Democratic Control of Harrisburg Would Have Huge Implications for Philly. Can It Really Happen?

A national and state effort is putting new electoral pressure on Republicans in Harrisburg, who have controlled either the House or Senate every year since 1993.

pennsylvania 2020 election

After the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, Democrats are hoping they’ll control both houses of the state legislature. Photo by billnoll/Getty Images.

The last time Democrats in Pennsylvania controlled both houses of the state legislature and the governorship, it was 1993. Bob Casey Sr. was governor. Ed Rendell was mayor. The latest corrupt City Councilmember to be indicted was Jimmy Tayoun. In short: It’s been a while.

Sure, there have been ebbs and flows over the years — Democratic control of the House for a few years during the Obama administration — but by and large the makeup of the state legislature has remained firmly entrenched under Republican control.

There’s a chance, though, that 2020 is shaping up differently for Democrats. Promises from the minority party of an impending wave are standard election-year fare. But sometimes those oceanic metaphors actually come to pass, and there’s reason to believe 2020 could be one of those years in Pennsylvania.

One such reason: As part of a broad left-wing campaign to flip state legislatures across the country in advance of redistricting in 2021, and also to end the lame-duck Republican power grabs recently displayed in Wisconsin and North Carolina, national figures are homing in on statewide races. Barack Obama recently endorsed 21 candidates seeking office in Pennsylvania — second only to Texas. The Working Families Party, which successfully organized to wrest a City Council seat from Republican control last year, has also endorsed a slate of statewide candidates taking on Republican incumbents. And Jamie Perrapato, a former Philly-area lawyer, has started a political operation called Turn PA Blue whose singular goal is to, you know, turn Pa. blue. She says volunteers from her group made 75,000 calls to voters just last weekend. The group’s PAC also has more than $200,000 on hand, according to its most recent financial disclosure.

Many of these contested races will be playing out away from Philly. But the implications of a Democratic-led Capitol could be huge. It’s rite of passage for any Philly mayor with significant policy ambition to go to battle against unsympathetic lawmakers in Harrisburg. Usually, they come away defeated. But maybe, just maybe, that could be changing.

The Target: Republican Holdovers in Democratic Areas

To actually flip the state House and Senate, Democrats would need to build on their gains of 2018 (five Senate seats and 14 House seats), capturing nine seats in the House and four in the Senate. That’s a big ask, but Perrapato says she has an advantage: Many of these areas are already trending Democratic. They’re the sort of places, like Senate District 13 (in Lancaster County) and Senate District 15 (in Dauphin and Perry counties) that might have gone for Trump in 2016, but then voted for Tom Wolf and Bob Casey two years later. And then there are other areas, some of which are in the Philly suburbs, that actually voted for Clinton in 2016, but also reelected their Republican statewide legislators.

Getting otherwise-Democratic voters to ditch those long-term Republican incumbents is one of Perrapato’s main challenges. She has a sales pitch for this kind of voter, which usually goes something like this: Your Republican representative “may be a great guy who fills potholes and gives out candy when there’s a parade, but then he gets on train to Harrisburg and votes to support anti-abortion.” Perrapato’s bet is that for a socially liberal suburban Clinton voter, that argument will hold water.

The pandemic has provided Perrapato other evidence of Republican shortcomings. When people wonder why the unemployment office was unresponsive for weeks, she tells them it’s the fault of those same legislators, who left state agencies underfunded for years. (Lawmakers did pass a bill funding the unemployment office in 2017, but only after their prior inactivity resulted in 500 layoffs.) At the heart of Perrapato’s pitch is the notion that statewide office impacts daily life just as much as higher office.

The problem is that the most obvious targets for Democrats — places like House Districts 160 and 152, both located in counties that voted for Hillary in 2016 but represented by Republican state Reps. — are increasingly becoming few and far between. Democrats have already flipped so many suburban red seats in the Philly burbs, there simply isn’t much real estate left. To court the voters that will ultimately flip the legislature, they’ll have to search farther afield.

Some of those voters might be found in southwestern part of the state near Pittsburgh. But there and elsewhere, Democrats will be fighting an uphill battle. “What the 2018 cycle showed was that while blue got bluer, in some places, red got redder,” says longtime political consultant Neil Oxman. That’s a problem for incumbent Democrats like Frank Burns, whose district is in Cambria County, a county that voted for Trump over Clinton by nearly 40 points. To win the House, then, Democrats won’t just have to flip seats — they’ll have to retain ones they’ve already won. In a high-turnout presidential election, that’s an additional challenge.

But Mustafa Rashed, another longtime political analyst, says the Democrats have one other unimpeachable advantage: Trump, who’s going into reelection with one of the lowest presidential approval ratings in recent history. He is, Rashed says, “the best recruitment tool and best campaign tool for Democrats in a generation.”

A High-Stakes Result for Philly

There’s no city that would stand to benefit more from the state legislature switching hands than Philly. For years, Philly mayors have fought a stubborn Harrisburg capital full of antipathy for the state’s largest city — whether it be in matters like the state seizing control of the Philadelphia Parking Authority back in 2001, or on legislative issues like passing a higher minimum wage or more restrictive gun laws, both of which aren’t currently possible because weaker state laws specifically preempt any would-be Philly legislation. Democratic control of the legislature could end that practice of state preemption and would likely prompt immediate policy action from Mayor Jim Kenney on two of the issues he seems to care about the most: poverty and guns.

The irony is that Philadelphians have virtually no say in the matter. Nearly all of the state House and Senate seats in the city are already held by Democrats.

That’s part of Perrapato’s strategy with Turn PA Blue, harnessing the deep blue hue of Philly and forcing it to bleed over into other parts of the state. The same goes for the Working Families Party. The state chapter of the W.F.P still focuses most of its attention on Philly and “Black and brown working class working poor communities,” says director of organizing Nicolas O’Rourke. And though these are decidedly not the kinds of voters who will decide whether the state legislature flips, the W.F.P. has endorsed a number of candidates anyway. Part of that is a simple calculation about expanding the party’s base of power to other parts of the state. But it’s hard not to see Philly reflected in those endorsements, too. After all, a $15 minimum wage is one of the core planks of the W.F.P. platform. “Philadelphia not being able to create a structure where folks are paid a living wage, because of preemption that’s happening in Harrisburg, is deeply problematic,” says O’Rourke.

So will any of this end up happening? Those with skin in the game are unsurprisingly optimistic. “It’s not just possible, I think it’s probable that we can flip the House as well as Senate this year,” says O’Rourke. Perrapato is a tad more cautious. “Nobody knows whats going to happen in November,” she says. “It could be a tsunami, not just wave — it could be the equivalent of [Tea Party gains in] 2010. Or, Trump could cheat his way into the presidency. We don’t know.”

As for the pundit class, there is both doubt and consensus. Doubt that the Democrats will flip enough seats in both the House and Senate; consensus that, no matter what happens, they’ll gain ground. “Will there be more Democrats in the legislature after 2020 than there are now? Absolutely,” says Oxman. “Does it get to [a House majority of] 102? It’s going to be close.” Rashed agrees. “It’s a tall order,” he says of the efforts in both houses. “It’s possible, but maybe not probable.”