Members of the Pennsylvania House applaud newly elected Speaker Bryan Cutler on June 22, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Between new maps and an engaged, angry electorate, the 253-member Pennsylvania General Assembly could look dramatically different at this time next year.
A total of 37 lawmakers are calling it quits this year, leaving some hotly contested openings in races around the state. The Capital-Star also has identified at least 43 primary elections in which a sitting lawmaker is facing one or more contenders as they try to return to Harrisburg.
All 203 members of the Republican-controlled state House will face the voters this year, as will half of the 50-member state Senate, which also is in GOP hands.
Some of this electoral competition, which Capitol observers have said is among the most they’ve seen in recent years, can be attributed to the new maps of state House and Senate seats that became final earlier this month.
But lawmakers who have already decided to leave, also noted that they’re finding the toll of politics higher, and their odds to accomplish something slimmer, amid increasing national partisanship.
“If you don’t notice that we’re getting further apart, you’re not paying attention,” state Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Clearfield, who’s calling it a career in 2022, told the Capital-Star. “What’s happening in Washington D.C. didn’t used to affect us. But now it is.”
Overall, lawmakers are interacting with each other less and less outside of their respective chambers, Sankey noted. That means there are fewer relationships to fall back on when legislators are trying to find some sliver of common ground.
And because lawmakers can score fewer wins, and face more challenges when they’re trying to work with the other party, the incentive to cut a deal decreases.
This further demoralizes those remaining lawmakers, noted state Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, who “came to Harrisburg with the idea of making an impact,” because you realize that “there is no willingness to do common-sense reform.”
“Then, you as a lawmaker and as a person, have to ask yourself ‘what am I doing here?’” Mullery, who announced his retirement earlier this year, said.
“If the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’m being stifled at every turn,’ or ‘I can’t generate a consensus,’ then the next logical step is to leave,” he added.
Another of the Capitol’s remaining Blue Dogs, state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, told the Capital-Star that her decision to retire was partially to spend more time with family.
But Snyder, a well-respected lawmaker who can count friends on both sides of the aisle, added that she was tired of outside groups, such as the right-wing Commonwealth Leaders Fund, “going in the gutter” in attack ads, which she had to push back against in on-and-off years.
“If everyone in that chamber would leave the politics outside the door, they’ll probably be amazed at how much easier their reelections could be, because the people would be amazed that they were getting things done,” Snyder said.
The new legislative maps also have to be considered. Overall, the maps drew 12 incumbents into the same district, while forcing others into less friendly political terrain. The maps also created 11 open seats, mostly in minority communities, intended to expand their representation.
Mullery and Snyder downplayed redistricting in their respective exit decisions. But at least one outgoing GOP lawmaker, state Rep. Andrew Lewis, of Dauphin County, cited the maps when announcing he would not run again.
The retirements mean that just three of those planned primaries pit an incumbent against another incumbent.
State Rep. John Hershey, R-Juniata, is one of them. He’s facing colleague Rep. Perry Stambaugh, R-Perry, in the redrawn 86th House District. Hershey’s old district was divided between Stambaugh’s and House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff’s Centre County-based district.
Hershey told the Capital-Star on Monday that he was “enjoying getting to know the people in Perry County better” following the redraw. As he knocked on doors, he said he was emphasizing his role on two key committees — the Health and Judiciary committees — that take a first look at all bills on abortion and gun rights.
That means he’s “one of 15 members standing against the most egregious things Gov. [Tom] Wolf is trying to do,” such as expanding background checks to cover long guns, Hershey argued.
“I think that’s the best way to distinguish myself, as I have a record of good conservative accomplishment,” he added.
Another 17 Republican incumbents face an outsider on the primary ballot this year, barring the usual legal challenges to their petition signatures.
That includes four members of the House Republican leadership team, as well as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Pat Browne, R-Lehigh.
Campaign websites of these challengers show frustration with the near-unanimous GOP support for Act 77, the state’s 2019 mail-in voting law, as well as anger at Democrat Wolf’s early pandemic restrictions.
Many of the candidates also were drawn into politics over their anger from ongoing debates about masks and curriculums in public schools.
“This is not about me. I have no desire for a career in politics,” GOP challenger Stephen Renz, a former school board member from suburban Pittsburgh, said in an email. He’s on the ballot facing state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Washington.
“This is a grassroots movement of people angry that career politicians are more concerned with advancing their careers than standing up for us,” Renz added.
As for Democrats, there are 22 primaries against sitting state legislators. Many challengers in Philadelphia are from the left, including a challenge to long-time state Sen. Anthony Williams.
Challenger Paul Prescod, a public school teacher, has highlighted Williams’s support for charter schools, and has already started to attract endorsements from progressive unions.
“We can’t continue to elect politicians only accountable to wealthy right-wing billionaires like Jeffrey Yass,” Prescod said in a statement. “My campaign is powered by ordinary working people.”
In the western part of the state, some incumbents face the reverse. The Allegheny County Democratic Committee declined to back three young progressive women and instead has endorsed challengers.
One of those squared off against her local party is state Rep. Jess Benham, D-Allegheny. Benham, who won her seat without the party’s backing in 2020, didn’t seem too concerned about the second snub.
“I guess the committee wants its a** handed to them again,” she said Tuesday, mingling with colleagues after dropping off petitions in Harrisburg.
The primary is scheduled for May 17.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.