In the battle of the Philly ‘burbs, Republicans tap a familiar name in March special House election

K.C. Tomlinson, left, and Rachel Fingles, right. (Courtesy of campaigns)

*This story was updated to clarify that Joe DiGirolamo is Gene DiGirolamo’s uncle.

The scion of a local political dynasty and a school board director are — almost — set to face off in a March 17 special election for a swingy Philadelphia suburban seat.

Republican K.C. Tomlinson, daughter of current state Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, R-Bucks, will likely face Democrat Rachel Fingles in the fight for the open 18th House District in lower Bucks County.

Moderate Republican Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, who won election to the Bucks County Board of Commissioners last November, had held the seat since 1994. The district, made up entirely of Bensalem Township, borders Philadelphia’s far northeast. 

According to Statistical Atlas, the district’s median income is 11 percent higher than the state average, but 28.5 percent lower than the Bucks County median. Demographically, it’s 70 percent white.

K.C. Tomlinson, a funeral director, said in a Jan. 16 statement, that “Bensalem’s priorities are my priorities.”

“As our next State Representative, I will fight to keep dangerous Philadelphia policies out of Bensalem, hold the line on taxes, and combat the opioid crisis,” Tomlinson said.

The elder Tomlinson represented the 18th District from 1991 to 1994, until winning election to the Senate. He was replaced by DiGirolamo.

DiGirolamo served as the de facto dean of the House GOP’s shrinking moderate wing, advocating for expanded social services, a minimum wage hike, and a severance tax on natural gas. He and his uncle*, Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo, both endorsed Tomlinson.

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

Over the weekend, Bensalem Democrats tapped Fingles, a 34-year old family law attorney who was elected to the Bensalem school board in 2017, to oppose Tomlinson.

Before she can appear on the ballot, her candidacy must be approved by the county and state party. But Fingles said she knows of no situation where higher ups overruled the local committee.

Fingles told the Capital-Star she’s running to increase the minimum wage, create “accessible health care,” and be a new voice for the increasingly diverse district.

“Bensalem has a habit of allowing political oligarchy to exist within families, and it is about time we do something about that,” Fingles said, referencing Tomlinson’s run.

She did note that with two women on the ballot, the match up would end with Bensalem’s first female state elected official.

House Democrats are targeting southeastern districts to flip the House and earn their first legislative majority since 2010. Nine seats must flip red to blue to change control of the lower chamber.

At the top of the ballot, the suburban seat looks like a prime target, especially after Democrats swept away decades old GOP-political control in the collar counties and the Lehigh Valley in last year’s municipal elections.

But Bucks County is an odd political animal, according to political analyst Ben Forstate. 

The top lines look good for Democrats. Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey both cleared 60 percent of the vote in the district in 2018.

That same year, Tomlinson’s father won reelection by just 74 votes after typically winning reelection by double digit percentage point margins.

But as up ballot Republicans struggled, DiGirolamo won reelection by 13 percentage points against his Democratic opponent.

That election was the closest of DiGirolamo’s career, Forstate said. And while Bucks County Republicans lost the row offices in 2019, Bensalem’s local boards stayed GOP.

Forstate credited local Republicans for keeping close ties to labor — DiGirolamo was one of eight Republicans endorsed by the state AFL-CIO in 2018 — and being “very good at mirroring where their electorate is going.”

Many of the seats Democrats need to flip to win a majority look like the 18th, so an open seat special election would be a good dry run for November, he added.

“I think this election is going to be a test of how far polarization has taken place down the ballot,” Forstate said.

Two other specials are scheduled for the same day in western Pennsylvania — one in Westmoreland County and one in Mercer County.