PITTSBURGH — The elections for which party will control the state House and state Senate in the Keystone State this cycle will likely have a more profound impact on Pennsylvanians’ daily lives, their futures, and the futures of their children and grandchildren than the presidential contest.
Rich Fitzgerald, the chief executive of Allegheny County and a Democrat, said state legislators are the ones making long-lasting impacts as they work with offices such as his to rebuild communities and make them better places to live with funding for infrastructure, education, state parks, and conservation projects. “Political party differences are left out of the discussion when working on these projects because these individuals are the ones who craft significant impacts like economic development and transportation in your community,” Fitzgerald said.
Compromise is often found with those in the halls of the state Capitol, unlike those who work in the U.S. Capitol, who can run to cable TV to cause a ruckus. At the state level, grandstanding is mostly limited.
Every four years, we are told emphatically by presidential candidates, strategists who orchestrate their every move, and the intellectuals who support them that this is the “most important presidential election in our lifetime” or to brace ourselves because the election is a “battle for the soul of our country.” We are warned on cable news, tweets, ads in our Facebook feeds, YouTube clips, and on the radio. It is inferred in almost every corporate ad, sporting event, and by every Hollywood movie and TV show.
Unless you go off the grid for a year before the election, you literally can’t escape them.
Of course, the presidential election is indeed important — whoever wins is the most powerful person on the planet. But when it comes to things that affect our daily lives, it is the policies crafted on the state and local level that really make a difference.
Come Nov. 3, all 203 seats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will be up for election. Republicans hold the majority now, one that was watered down significantly after the 2018 midterm elections when Democrats here and across the country had a wave in their favor.
In the state Senate, where the Republicans have controlled the majority since 1994, 25 of the 50 districts are up for election. Democrats made gains here, too, in 2018, but still have not breached the majority in either chamber. The question is, will that change? And if so, how will it affect Pennsylvanians’ daily lives?
“I think the first thing you look at in this state is how dramatically party allegiance has shifted in the past 10 years,” said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster County. “The Republican suburbs have shifted towards the Democrats, particularly in the southeastern part of the state in West Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, and up in the Lehigh Valley. And in the rest of the state outside of those Philadelphia collar counties have gone in the other direction.”
Madonna said the question is how local races are affected by the presidential election. Will people be so disgusted by either party that they vote straight-ticket? “[That’s] something Pennsylvania voters don’t often do. They have historically been ticket-splitters.”
He’s not wrong. Between 1992 and 2012, Democrats won the presidential contest in this state every four years — at the same time, the state became redder down-ballot in state legislature races. But why split the ticket? Because when voters are voting about roads, bridges, taxes, and budgets, items that affect their daily lives, they tend to vote for their pocketbook, not for party or an ideology.
Plus, your state senator or state representative tends to be the one person in government who you might see walking the neighborhood, at the grocery store, coaching your child’s little league team, or in a church pew. They also aren’t vying for airtime on cable news. They are vying to make or keep their communities safe, prosperous, and affordable.
The race for the majority in the state House and state Senate here also has long-lasting implications because (in theory) the legislature will redraw the state’s congressional and state-level districts for the next decade — if the Democrat majority on the state Supreme Court doesn’t interfere again and change it to favor Democrats, an unprecedented move made in 2018.
Madonna wondered, because of what the Democrat-controlled court did, if Republicans keep majorities in both the state House and state Senate but still have a Democratic governor to work with on drawing lines, will both sides be more willing to compromise? “With the threat of one of them taking it to court, I think they might all be more willing to compromise than not.”
Outside groups, such as Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun political action committee, have pledged to spend $1 million to give Democrats a majority in both chambers. He’s not the only one: A handful of grassroots organizing groups pushing liberal issues such as a higher minimum wage and climate change legislation are also joining in the push to make the state legislature’s majorities blue.
These groups are banking on a Biden win, and they are bullish based on recent polling that gave the former vice president a significant lead in a state that went for Donald Trump in 2016. But before they measure the curtains in the state Capitol, they must remember that Pennsylvanian voters tend to split their tickets.
In 2016, Pennsylvanian voters gave statewide victories not only to both Republicans Trump and Sen. Pat Toomey, but also Democrats Eugene DePasquale and Josh Shapiro, who were on the same ballot running for state auditor general and state attorney general.
Who wins the majorities in the state legislature won’t just shape state policy or draw the congressional map. It shapes the political bench for the future of both parties. These races are more about the future than we often consider.