When longtime state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney revealed Friday afternoon that he would not seek another term in office, he wasn’t even the first Bucks County Republican to announce his retirement this week – state Rep. Kathy Watson said she would step down at the end of the year just days earlier. And state Rep. Scott Petri abruptly left his New Hope-area seat late last year to take over the troubled Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Democrats, to say the least, were ecstatic – McIlhinney is often regarded as one of the most powerful Republicans in the county.
“Is the entire Republican Party in Bucks County just giving up?” joked PA House Democratic Campaign Committee Executive Director Nathan Davidson.
It’s a trend that’s bigger than just Bucks County: Only one day prior to McIlhinney’s announcement, Montgomery County state Rep. Bob Godshall announced that he would also leave office after 36 years in Harrisburg. And scant days before that, powerful state Rep. Ron Marsico gave notice he would retire from a seat outside of Harrisburg.
The pattern echoes far more high-profile retirements that have hit Republican congressional districts across the Commonwealth and the country. But GOP retirements have been particularly acute in and around Philadelphia.
Democrats had already been looking to reverse years of losses in the state Legislature by flipping increasingly blue suburban districts across the state. With growing anxiety and evidence that the untrammeled unpopularity of President Donald Trump could translate into a “wave year” in 2018 far beyond the normal midterm turnover, speculation was rampant throughout 2017 that vulnerable Republican lawmakers would retire rather than wage costly reelection battles.
Davidson credited sweeping Democratic wins in normally uneventful off-year municipal and judicial elections last year and at the beginning of this year, and the rise of Trumpism within the Republican party for spurring more moderate Republicans to head for the exit.
“November 2017 set off the tsunami alarm. Now, the three most senior Republican caucus members are all retiring,” he said, referring to Godshall, Marsico and Philadelphia-area state Rep. John Taylor, who announced his retirement last summer. “I think they look around and see a party they don’t recognize. I think they see a wave coming.”
GOP consultant Chris Nicholas acknowledged that the political dynamics this year were not trending in Republicans’ favor. For longtime incumbents, the necessary drudgery of constant fundraising calls just to hang on to an $84,000-a-year legislative job can seem unappetizing.
“What I saw last year reminded me of the 2009 Tea Party wave, but in reverse,” he said. “You had one side that was dispirited and one side that was psyched...I think politicians ask themselves, ‘Do you want to go out losing or do you want to go out on your own terms?’”
The bleeding may not yet have stopped. Sources told City&State PA that Bucks County state Rep. Bernie O’Neill was also rumored to be eyeing retirement. State Rep. Tim Hennessey, another high-ranking state House Republican, was also said to be mulling an exit from a district that encompasses parts of MontCo and Chester County. As of a few weeks ago, year-old rumors that state Sen. Greenleaf would retire and tee up his son as a replacement were still percolating in Montgomery County – ditto for state Rep. Mark Mustio, across the state in suburban Pittsburgh.
Mustio, O’Neill and Hennessy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Greenleaf has declined to discuss his reelection plans.
Nicholas said he wouldn’t count out suburban Republicans just yet, saying Democratic wins were no sure thing. Watson’s retirement may have more to do with age than the vulnerability of her district and sources have already talked up GOP state Rep. Marguerite Quinn as a potent replacement for McIlhinney – albeit at the risk of opening up yet another Bucks County House seat.
“The best thing the Republicans have going for them is that they have a very strong county operation, regardless of the election last year,” he said. “They know how to run elections. I don’t think Watson’s district is going anywhere. But if I were a county Republican, I would be worried about the Petri seat and McIlhinney’s seat.”
Nicholas also said that the glut of suddenly open statehouse seats could spread Democrats too thin as money and resources naturally float to big-ticket congressional races.
“[The retirements] give the Democrats some opportunities. But at some point, your money and attention run out. They’re already going gangbusters on [U.S. Rep. Brian] Fitzpatrick,” he said, referring to the Bucks County Congressman.