Campaign committees raise record $35.4 million to spend on Pa. Legislature in 2020 election

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Millions of dollars in campaign cash are flowing into Pennsylvania’s General Assembly elections, setting fundraising records as forecasters and insiders see a tightening race for control of the state Capitol.

Between 2018 and 2019, the four campaign committees charged with raising money to flip legislative seats or defend vulnerable incumbents for their respective parties have raised a combined $35.4 million, according to a Capital-Star analysis of campaign finance records. 

The fundraising peaked between June and October of this year, when the House Democratic Campaign Committee, the House Republican Campaign Committee, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee raised $25 million. 

“Wow,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “That sounds like a record.”

Even with one reporting period left this year, the total raised since 2019 is $9 million more than the four groups’ record setting 2018 fundraising, the Capital-Star’s analysis concluded.

 

In fact, the $25 million raised in the five months leading up to election day is more then was raised in every election since 2002 except 2018.

This fundraising comes as Democrats see a chance to flip at least one chamber of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. 

Since 2011, Republicans have controlled both the state House and Senate. They’ve used their  majorities to keep spending low, avoid tax increases, and block measures proposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

But with two years left in office, Wolf, and his fellow Democrats, are going all in to gain legislative leverage. Democrats must flip nine seats in the 203-member House to gain a majority, and need four in the 50-member Senate to tie the chamber. 

A tie would leave Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who presides over the Senate, with the decisive vote on procedural matters, giving Democrats a functional majority.

A flip of either chamber would mean dramatically better odds for Democrats to pass such priorities as a minimum wage increase, LGBTQ non-discrimination protections, or paid family leave, while also giving them more control over the congressional and legislative maps in 2021.

As such, interest groups aligned with Democrats, such as unions and trial lawyers, are pumping millions of dollars into competitive races this year. 

The House appears likelier than the Senate to flip, said Ben Forstate, a Pennsylvania-based election analyst, because more seats are up for grabs in the lower chamber.

From the Poconos to suburban Harrisburg to outside Pittsburgh, there’s a large number of districts that, because of demographics or past performance, look winnable, Forstate said. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Democrats flipped a lot of low hanging fruit in 2018,” Forstate said. “And there weren’t a lot of very strategic retirements that opened up opportunities this year. So this crop of seats is tougher to flip.”

The Cook Political Report, a nationally respected political handicapper, moved the House to a tossup last week. It rates the Senate as lean Republican.

“We’re going to have a modern record turnout in the state, and we’re probably going to have a lot more straight party voting,” Franklin & Marshall’s Madonna said. But Madonna added, he’s “not going to make a prediction” on the final outcome.

A green wave

Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee,  said Democrats were competing in 18 seats across the state.

“I’m still cautiously optimistic,” Krueger said, but she added that Democrats were still competing gerrymandered maps.

All together, the House Democrats’ re-election wing raised $12.8 million, the most any of the legislative committees has ever raised in a single reporting period, according to Department of State data.

In fact, it is more than  both Senate campaign committees raised for the 2020 election.

A political committee of Philadelphia Trial Lawyers donated $200,000, while the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teacher’s union, donated $123,500.

But most of HDCC’s money, according to its campaign finance report, originate with its own candidates.

For example, Brittany Rodas, a Dauphin County Democratic candidate, donated $530,000 to the HDCC. Bucks County Democrats Marlene Katz and Ann Marie Mitchell donated $505,000 and $496,000 respectively. All are running against incumbent Republicans.

These candidates’ campaign finance reports were not immediately available, so the source of their funding was not clear.

“We’ve recruited incredible candidates, they are working hard and we’ve trained them well, and they are raising record breaking sums of money,” Krueger told the Capital-Star.

The HDCC has spent $12.1 million of its contributions, leaving $845,000 in the bank combined with dollars raised earlier this year.

A national spotlight

The HDCC’s numbers are also buoyed by national attention. For example, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national organization that helps in state legislative elections, said in a press release it contributed $3.5 million to races in the Keystone State this cycle. 

Of that, $850,000 was donated directly to the HDCC in the last five months. 

Another national group, Swing Left, has raised $2.1 million this year from individual donations for Democratic legislative candidates. 

Swing Left’s PAC did not donate to the HDCC, but it’s donations have shown up on individual candidate’s forms running for both chambers, such as Democratic senate candidate Janet Diaz in Lancaster and Emily Skopov in Allegheny County, among others.

Alex Pilla, a Swing Left spokesperson, said the group is supporting 18 House candidates and five  Senate candidates based on “electoral data, state level polling, financial information, and field considerations.”

“We are supportive of who the Democratic voters in each district chose to represent them on the general election ticket,” Pilla said in an email. “Our role is to provide candidates with the campaign resources and volunteer power they need to run a successful general election campaign.”

Democrats opportunities seem even greater with former Vice President Joe Biden leading in public polls at the top of the ticket against President Donald Trump. The Cook Political Report specifically cited Biden in its tossup rating for the House.

However, Trump’s 2016 upset leaves some room for doubt, according to Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, the vice-chair of the House Republican Campaign Committee.

 And regardless of the presidential results, Topper argued Republicans could keep control of the chamber.

“House Republicans have always been able to do well with the top of the ticket doing well or not doing well,” Topper told the Capital-Star.

He pointed to Republicans holding on even during Wolf’s two landslide victories in 2014 and 2018. The latter, however, was still a tough year. Republicans lost 11 seats total.

The HRCC raised almost $6 million between June and October of this year, a record for the period according to state campaign finance data.

Most of the donations came from state lawmakers’ own coffers.  But the total was also buoyed by almost $400,000 from charter school magnates Vahan Gureghian and Michael Karp, among other donations.

Topper compared Democrats prolific numbers to the efforts national Democrats and liberal groups put into flipping the Virginia Legislature in 2019.

“It’s no secret we’re being outspent, because their side is receiving millions from outside Pennsylvania,” Topper said.

Combined with earlier fundraising, the HRCC spent $6.2 million and has another $1 million still in the bank.

Overall, House Democrats are on track to outspend their Republican counterparts for the first time since 2010.

Late money 

In the upper chamber, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which protects incumbents and helps challengers, raised almost $4 million, also a record for the group. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee raised $2.2 million.

In the Senate, Forstate said, the map is much smaller, with most attention focused on four seats — one in Erie, one in suburban Philadelphia, one in Harrisburg, and one in Lancaster. The latter, a historically very red area, shows the long odds in the Senate, Forstate added.

But flipping seats becomes a bit easier when Democrats have access to a thick checkbook, as early filings suggest.

Four Democratic Senate challengers in key races, from Erie to Lancaster, all raised about $1.5 million or more this cycle, according to state campaign finance records. In 2018, just one Democratic Senate challenger raised more than $1 million.

Those sums also beat the fundraising of all four of their opponents. 

But Democrats’ math is made harder from a handful of their colleagues running for reelection in districts that backed Trump in 2016 by wide margins. Any losses by those candidates could sink Democrats’ chances to take over either the House or the Senate.

Republicans are trying to turn the tides in some of those districts. For example, the GOP has funneled $950,000 to Nicole Ziccarelli, who is challenging Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, in a red-trending district outside of Pittsburgh, since the reporting deadline closed on Oct. 19.

All together, the $35.4 million figure raised by the four campaign committees does not include outside spending or in-kind contributions. So it does not include the millions spent by the Democratic-aligned Pennsylvania Fund for Change or spent by Republican-aligned Commonwealth Leaders Fund on legislative races.

Under state law, interest groups and donors can give unlimited sums of money to political campaigns in Pennsylvania.

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