Pa. voters will be working overtime in busy 2019 special election season | Analysis

By: - February 13, 2019 6:30 am

Left to right: State Rep Fred Keller, Movita Johnson-Harrell, Marc Friedenberg, D. Raja, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, Frank Scavo (Courtesy campaigns)

An indictment, a promotion to higher office, a death, and a handful of retirements will send Keystone State voters from Philadelphia to Moon into the voting booths for no fewer than six special elections over the next four months. 

Below, we run down the off-year campaign cycle that doesn’t feel like one.


12th District

Who’s out? U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-12th District, a five-term incumbent, announced his resignation in January. Marino initially said he was leaving for a job in the private sector. PennLive later reported that health issues led to his decision.

Marino’s resignation means another election for the newly drawn 12th district, which stretches from the New York border to Duncannon in Perry County and includes State College, Williamsport, and Lock Haven.

When is the election? May 21.

Which way does the district lean? The district is heavily Republican. Marino, who was new to parts of the district thanks to a state Supreme Court-imposed map, still crushed Democrat Marc Friedenberg 66-34 percent.

The 12th was one of six congressional districts Wolf did not carry during his reelection. His Republican opponent, Scott Wagner, won it by nearly 20 percentage points.

Who’s running? Media reports have named a handful of Republican candidates, including former Marino primary challenger and Bradford County commissioner Doug McLinko, and two sitting state Representatives: Fred Keller, R-Snyder, and Jeff Wheeland, R-Lycoming. Iraq War veteran and businesswoman Stacy Garrity also announced this week.

All told, at least dozen people have expressed interest in the GOP nod. The candidate will be chosen by district party leaders at a March 2 meeting in Williamsport.

In an interview, Keller pointed to his 25 years in the lumber industry and said his business experience gives him a sense of “how the government policies can negatively, or positively in some cases,” affect private individuals.

He said his legislative resume — including pension reform, increasing the threshold for the prevailing wage, and loosening municipal recycling requirements — also made the case for his candidacy.

If Keller or Wheeland get the nomination, voters could be on the hook for one special election this spring.

As for the Democrats, former Marino challenger Friedenberg was given the nod by state Democratic Party Tuesday. In a statement, Democratic state chair Nancy Patton Mills cited the upset win by now-Congressman Conor Lamb as an example for a win in a red-hued district.

In a post on his website, Friedenberg cited health care, education, and the environment as key issues in his second run in seven months.

Wheeland and McLinko did not respond to requests for comment.

State Senate

37th District

Who’s out? In January, former state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny, began representing southwestern Pennsylvania’s 14th District in Congress. 

When is the election? April 2.

Which way does the district lean? Traditionally, Republican. The seat, which cuts a wide swath through Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, includes wealthy enclaves in Allegheny County and Peters Township in Washington County. Former Gov. Tom Corbett beat Wolf there in 2014. In Nov. 2016, Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in the district by 6 percent while Reschenthaler easily won reelection.

But the 37th’s affluent suburbs were also key to Lamb’s upset Congressional win in another special election last March, while Wolf trounced Wagner on his way to a second term as governor.

The 37th is the sixth wealthiest Senate district in the state. Democrats held two of the top five districts before November 2018, and flipped the other three — all in the Philly suburbs — last election.

Those gains came as part of a five-seat pickup in the Senate for Democrats, the biggest since the 1950s. The party thinks it can add one more as part of a path to a majority in the upper chamber in 2020. Democrats haven’t controlled the Senate since 1994*.

“We win the 37th, it puts it at 22. And we believe there are a number of races as we go forward to 2020 that we have the opportunity to be successful [in],” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said.

Who’s running? Democrats have picked Pam Iovino, a former Navy officer and assistant secretary for the Department of Veteran Affairs. With a narrower majority in the Senate on the line, Iovino said she thinks engaged Democrats across the state will care about the race. 

Iovino will face D. Raja, a businessman, local municipal commissioner, and the Allegheny County Republican chairman.

Raja has run for higher office twice — losing both times. One of the races was for the same Senate seat in 2012.

Even with big names like Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, lining up behind Raja, he still faced competition for the party nod last month.

Worried local Republicans tried to push a second candidate who they thought stood a better chance of winning, but Raja took the nomination on the first ballot. The concerns about his electability persist from some state Republicans.

Following his nomination, Raja described himself as a moderate and a conservative.

In previous runs, Raja said he was “defined by the opposite side.” He hopes to focus on his record of job creation and tax cuts as a commissioner.

33rd District

Who’s out? State Sen. Richard Alloway, of Franklin County, announced in January he will resign at the end of February.

When is the election? May 21

Which way does the district lean? Way red. Alloway’s 33rd district — which includes Adams, Franklin, Cumberland, and York counties — was last represented by a Democrat in the 1940s.

Who’s running? At least two candidates have publicly announced bids. Franklin County Commissioner Dave Keller told the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md. he’s in. PoliticsPA reported that retired Army Colonel Frank Mastriano is also running.

41st District

Who’s out? In February, Republican Sen. Don White, a 19-year veteran from Indiana County, announced he would step down at the end of the month. 

White’s retirement means his western Pa. district will get just its third senator in the past 50 years.

When is the election? May 21

Which way does the district lean? Republican. 

Democrat Patrick Stapleton held the seat from 1970 until 2000. White succeeded him and has since represented the district, which includes all of Indiana and Armstrong counties as well as parts of Butler and Westmoreland.

In 2016, White’s last time on the ballot, he took more than 70 percent of the vote.

Who’s running? As of Feb. 12, no one had stepped forward publicly to replace White.

State House

114th District

Who’s out? Last October, popular incumbent Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-Lackawanna, died from complications following surgery.

With less than a month until the November election, his name stayed on the ballot.

When is the election? March 12.

Which way does the district lean? The 114th has been in Democratic hands since 2000. Kavulich began representing the district in 2010. 

Democrats have a registration edge, but Trump narrowly carried the district in 2016 — a sign of the decline in the state’s once reliably blue northeast.

But in the most recent election, Democrats Wolf, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and local U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright carried the 114th, which includes Scranton’s north and western suburbs.

Who’s running? Republicans put Frank Scavo, a businessman and local school board president, on the ballot. He ran unsuccessfully for the overlapped 22nd Senate district last November, losing to incumbent Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna, 61-39 percent.

Scavo thinks his odds are better running in the small House district. Like Kavulich, Scavo opposes abortion access and thinks he’s in a better position to maintain the late lawmaker’s legacy. 

“I never thought I had to challenge [Kavulich],” Scavo told the Capital-Star. “[Kavulich] was a good legislator for all. He was a centrist. That’s basically what I am.”

Scavo didn’t say where, as a centrist, he disagrees with the Republican Party.

His Democratic opponent, Bridget Malloy Kosierowski, did not reply to a request for comment. Her website describes her as a nurse who’s running to fight for “good wages” and to protect women and children from sexual assault and abuse.

In a release, she backed a plan from two northeastern Republicans — Sen. Lisa Baker and Rep. Tarah Toohil, both of Luzerne County — to investigate sexual harassment and corruption in Harrisburg. Kosierowski is endorsed by the state nursing association.

190th District

Who’s out? Long-embattled Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, resigned in December after she was finally sentenced for taking a bribe.

When is the election? March 12.

Which way does the district lean? Democrat — all the way. 

Who’s running? The Democratic candidate is Movita Johnson-Harrell, a department head for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. She became an anti-gun violence advocate after her son’s shooting death eight years ago.

Party leadership’s first two choices for the seat dropped out over residency and voter registration questions.

Between the two false starts and Lowery Brown’s legacy, Johnson-Harrell acknowledged that district voters might be turned off by politics.

“I think people are absolutely skeptical. They should [be]. But I think my reputation speaks for itself,” Johnson-Harrell said.

She said she’d use her personal experience with gun violence to advocate for legislation.

Other candidates include Republican “security professional” Michael Harvey and pastor Pam Williams of the progressive Working Families Party. Amen Brown, a local community center owner, is running under the banner of an eponymous party.

Brown told the Capital-Star he has the backing of Lowery Brown, who is not a relative. He said his work running after-school programs and connecting residents with new housing made him a better voice for the community.

“[Voters] don’t care if it’s a Republican, they don’t care if it’s a Democrat, they don’t care if it’s an independent,” Brown said. “They want the right person.”

If elected, Brown said he’d caucus with the Democrats.

Correction: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the last year that Pa. Democrats controlled the state Senate.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.