Democrats want to flip Pennsylvania’s state Senate in 2020. They’ll need the suburbs to do it

Senator-elect Pam Iovino celebrates her victory in the 37th District. (Campaign Facebook page)

A Democratic victory in a contested special election in the Pittsburgh suburbs on Tuesday has political observers across Pennsylvania asking the same question: Can the party flip the Republican-controlled Senate in 2020?

Unofficial results from the Department of State show Navy veteran and former Bush White House aide Pam Iovino beating Republican nominee D. Raja by four percentage points.

Iovino’s win in the 37th Senate District in Pittsburgh’s South Hills means Democrats have whittled a once-veto proof 34-16 Republican majority to a far narrower 26-22 advantage.

Assuming Republicans win May special elections for two vacancies in GOP strongholds — boosting their majority to 28-22 — Democrats will need to flip three seats in 2020 to control half of the 50-seat chamber. The vote of Lt. Gov John Fetterman, the Senate’s presiding officer, would make them the majority party, able to chair committees and decide which bills get brought up for votes.

The Senate also has the power to confirm the governor’s nominations to boards, commissions, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Though high-stakes nomination fights have been relatively absent during the recent years of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, they can become political battles.

Even if the state House remains in Republican hands, where the GOP holds a 109-93 edge, Democratic leaders hope their policies could get a boost if their party controls the upper chamber.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said that a Democratic majority in his chamber could cajole House Republicans to compromise on issues like a minimum wage hike and health care reform.

At least one Republican strategist isn’t sure Democrats can pull it off, but party leaders and grassroots organizers are hopeful — especially when they consider the state’s shifting suburbs.

Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies grassroots political organizing, said Iovino’s victory Tuesday suggests that suburban districts are fair play for Democrats in 2020, even though many voted for President Donald Trump.

Putnam said that voters in the 37th District voted for Trump by a 6-point margin in 2016. But his presidency has given rise to a new wave of grassroots activism, particularly among suburban women who reject the president and the Republican party, she said.

That backlash manifested in the 37th in November 2018, when voters overwhelmingly picked Democrats like Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in the midterm elections, Putnam said. Residents of the neighboring 38th Senate District also narrowly elected Democrat Lindsey Williams to flip a Republican-held seat.

But the resistance to Republican candidates in the area fizzled when it came to state House races. Voters in the Pittsburgh suburbs largely passed on the chance to send a crop of Democratic candidates, including many women, to Pennsylvania’s Capitol, Putnam said.

Iovino’s victory Tuesday complicates the narrative of the Pittsburgh suburbs’ “split personality” on state and national races.

“With hard work, Democrats have a chance to sustain at the state legislative level the shift they already saw at national level,” Putnam said.

She said that union organizing and grassroots campaign volunteers were instrumental to securing Iovino’s victory, particularly her wide margins in well-to-do communities like Mt. Lebanon.

“People don’t use this phrase a lot, but lots of these suburbs are really union suburbs, built on teachers’ salaries or nurses’ salaries or [trades],” Putnam said. “The households that Iovino won were union suburban households because the Democratic party, for the last two years, has been creating stronger partnerships on the ground.”

David Marshall, executive director of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, thinks Iovino’s victory could be replicated in similar districts across the state, including ones in Erie and Harrisburg.

“In some of these suburban communities with higher median income with higher education levels, we’ve seen a real, fundamental shift in how people vote,” Marshall said. “We have a lot of communities like that in Pennsylvania that had been held by Republicans that are now place where Democrats can win.”

He thinks that enthusiasm among voters and the strength of organizing groups will play in Democrats’ favor.

The Pennsylvania Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the Pennsylvania GOP did not return requests for comment Wednesday. But at least one Republican strategist warned against reading too closely into a single election.

Chris Nicholas, a veteran campaign consultant based in Harrisburg, said that Republicans still have a reliable voting base in suburbs — they’re just moving around.

Nicholas said that the Iovino victory was consistent with emerging patterns among suburban voters, wherein voters in “old line” suburbs close to cities tend to vote Democratic.

Voters in so-called “exburbs” — rapidly developing, once-rural areas farther away from urban centers — tend to vote Republican.

“That makes it harder for [Republicans] in the 37th because it’s 90 percent suburbs,” Nicholas said.

In any case, Nicholas said, political pundits shouldn’t read too closely into a single, off-year special election held on a day when no other issues or races were on the ballot. He also warned that changing suburban districts could cut both ways and put Democrats at risk.

He pointed to the 19th Senate District in Chester County, currently represented by Democrat Andy Dinniman, as one district that Republicans could target in 2020.

Costa acknowledged that his party can’t get complacent if it wants to flip the Senate next year. He’s already expecting another tight race in the 37th in 2020, where the winner will serve a four-year term.

“We were on the offense last year,” Costa said, “but [now] we’re playing offense and defense.”

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