Today, Decision Desk HQ reporter Jeff Ditzler breaks down the upcoming special election contests in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. You can follow Jeff here.
Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted an early spring, but a flurry of special elections is about to occur in his home state. U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, a Republican from Williamsport, resigned his post in January, setting up what will likely be the first special election of the 116th Congress on May 21. At the state level, voters will have to fill three state Senate seats and two state House seats, and additional seats might open up due to scandal or their representatives moving up into another seat.
The Twelfth Congressional District
Rep. Tom Marino, who has been in Congress since 2011 and previously survived cancer, underwent emergency kidney surgery earlier this year, leading to his resignation to take an unspecified job in the private sector. He leaves a vacancy in the Twelfth District, a mostly rural area stretching from the New York border south to the outskirts of Scranton and Harrisburg. When this area attracts national attention, it’s usually for something sports-related, as its two largest population centers are Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series, and State College, home of Penn State University. So far, four candidates have announced bids for the seat. State Reps. Fred Keller (R-Snyder County) and Jeff Wheeland (R-Williamsport) are running, as is Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko, who challenged Marino in the 2018 Republican primary after it was revealed that Marino had supported a bill weakening drug enforcement. On the Democratic side, the state committee selected 2018 nominee Marc Friedenberg, a professor at Penn State. Other potential Republican candidates include State Rep. John Fritz of Susquehanna County, Republican businessman Jeff Stroehmann, former state Farm Bureau chairman Keith Eckel, Lycoming County Commissioner Tony Mussare, and Marino staffer Dave Weber. Each county Republican committee in the district will select delegates to a conference that will vote to select a nominee.
The Twelfth District has a Cook Political score of R+17 and gave President Trump sixty-six percent of its vote in 2016, so the Republican nominee will start as the heavy favorite. Much of the district was part of the old Tenth Congressional district, which Democrat Chris Carney represented from 2007-11. However, Carney showed no interest in running for the seat. In any case, most of the interest in this race will be seeing how much appeal Republicans still hold in an area that was crucial to President Trump’s victory in 2016.
Guy Reschenthaler, a state senator from the Thirty-Seventh District in suburban Pittsburgh, was elected to Congress in 2018, creating a vacancy in his state Senate district which will be filled in an April 2 election between Navy veteran Pam Iovino (D) and software company founder D. Raja (R). I will have more details about this race in an upcoming article. The Democrats have a chance to flip the district, and may have to in order to set themselves up to compete for a majority in the state Senate in 2020.
Two other Republican state Senators have announced that they will resign at the end of February. Richard Alloway, whose Thirty-Third District includes Chambersburg, Gettysburg, and Hanover in the southcentral part of the state, cited a general burnout and frustration with state government as reasons for quitting. So far, the only candidates are Republicans Doug Mastriano, an Army veteran who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018, and Trevor Taylor, a state GOP committeeman. The district is almost certain to stay Republican. The other is Don White, whose Forty-First District is centered on Indiana and Armstrong Counties, about an hour’s drive northeast of Pittsburgh. No candidates have emerged yet, although a name to watch is Dave Reed, a former state House majority leader who left the General Assembly in 2018 to run for Congress, only to end his campaign after the state’s Congressional districts were redrawn. This was once a Democratic area but has become reliably Republican since the turn of the millennium, and the GOP should hold the seat easily. It is expected that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman will set the special elections in both seats for May 21, to coincide with the statewide municipal primary.
Finally, Daylin Leach, a Democratic state senator from the Seventeenth District, has faced sexual misconduct allegations and calls from both Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman to resign. Leach’s district, stretching from the Valley Forge area to the Philadelphia city limits, was the first state Senate district in the Philadelphia suburbs to flip from Republican to Democratic, and will stay in the party’s hands if he does resign.
The first of the season’s special elections will occur on March 12, to replace State Reps. Sid Michaels Kavulich (D-Lackawanna Co.), who died in October, and Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-Philadelphia), who was convicted of bribery. Both Kavulich and Brown were unopposed in last November’s general election. Democrats had some trouble selecting a candidate in Brown’s 190th district: their initial choice, Darryl Thomas, dropped out due to residency concerns, leading them to select Movita Johnson-Harrell, a staffer for Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner. Johnson-Harrell, strongly favored over Republican Michael Harvey and two independent candidates, would be the first Muslim woman in the General Assembly. Kavulich’s 114th district, a rural and suburban area wrapping around the city of Scranton, will feature real estate investor and 2018 state Senate candidate Frank Scavo (R) against nurse Bridget Kosierowski (D). President Trump carried the district in 2016, so the Republicans might be able to flip the district. If they do, their majority in the state House will increase from 110-93 to 111-92.
Another special election might occur in Butler County, where state Rep. Brian Ellis (R) has faced calls to resign from the House Republican leadership after a sexual assault allegation. Butler County was a Republican stronghold even when the rest of western Pennsylvania was heavily Democratic, so if Ellis resigns, the seat will likely stay GOP. If one of the aforementioned Reps. Fred Keller or Jeff Wheeland end up going to Washington to replace Tom Marino, a special election would occur to fill his seat in the state House. Although Democrats held Wheeland’s seat from 2009 to 2015 and have seen growth in Lewisburg, the largest town in Keller’s district and home of Bucknell University, both districts voted for President Trump with more than sixty percent of the vote and are unlikely to switch parties.