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.