A deep dive into Bucks County’s 18th House District special election and what it tells us | Analysis

(Kelley Minars/Flickr)

If you don’t live in Bucks County, or even if you do, you might’ve missed the fact that there was an election earlier this month.

GOP nominee K.C. Tomlinson defeated Democratic nominee Harold Hayes in a special election to fill  a vacancy in the Bensalem-based 18th House District.

The seat opened up after now-former state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo decided to seek, and won, a seat on the County’s Board of Commissioners last November.

Tomlinson finished with 4,514 votes and 55.26 percent, to Hayes’ 3,631 votes and 44.45 percent, according to unofficial tallies. 

It was the closest of the three contests House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny scheduled for March 17. Democrats felt Turzai chose that date rather than the statewide primary on April 28 in an attempt to reduce turnout.

Then as the threat from the Coronavirus grew, the local Board of Elections filed an injunction to delay the election. They were ultimately unsuccessful, however, and the Dems went on to blame the Speaker for their defeat. 

Yet there’s still plenty to learn from these results. And since we’re all stuck indoors anyway, there’s ample time to really dig deep into this race and see what it can teach us about the future.

The Campaign

Tomlinson is the daughter of veteran state Sen. Robert M. “Tommy” Tomlinson, who held this seat from 1991 to 1994 before being elevated to the state Senate (the scuttlebutt is that the younger Tomlinson try to succeed her father when his Senate seat comes up in 2022).

Meanwhile the Democrats decided to zig where the GOP zagged. Harold Hayes is a union plumber and political neophyte.

As a result, the party portrayed him as a man who would clean up Harrisburg whereas Tomlinson was painted as entitled. For example, the campaign’s most ubiquitous TV ad poked fun at the Republican nominee’s affinity for horse-riding. Despite being outmatched on paper, Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro still made a joint campaign stop to try and boost Hayes.

The District

The 18th District is rare in that it consists of a single municipality: Bensalem.

It’s a working class town lying between the Neshaminy Creek and the border of Philadelphia, Bensalem tends to vote for Democrats. Additionally, by my last count, they held a 19,287 to 14,616 advantage in voter registrations. Nonetheless, Bensalem is actually more purple than blue. For instance, Republicans have performed well there in recent local races where the turnout was lower.

Recent Elections

Bensalem, and therefore the 18th District is Clinton country. Hillary Clinton she defeated President Donald Trump there by a 52.85 percent to 44.12 percent margin in 2016. In 2018, though, Wolf did significantly better. He trounced GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner 61.90 percent to  36.88 percent. 

That same year, Democratic Congressional nominee Scott Wallace narrowly outperformed GOP incumbent Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District by 11,467 votes to 11,226. (50.53- 49.47 percent). I mapped out those results below:

(Capital-Star map by Nick Field)

(Sky blue signifies the Democrat received 50%-53%, royal blue signifies the Democrat received 53%-58%, blue signifies the Democrat received 58%-63%, navy signifies the Democrat received 63% or more. Light salmon signifies the Republican received 50%-53%, tomato signifies the Republican received 53%-58%, red signifies the Republican received 58%-63%, maroon signifies the Republican received 63% or more. Yellow signifies ties, color scheme is the same throughout.)

On the other hand, there’s DiGirolamo’s performance in the district.  In 2018, he easily won re-election with 12,870 votes (56.53 percent) to Democrat Jimmy Lamb’s 9,897 (43.47 percent).

(Capital-Star map by Nick Field)

It’s also worth delving into how the elder Tomlinson fared that year. Tomlinson prevailed by a razor-thin edge in his state Senate district. And that’s reflected in how he performed in the 18th House District, which sits entirely within Tomlinson’s 6th Senate District.

(Capital-Star map by Nick Field)

Tomlinson ended up getting 11,438 votes (50.22 percent) out of his old district against his Democratic opponent, State Rep. Tina Davis, who received 11,337 votes (49.78 percent).

Despite all that, Republicans won the municipality of Bensalem in all five row office races in 2017 as well as the four row office races in 2019. Nine for nine suggests a trend, especially when countywide the Democrats won eight of these contests.

2020 Map

So given all that, let’s take a look at a map of the preliminary results of last night’s contest.

(Capital-Star map by Nick Field)

As you can see, Tomlinson carried crucial parts of the district while keeping Hayes from gaining significant support in the high-income areas of Upper Bensalem. Hayes’ support was also soft in Southeast Bensalem, and it’s worth pointing out his margin was also underwhelming in the district’s most Hispanic precinct. Meanwhile, Tomlinson also put up good numbers in Republican areas like Cornwell Heights. 

While Democrats will lament this defeat, Bensalem is by no means lost to them. They faced a perfect storm: low special election turnout, a GOP nominee with name recognition, a Dem nominee without any and a pandemic cloud hanging over it all.

Instead, they should take it as a lesson that this is a toss-up area that will favor whatever campaign runs the best race. On March 17, it was the Republicans, we’ll have to wait and see who it will be in November.

Correspondent Nick Field covers Philadelphia and its suburbs for the Capital-Star.