020 to vote for President Trump by less than ten percent is the Thirteenth District, in Lancaster County. While the district has gotten more Democratic in recent years, particularly in the city of Lancaster and some of its affluent suburbs, Lancaster County has only voted Democratic (at any level) twice since the Civil War, and incumbent Sen. Scott Martin is a familiar name in the district, having served as a county commissioner before being elected to the state Senate. Also, partisan changes often take several cycles to filter down from the Presidential level to the local one. Lancaster County isn’t as staunchly Republican as it used to be, but a Democratic push here would be a political Hail Mary (or, given the area’s Mennonite background, a Hail Menno).
A Note About the House
Even if Democrats take over the Pennsylvania Senate, they would still need to take control of the State House to have complete control of state government. It’s much too early to talk about individual races, but some broad trends are already apparent. In the 2018 election, Democrats gained a net eleven seats to cut the Republican majority from 121-82 to 110-93. They would only need nine more to take the majority, but they’ve already taken most of the low-hanging fruit. Before the election, there were nineteen Republicans in seats Hillary Clinton carried and seventeen Democrats in seats Donald Trump carried; now, there are fifteen Democrats in Trump seats and only six Republicans in Clinton seats. Seven Democrats are in seats that went for Trump by a wider margin than any Republican seat went for Clinton. Democrats cut the Republican’s majority by more than half in 2018, but eliminating the rest in 2020 will be the hard part.