Can an Army veteran and firefighter turn a Trump-y W. Pa. House seat blue?

Robert Prah, left, and Eric Davanzo, right, will face off in a March 17 special election to fill the vacant 58th Pa. House District in Westmoreland County. (Right, Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso, left, courtesy of candidate)

WEST NEWTON, Pa. — Contemplating a bid for an open state House seat, Robert Prah first had to run around the district before he ran to represent it.

Over seven months in 2019, Prah, a 38-year old Iraq War veteran, jogged an 85-mile lap through Westmoreland County’s 58th House District, carrying an American flag as he went.

Speaking at a diner in West Newton, a small borough of 2,500 about 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Prah told the Capital-Star that he visited each township, borough and city in the district and talked with about 500 people, in barbershops or cutting their grass, to decide if he could win the race. 

His takeaway from the Forrest Gump-esque jaunt? 

That his resume — Army Reserve major, firefighter, former Smithton borough mayor and American Legion commander — and local reputation could overcome the tides of partisanship.

“We just hope that if people look and meet me, they’re going to be impressed. They’re going to see I’m in this for this area,” Prah said.

Republican Justin Walsh held the seat for a term and a half until he resigned earlier this month to take a county judgeship.

Republican Eric Davanzo, a union carpenter, will face off against Prah to fill the now empty seat in a special election on March 17.

In a statement, Davanzo cited President Donald Trump, who carried the district by almost 30 points in 2016, according to the Daily Kos, a progressive blog.

“During his Presidency, Donald Trump has delivered a strong economy with good paying jobs and a low unemployment,” Davanzo said. “He has appointed conservative judges to the courts, protected our Constitutional rights and improved our quality of life. I am determined to bring this same conservative leadership to [the] state government to help all working families and seniors.”

But as the impeachment debate played on the diner’s TV, Prah wasn’t concerned with getting caught up in the back-and-forth of national politics.

“I quite frankly don’t follow it, because it doesn’t have an impact on the everyday life of a resident of the 58th,” he said.

Instead, Prah cited such priorities as protecting union rights, aiding first responders, and increasing the affordability of the state university system.

Prah himself graduated from nearby California University of Pennsylvania, and now works there as its director of veterans’ affairs.

Davanzo said in a statement that he’d cut “wasteful state spending,” vote against tax increases and ensure “a quality and affordable education for our children.”

Davanzo’s own union background could also be a factor. At least one union, the Laborers’ District Council of Western Pennsylvania which represents construction workers, has backed the Republican.

An endorsement letter posted by Davanzo on his campaign Facebook said that the labor council recognizes Davanzo for supporting “several of our issues to protect the rights of working families.” The letter did not specify those positions.

Milltowns and coal fields

Seeking their first majority in a decade, House Democrats have promised to compete in every seat. They need nine wins to flip control of the 203-member chamber, a path that has centered on blueing suburbs, not former blue dog bastions in the southwest.

Republicans have a problem with suburban voters, Democrats have a problem with rural voters. Where does that leave Pa.’s balance of power?

The March 17 special election will provide an example of the former, when Bucks County voters will decide who will fill a suburban Philadelphia district that votes Democratic at the top of the ballot and was held by a moderate labor-friendly Republican.

Back in the west, the last Democratic candidate to run in the 58th, West Newton mayor Mary Popovich, took just 38 percent of the vote in 2018.

The district stretches from Monessen on the Monongahela River to Jeanette and Mt. Pleasant in the east. In between are West Newton and Prah’s former home of Smithton on the Youghiogheny River.

Westmoreland County and the rest of the southwest’s milltowns and coal fields were once fertile ground for union Democrats. In fact, it was represented by Democratic Rep.Ted Harhai until his retirement in 2016, even as Westmoreland County pulled the lever for Republicans more and more.

Some vestiges of the past remain. Democrats still hold a 4,500 person registration advantage in the 58th, even though state wide Democrats higher than the row offices have had little success in the district.

Prah cited the registration edge when making his case for victory.

“That gives us a little bit of hope,” he said.

House Democrats are also ready to pour money into flips. The chamber’s campaign committee set an off-year record in 2019 raising $1.2 million, according to a press release.

But some wedge issues separating Prah’s community image from his party are bound to come up. In his campaign statement, Davanzo specifically cited “protecting our Constitutional rights and pro-life values.” 

Prah did not give specific positions on either guns or abortion, but promised to explain controversial votes to concerned constituents.

“Any vote you do, you’re not going to please everyone,” Prah said.