With petition season right around the corner, it's no secret that Pennsylvania Democrats are hoping to ride a wave of perceived suburban resentment towards President Donald Trump right into the General Assembly. And they have reason for cautious optimism: While some national polling shows the Democrats’ advantage may be narrowing, many Republicans in the Commonwealth freely acknowledge that 2018 is going to be a year of simply trying to hold the line.
Some Democrats argue their party has the most to gain in the legislative chamber where they have the least left to lose – the state Senate. There, Republicans hold their largest majority since the 1950s, with 34 seats to Democrats’ 16. As a result of this dominance, they have few districts left through which to make easy inroads.
That leaves the GOP on the defense this year. In contrast to previous election cycles – when Democrats have been justly criticized for giving up on heavily Republican districts – David Marshall, of the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said his party is currently planning to field candidates in all 25 state Senate races this year.
With that in mind, City&State PA took a look at some of the more competitive Senate races across the state. Politicos from both parties returned largely similar lists of Senate races where Democrats think they have the best shot at flipping seats or where Republicans say they will have to fight the hardest to stave off challengers.
10th District – held by Republican state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (retiring)
2016 Presidential result: Clinton +4
The retirement of state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney just weeks ago left a void at the top of the Bucks County GOP. An influential Republican who sat for years atop the Senate’s powerful Law & Justice Committee, he chose to follow other colleagues in the metro area into retirement rather than face a tough reelection fight against likely Democratic candidate Steve Santarsiero.
Portions of the 10th senatorial district overlap areas where Santarsiero performed reasonably well in his unsuccessful 2016 congressional bid for PA-8 – which is itself now seen as a vulnerable congressional seat held by the man who beat him, moderate Republican US Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Some GOP sources said the 10th senatorial district could already be a lost cause, barring the entry of a strong Republican candidate. Santarsiero, who has campaigned on ed funding and gerrymandering reform, has already garnered some name recognition in the district and turned out votes in parts of Lower Bucks that overlap the 10th during his congressional bid.
There had been rumors that Republican state Rep. Marguerite Quinn would follow her 143rd District predecessors’ example by stepping up to run for McIlhenny’s soon-to-be-vacated seat – the past four Republican occupants of that House seat had done so.
“I am holding off on laying odds on the 10th until I know who the GOP nominee is,” said GOP consultant Chris Nicholas, adding that if Quinn chose not to run, “that's good news for the Dems.”
Quinn would have history and past popularity in her House district on her side: She won her last election by nearly 20 points. But GOP sources said that Quinn had still not made a decision to run. It was unclear, for now, which other local Republicans would step up to face Santarsiero.
26th District – held by Republican state Sen. Thomas McGarrigle
2016 Presidential result: Clinton +14
Few other state Senate districts held by a Republican broke more heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than this Delaware County seat, currently occupied by auto repair shop owner and former County Council chair Thomas McGarrigle.
Area Republicans have had their reelection hopes in 2018 pinned on the unique nature of candidates like McGarrigle, who have survived years of Democratic voter registration gains thanks to strong constituent service records and incongruous backing from local unions.
“He reps that district really well,” said Republican campaign consultant Mike Barley. “I think he’s the kind of guy who can hold that seat.”
Still, recent results have shaken conventional wisdom here. A powerful Republican machine had kept a near monopoly on power in the union-heavy county for a century more through outreach and patronage power than ideological appeal. That ended last year, after history-making wins by Democrats in county elections. Chester County, which also includes a portion of the 26th senatorial district, saw similar losses to Democrats in the county seat.
Some are worried that McGarrigle could fall victim to the same voter dissatisfaction that turned out many of those county row officers last year. But the GOP is still banking on 26th District voters seeing “Tom from the garage” – and not President Trump – when they step into the voting booth this year.
McGarrigle is far from a strident conservative ideologue, typically concerning himself more with neighborhood-level issues. In recent years, he’s aided archdiocesan cemeteries facing financial ruin and has paid close attention to public transportation service in the fairly urbanized county.
Still, McGarrigle coasted into office with just 3,000 votes in 2014 – about five percent of the vote. He will be face a challenging Democratic opponent in Tanner Rouse – a former Philadelphia homicide prosecutor and son of the late developer William Rouse – who moved back to the district last year expressly to challenge the senator. Democrats hope the potentially deep-pocketed attorney can give McGarrigle a run for his money – but Rouse will first face Swarthmore Mayor Tim Kearney in the May primary.
12th District – held by Republican state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (retiring)
2016 Presidential result: Clinton +5
Yet another abrupt senatorial retirement means this mostly Montgomery County-based district is also in play. City&State PA first wrote last October that Greenleaf had been considering retirement in order to position his similarly named son for the seat. Earlier this month, Harrisburg’s longest-serving senator took the plunge.
The junior Greenleaf, a litigator who previously served as county controller, has launched a campaign website that is notably light on party affiliation. Perhaps in a nod to the anxiety of running in a purple collar county, the only mention of the GOP is a line reading: “Stewart knows there is no such thing as a ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ idea.”
But some in the county GOP are concerned that even running another Greenleaf won’t be enough to stave off the electoral wave that Democrats hope will sweep through the Philadelphia suburbs. And it’s also worth noting that a coronation in the primary is no sure thing: local Republican state Rep. Todd Stephens has already expressed interest in the seat, which he has eyed for years.
That could make for a potentially draining primary for both men. On the Democratic side, newcomer Maria Collett, a lawyer-turned-registered nurse, has already announced her intention to run for the seat, running on a platform of improving health care access and boosting educational funding.
16th District – held by Republican State Sen. Pat Browne
2016 Presidential result: Clinton +5
Browne’s district topped both parties’ shortlist for the having the lowest level of GOP voter registration in a seat currently held by a Republican. Including left-leaning divisions in the Lehigh Valley, like the city of Allentown, just 36.5 percent of 16th District voters are registered Republican – for comparison, 47 percent are Democrats.
Browne followed a path blazed by GOP moderates, like predecessor U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, to victory in 2005. But Dent notably announced his retirement from PA-16 last year in part due to fears at the congressional level that moderation would be perceived as a sign of weakness in 2018. Browne, like many of his colleagues in Southeastern PA, faces a similarly daunting political landscape at the state level.
However, Browne, a Southeastern moderate – he advocated for anti-bump stock legislation in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting last year – also chairs the politically influential Senate Appropriations Committee. And some GOP sources said that Dent’s apparent vulnerability had, ironically, helped Browne hold onto his seat by peeling off numerous potential challengers who would otherwise drain his war chest heading towards the general election. State Rep. Justin Simmons, for instance, had reportedly eyed Browne’s seat before taking an ill-fated shot at Dent.
Mark Pinsley, a progressive activist and co-owner of a skin care products company, has announced his candidacy as a Democrat against Browne. He will run on a platform of reforming campaign finance laws and bringing a single-payer health care system online, according to the Morning Call. However, the newcomer is unlikely to be the only contender for the Democrat-rich district.
6th District – held by Republican State Sen. Robert Tomlinson
2016 Presidential result: Clinton +2
Along with the 16th District, the 6th is the second-most Democratic-leaning Senate seat held by a Republican, in terms of voter registration advantage. While locally popular, much has changed since funeral director Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson first came to Harrisburg in 1995 – including his district and the Republican party itself.
When Tomlinson first ran for his 6th District seat after serving several years in the state House, it was as a former “Rizzocrat” (as stalwarts for bombastic Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo were known in the late 20th century) turned-centrist Republican. During his first successful Senate bid, he was attacked by a Democratic opponent for his purported coziness with teachers unions in a race that saw both candidates talk tough on curbing educators’ salaries – a perennial hot-button issue in this mostly middle-class Bucks County district.
Since then, some portions of the district have grown more suburban as development has spread outward from Philadelphia. Some areas have grown more diverse, some areas wealthier, others poorer. It’s a complicated political map – while some historically Democratic wards turned towards Trump in 2016, high turnout from Democrats in other parts of the 6th helped fuel the ouster of three Republicans from county row offices last year.
In an age of increasing political polarization, figures like Tomlinson and many of the Republican incumbents in vulnerable PA seats this year have struggled to find a home amidst conflicting political trends. Like McIlhenny and McGarrigle, Tomlinson has mostly stayed quiet on the issues that have animated Trump’s base, focusing more on neighborhood issues and technical legislation like gambling bills, natural gas severance taxes and a proposal to rebate part of Philadelphia’s wage tax to suburban districts.
Tomlinson had been one of many suburban Republicans rumored to be considering an exit rather than face a tough reelection battle, but his campaign staff has insisted he’s running. He will likely face Democratic state Rep. Tina Davis, a seven-year legislator who has championed reproductive rights in Harrisburg, in the general election.
Republicans are still betting on the incumbent’s strength with retail politics at the neighborhood level. The district has long leaned Democratic, but Tomlinson still won 62 percent of the vote in 2014.
“No prominent Democrats or unions will buck Tommy. To them, Tommy’s more valuable than (Davis) would be in Harrisburg, since he’s in the majority,” said Barley, the GOP consultant. “They don’t see party when they see Tomlinson...He’s been willing to do what he believes is right, even if it goes against his own party.”
Other Races to Watch
Several other races have drawn interest across the state. Several Republicans and Democrats ranked state Sen. John C. Rafferty’s 44th District (Clinton +2) – in Montgomery, Berks and Chester counties – right along with those facing Tomlinson, McGarrigle and Browne for many of the reasons listed above.
Ditto for state Sen. Randy Vulakovich in the 38th District (Clinton +1), in the Pittsburgh area. Democrats have long hoped to flip back several Western PA seats lost to Republicans in recent years. Democratic strategists are even handicapping recent incumbents like state Sen. Pat Stefano, who holds the 32nd District, and Sen. Camara Bartolotta's 46th District. But Trump won both handily and, despite a voter registration advantage in certain areas, recent elections at both the state and congressional level have shown the western part of the state still trending in Republicans’ favor.