This one’s for all the marbles.
The race for governor, Congress and U.S. Senate might be grabbing all the headlines in this very dramatic midterm campaign year. But across Pennsylvania, candidates are stepping up and running in what’s shaping up to be a highly consequential fight for the General Assembly.
Half of the 50-member state Senate is up for grabs this year. Republicans currently hold a 33-16 majority, with one vacancy.
Observers of both parties don’t expect the chamber to flip. But this year, what Democrats are hoping for – and what Republicans are guarding against – is the possibility that a 2018 blue wave will put Democrats on course to recapturing a Senate majority that has eluded them for more than two decades.
As is the case in the fight for Congress, the legislative battleground in Pennsylvania is all about the suburbs, primarily in Philadelphia, though a seat in Allegheny County is also in play.
Below is a look at the eight seats that are on the bubble in 2018.
1. The battle for the ‘other’ Bucks County
District: 6th Senate District
Incumbent: Robert M. “Tommy” Tomlinson (R)
Challenger: Tina Davis (D)
If there is a seat whose fate has been the subject of the most intense speculation, it could be the race between Tomlinson, who’s been in the Senate since 1995, and Davis, a state House member from Bucks County’s 141st District since 2011.
This is the ‘other’ Bucks County – not the preppy buttoned-down one of popular imagination, but the working-class, Levittown part. Tomlinson’s seat is based in Bensalem Township, hard on the Philadelphia border, and home to the Parx Casino.
Like many long-serving incumbents, there is a sense that this year may be the year that Tomlinson’s number finally comes up.
Davis is a co-founder of Emerge Pennsylvania, which trains Democratic women to run for office. She is one of four Democratic women running this year who are Emerge alumna.
But, says veteran Republican consultant Christopher Nicholas, Tomlinson, a funeral director by trade, is one affable guy. And you can’t count that out.
“Every four years, people say Tommy’s toast, and he keeps on going,” Nicholas said.
Why the seat could flip: Hillary Clinton took 49.54 percent of the vote in the 6th District in 2016. The district has a Democratic voter registration edge (46.11-39.28) over Republicans. Independents make up nearly 14 percent of the district’s registration base.
On paper, in a wave year, this seat could go Democratic. Tomlinson, however, remains a local brand name.
2. The Lehigh Valley a bellwether once again?
District: 16th Senate District
Incumbent: State Sen. Pat Browne (R)
Challenger: Mark Pinsley (D)
The Lehigh Valley appears poised to reclaim its bellwether mantle this year, largely thanks to the high-profile congressional contest in the redrawn 7th District. pitting Democrat Susan Wild against Republican Marty Nothstein.
But don’t overlook the consequential Senate race between three-term incumbent Sen. Pat Browne, of Allentown, and Democratic challenger, Mark Pinsley, a township commissioner from suburban South Whitehall Township.
You can expect Browne, who’s had a hand in nearly every major economic development project in the Valley for the last decade, to run heavily on his record and his experience.
He’s emerged as a forceful advocate for early childhood education funding; the co-sponsor of an LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill, and the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. The latter gives him a serious say in the annual debate over the state budget.
On his website, Pinsley describes himself as an advocate “for the people, not the powerful.” He supports “healthcare for all;” a $15 minimum wage; “100 percent clean energy,” and a proposal he calls “the Anti-Corruption Act.”
Brown and Tomlinson’s district, along with the Allegheny County-based 38th District (more on that in a bit) are “the most Democratic seats held by a Republican,” Nicholas observed. “Registration is not the whole kit and kaboodle, but that’s where it starts.”
Why it’s on the bubble: Of the six races, Pinsley will likely have the hardest time of any Democratic challenger. But a few factors come into play.
Hillary Clinton carried the district in 2016, taking 50.68 percent of the vote. The 16th District has a 45-37 percent Democratic voter registration edge. Independents, who largely broke for President Donald Trump in 2016, comprise 16.48 percent of the local electorate.
Voters who are energized and who turn out for top of the ticket races featuring Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf; U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and the Congressional contest could be inclined to share the love with Pinsley. But these races, like most legislative contests, tend to be intensely local affairs. And there aren’t always coattails.
3. The one with the open seat
District: 10th District
Republican: Marguerite Quinn
Democrat: Steve Santarsiero
The central Bucks-based 10th District opened up earlier this year with the surprise retirement announcement of incumbent GOP Sen. Chuck McIlhinney.
The race pits a current state House member, Quinn, who’s represented the 143rd District since 2007, against a former one, Santarsiero, who represented the lower Bucks-based 31st District, from 2009 to 2017. In 2016, Santarsiero won the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8th District. He lost 54-46 percent.
Quinn gave up her 143rd District to seat to make her Senate bid.
In a statement to her hometown Bucks County Courier-Times announcing her candidacy, Quinn said she’d bring pragmatic, independent leadership to the Senate, and will continue standing up for taxpayers in our communities.”
Santarsiero, who’s most recently worked in the Office of Attorney General, says on his website that he’s running to “bring a new day to Harrisburg.”
Why it’s on the bubble: If there’s ever a time that a seat is ripe for a pick-up, it’s when it’s an open seat.
Clinton carried the 10th in 2016, taking 50 percent of the vote. McIlhinney was not on the ballot that year.
Democrats, however, are outnumbered 43-39 percent, on the voter rolls.
Internal polling shows a generic Democratic candidate up by 8 percentage points in the 10th District. But the seat has been in Republican hands for years and years. That makes this one a tough row for Democrats to hoe in 2018.
” Santarsiero won a widely acclaimed, well-funded congressional campaign two years ago in a district that was Plus-1 Republican,” and lost anyway, Nicholas noted. “The 10th is kind of artificially competitive because they’ve done stuff to help the 6th District.”
Quinn’s old House seat, however, “is the quintessential Bucks County moderate Republican [district]. It gives her the political muscles you need to survive in that arena,” Nicholas said.
4. ‘Dad … is that you???’
District: 12th Senate District
Republican: Stewart Greenleaf
Democrat: Maria Collett
This one’s for the trivia buffs among you.
The race for the Montgomery County-based 12th District is one of three contests on the 2018 ballot where sons are running to replace their retiring fathers (*See below for your final answer.).
In this case, it’s Republican Stewart Greenleaf Jr., who’s running to replace his dad, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf, who won election to the state House in 1977, then the Senate in 1979.
In other words, suburbanites have been sending someone with the Greenleaf last name to Harrisburg since the Carter administration.
Greenleaf, the younger, according to his campaign website is a former elected Montgomery County controller who’s been in private practice as an attorney since 2016. He’s also volunteered in the community, serving, for instance, as a trustee of the Upper Moreland Public Library.
Collett, also an attorney, touted her support on her website for “affordable healthcare;” “fair elections and voting reforms,” and “safe water,” among other initiatives.
Why the seat is on the bubble: Just like the 10th District in neighboring Bucks, this is an open seat. So if it’s going to flip, now’s the time.
Clinton carried the district, taking 50.79 percent in 2016. Republicans have a 44-40 percent registration edge. And a chunk of the seat takes in three municipalities in Bucks County that are “reliably Republican,” Nicholas said.
And don’t discount the fact that some 12th District residents could pull the lever for Greenleaf, still thinking they’re voting for his dad.
“How many presidents have been elected since Stew Greenleaf came into office?” Nicholas mused. “That name is golden there.”
(*Your answer: Democrat Mike Hanna is running to replace his father, Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton. And Democrat Brendan Markosek is running to replace his dad, Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny.)
5. The one with the other, other open seat
District: 38th District
Democrat: Lindsey Williams
Republican: Jeremy Shaffer
The contest for Allegheny County’s open 38th Senate District, is the product of one of the more spectacularly messy Republican blood feuds of recent years.
The former Republican incumbent, outgoing Sen. Randy Vulakovich, raised the ire of movement conservatives in 2017 when he became one of 26 senators who voted in favor of a bill that paid for the 2017-18 state budget with a buffet line of tax hikes and a plan to borrow against Pennsylvania’s share of the nationwide tobacco settlement.
Into that breach stepped the then-40-year-old Shaffer, a software executive and township commissioner in Ross Township, who felt Vulakovich had to be punished for his sins. Shaffer defeated Vulakovich, an affable former police officer, in the May primary.
Shaffer faces Democrat Lindsey Williams, who formerly worked for the National Whistleblowers Center.
Why the seat is on the bubble: Clinton took a plurality of the vote in the 38th in 2016, winning 48 percent of the vote. The district has a 47-38 percent Democratic voter registration edge.
In a year in which women are a substantial electoral force, an internal poll showed Williams with a 9-point lead over Shaffer. As is customary, Shaffer’s camp rejected the results.
6. ‘The People’s Republic of Swarthmore’
District: 26th District
Incumbent: Sen. Thomas J. McGarrigle (R)
Challenger: Tim Kearney (D)
The race for Delaware County’s 26th District is a study in contrasts.
The Republican incumbent Tom McGarrigle, still works at the Springfield Township auto shop he launched 38 years ago.
His challenger, Democrat Tim Kearney, is the mayor of toney Swarthmore, which some call “The People’s Republic of Swarthmore” because it’s home to Swarthmore College.
McGarrigle won election to the Senate in 2014, where he chairs the chamber’s Urban Affairs Committee.
Announcing his re-election bid in February, said he wanted to honor the tradition of a Legislature “made up of citizen statesmen, individuals who traveled to the capital to pass laws and adopt a state budget, and then returned to their jobs and their small businesses. Legislators who do that are increasingly the exception and not the rule.”
Not that he’s a stranger to politics: McGarrigle previously served on the Delaware County Council and is a member of the local chamber of commerce.
Kearney is a former chairman of Swarthmore’s Planning and Zoning Commission, and is now serving his second term as the borough’s mayor, according to his campaign website. He’s also a partner in his wife’s architecture business.
Why it’s on the bubble: Well, for one, because southeastern Pennsylvania. Clinton took nearly 56 percent of the vote in the district in 2016. But, the seat has a 46-41 percent Republican registration edge.
Democrats describe McGarrigle as a “Republican with a lot of vulnerabilities.” Nicholas, the GOP consultant, credited him as a good fundraiser who’s used to running tough campaigns.
7. A district made for an incumbent?
District: 44th District
Incumbent: John Rafferty (R)
Challenger: Katie Muth (D)
Taking in parts of three counties (Berks, Chester, and Montgomery counties), the 44th District has been represented by Republican John Rafferty since 2003.
As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee in 2012, Rafferty played a key role in the talks that led to passage of then-Gov. Tom Corbett’s $2.3 billion transportation funding package. He’s also a vice-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2012, Rafferty made an ill-fated bid for the GOP nomination for attorney general. He was muscled aside in favor of endorsed candidate David Freed, who went on to lose to Democrat Katherine Kane that yer.
Democratic challenger Katie Muth is an “adjunct professor teaching in the Department of Kinesiology at a local university,” according to her campaign website.
Muth has been profiled for her hustle on the campaign trail.
She’ll need it – the large district is home to a variety of local officials, business groups and other interests. And “for a first time challenger of regardless of when you start, it can be hard to catch up,” Nicholas observed.
Why it’s on the bubble: Clinton took 48 percent of the vote in the district in 2016, where Republicans hold a 45-37 percent voter registration edge. Muth could blunt that edge because she is “passionate and honest and unvarnished. And what voters are telling us is they want that kind of candidate,” one Democratic operative said.
But, Rafferty gets a leg up because “a decent portion of the district in Berks County, which is much more reliably Trump country than Chester or Montgomery County,” Nicholas said.
8. One more for Montgomery. One more for the road.
District: 24th District
Incumbent: Bob Mensch (R)
Challenger: Linda Fields (D)
The 24th District, which includes parts of Berks, Bucks and Montgomery counties, is, like the 44th District, one of those spread out-y districts with no real geographic center. Thus, like the 44th, it’s the kind of place that tends to favor incumbents with long-standing relationships over relative newcomers.
Republican Bob Mensch has represented the district since 2009, after coming over from the state House. His Democratic opponent, Linda Fields, is an organizer for the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees.
As Nicholas notes, Mensch is “probably the strongest of all the [incumbents] down there,” in the Philadelphia suburbs. Fields will have her work cut out for her.