Pennsylvania General Election 2020: Your guide to the Nov. 3 presidential and statewide elections

(Capital-Star photo collage by John L. Micek)

(*This post was updated at 9:20 a.m. on Wednesday, 9/23/20 to include updated information on the RealClear Politics polling average in Pennsylvania).

As of this writing, the Nov. 3 general election is just 41 days away. And if we know one thing about it, it’s that it’s going to look like no election we’ve seen in our lifetime.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, every rite of campaign season that we’ve long taken for granted: Candidates knocking on doors, outdoor rallies, and glad-handing are mostly a thing of the past.

Instead, we’ve been deluged with emails, invited to Zoom meetings, and watched as candidates campaigned from home through Facebook Live, YouTube, or other social channels.

In the June 2 primary, millions of Pennsylvania voters cast their ballots through the mail. And as was the case in June, county officials are expecting a flood of mail-in ballots. There’s been plenty of debate and discussion around mail-in ballots, and we’ve dedicated an entire explainer to the issue that you can read here.

Despite all this change there’s one thing about campaigns and elections that never changes: A bushel basket of candidates all looking for your vote. From the highest office in the land — president of the United States — to all four statewide row offices and the General Assembly, Pennsylvanians face no shortage of choices.

That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you make up your mind as Election Day closes in.

Before we get started, a few housekeeping notes:

  • The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 19 You can check your registration status here.
  • The deadline to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot is Oct 27. You can do that here. And if you do vote by mail, that means you’re staying home on Nov. 3. Also note, the ballot must be returned by 8 p.m. on Election night.

All right, with that out of the way, here’s a look at who’s running for what on Election Day.

President of the United States

You may have heard by now that the road to the White House runs through the Keystone State. Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral college votes, was one of a handful of states that helped catapult President Donald Trump into the White House in 2016. Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania four years ago, edging out Democrat Hillary Clinton by a little more than 44,000, or not quite a percentage point.

As a result, Trump’s re-election campaign, as well as the campaign of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, are contending fiercely for the state — as evidence by a blizzard of visits by the candidates and their surrogates in recent weeks.

The candidates:

President Donald Trump (R): The former reality television star, turned Leader of the Free World, is running for a second, and final, four-year term, as the nation’s chief executive. His running-mate, once again, is current Vice President Mike Pence, of Indiana.

We’d need a separate — and very long — story to catalogue Trump’s triumphs and tribulations since taking office in 2017. He comes to the election as just the third president in American history to ever be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. He evaded conviction in the U.S. Senate.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump left the Republican National Convention in August without a formal party platform to back him up. In interviews, he has struggled to articulate a specific vision for a second term, but has largely promised to govern in a second term as he did in his first.

Trump has been battered in the polls, and on the stump, for his management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives, and resulted in millions of infections nationwide. On his official campaign website, Trump promises to “eradicate” the virus and to deliver a vaccine by year’s end.

Trump has taken similar criticism for his response to the police reform and anti-racism protests that ignited nationwide in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in May, and that have only gathered steam since. On the stump, Trump has denounced protesters as “anarchists” and “looters,” but has stayed largely silent on the longstanding issues of racial inequity that are their underlying cause. He has threatened that such violence would only increase if Biden wins the White House.

Joe Biden (D): Biden, of Delaware, who served eight years under former President Barack Obama, and decades in the United States Senate before that, has roots in Scranton. His running-mate is U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who is the first Black and Asian woman to be nominated to a major party ticket.

If he wins election, Biden, 77, would be the oldest person to take the oath of office. As a result, he has presented himself as a “transitional” figure, and hinted that he might only serve a single, four-year term.

Biden’s vision for the job is summed up by his campaign theme: “Build back better,” that takes what he says is “the old economy’s structural weaknesses and inequalities,” and replaces it with an economy “where every American enjoys a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead. An economy more vibrant and more powerful precisely because everybody will be cut in on the deal.”

*Biden held an average 3.9  percentage point lead over Trump in Pennsylvania in the most recent RealClear Politics polling average. That’s right outside the margin of error in most statewide canvasses, driving home the competitiveness of the race.

Also Running:

As ever in a presidential year, third party candidates are also looking for your attention — and your vote. The field, however, just got smaller.

On Sept. 17, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court booted Green Party hopeful Howie Hawkins off the ballot, after state Democrats challenged the validity of his candidacy. The litigation’s conclusion cleared the way for counties to begin printing out mail-in ballots, which had been put on hold while the suit was resolved.

The state’s highest court ruled that Hawkins, and his running-mate, Angela Walker, didn’t follow a state requirement to submit their filing papers in person, the Washington Post reported. The ruling came just days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court excluded the Green Party from the Badger State’s fall ballot.

The Libertarian Party also will field a candidate. Dr. Jo Jorgenson, of Illinois, and running-mate, Jeremy “Spike” Cohen landed on the statewide ballot in August, after a three-day, 20 city tour around the Keystone State, ABC-27 in Harrisburg reported.

U.S. Congress

All 18 members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, nine Democrats and nine Republicans, face the voters this year, as they seek another, two-year term on Capitol Hill. Thanks to a court-ordered redrawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional map in 2018, an unusually large number of freshman lawmakers will be running for re-election this year.

They are: U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District; Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District; Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District; Susan Wild, D-7th District; Dan Meuser, R-9th District; Fred Keller, R-12th District; John Joyce, R-13th District; Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, and Conor Lamb, D-17th District.

Incumbent lawmakers seeking re-election are: U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District; Brendan Boyle, D-2nd District; Dwight Evans, D-3rd District; Matt Cartwright, D-8th District; Scott Perry, R-10th District; Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District; Glen ‘GT’ Thompson, R-15th District, Mike Kelly, R-16th District, and Mike Doyle, D-18th District.

Two races this year, the Bucks County-based 1st District, and central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, are among the most closely watched contests in the country.

The 1st District race pits Fitzpatrick, a two-term incumbent and a former FBI agent, against Democrat Christina Finello, a public health administrator and borough council member in tiny Ivyland Borough.

Fitzpatrick has crossed over to vote with Democrats on such issues as gun-violence reduction, childcare assistance, infrastructure funding, LGBTQ rights and other matters. Finello has tried to counter by tying Fitzpatrick to Trump as often as she can.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report rated the seat ‘lean Republican,’ in most recent round of House rankings. The district includes Bucks County and part of Montgomery County.

The 10th District race is an all York Country match between GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, and Democrat Eugene DePasquale, who is serving his second, and final term, as Pennsylvania’s elected auditor general. Both formerly served in the state House of Representatives.

The district, which also includes Cumberland and Dauphin counties, was similarly redrawn in 2018, going from ruby red Republican to a more purple seat.

Because of that shift, Perry, a member of the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus and a staunch Trump ally, has been named one of the most endangered incumbents in the country. In 2018, Democratic challenger George Scott, a pastor and veteran, came within 3 percentage points of defeating him.

In an early round of campaign advertising, Perry has tried to tie DePasquale to progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning that he’d be too liberal for the district. DePasquale’s first three commercials have stayed away from red meat, and have instead focused on introducing him to voters across the 10th District.

In interviews and on the trail, DePasquale has painted Perry as a Keystone State extension of Trump, warning voters that they can’t afford two more years of his fellow York Countian.

A York Dispatch poll released Sept. 10 showed Perry leading 44-38 percent, with 5.2 percent of the poll’s 1,100 respondents undecided, effectively rendering the race a dead heat heading into the fall.

The Row Officers

All three of Pennsylvania’s elected row officers serve a four-year term, and cannot serve more than two, consecutive terms. The positions each have their own unique responsibilities, and are often viewed as a springboard for higher office. 

The offices up this year are:

State Treasurer

The Treasurer’s office is responsible for directly managing about $26 billion in investments, including state administered savings accounts for college, people with disabilities, local governments and nonprofits. That also includes $3.5 billion in unclaimed property.

The treasurer also has a voice in managing another $92 billion in state money. That includes a seat on three state pension boards that control the retirements of tens of thousands of public servants and teachers.

The treasurer also can hold leverage in a fiscal fight, such as in 2017, by withhold loans to patch budget holes.

Otherwise, the treasurer is tasked with making payments as authorized by the General Assembly. That includes cutting all state employees paychecks.

The candidates:

Joe Torsella: Torsella, a Democrat, has been treasurer since his election in 2016. The Montgomery County resident has used his time as treasurer to divest from and sue Wall Street firms, rail against private equity in pension board meetings, and back shareholder actions against such companies as Facebook.

Stacey Garrity: Garrity, a Republican and Bradford County native, is a veteran of the Iraq War and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2019. Garrity’s campaign website cites increasing transparency and cutting fees as top priorities if elected. She also promised to not run for another office before her term is up, a dig at Torsella who is rumored to have his eye on higher office.

Timothy Runkle: Runkle, the two-term treasurer of the Green Party of Pennsylvania and former Judge of Elections in Elizabethtown is running for State Treasurer as the Green Party’s nominee. He is an environmental consultant by trade, working to protect human health and the environment. 

Joseph Soloski: A certified public accountant and Libertarian candidate for State Treasurer, Soloski has said his priorities in office would be to make term limits for legislators, eliminate the state inheritance tax, expand the Hemp industry, reduce state spending and cut legislator pay. 

Auditor General

Known as the commonwealth’s “fiscal watchdog,” the Auditor General is tasked with ensuring that state money is spent legally and properly through audits and reports. 

The office’s limited prescribed duties comes with a lot of discretion, as shown by outgoing two-term Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

As well as regular audits of school districts and volunteer fire departments, DePasquale followed state Medicaid dollars to dig in and find waste among pregnancy crisis centers and pharmacy benefit managers.

The office can also come with a bully pulpit, such as when DePasquale prepared a special report on marijuana, and called for its legalization.

The candidates:

Nina Ahmad: A 2018 candidate for lieutenant governor, former Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia as well as an entrepreneur and molecular biologist, Ahmad, a Democrat, has promised, if elected, to focus on health, employment, and the well-being of minority communities across Pennsylvania.

Tim Defoor: A Harrisburg-native DeFoor, a Republican, is currently Dauphin County controller. He spent 15 years working as a state fraud investigator, and has promised to “fight waste, fraud and abuse” in government spending. 

Olivia Faison: A Philadelphia-native and former inspector of elections at her polling place, Faison is the Green Party candidate for Auditor General. If elected, Faison has promised to make industrial pollution and water contamination a priority. 

Jennifer Moore: Current auditor for Upper Providence Township in Montgomery County, Moore is the Libertarian candidate for Auditor General. 

Attorney General 

The attorney general is the Commonwealth’s chief legal officer, and can serve as counsel for the Governor, state agencies and the legislatures. Attorneys general can issue formal opinions to state agencies and act as public advocates for things such as environmental laws, consumer protections and more. 

The attorney general also is a prosecutor who can press charges, impanel grand juries, and conduct criminal investigations. The office typically investigates criminal cases related to drug trafficking, child pornography, public corruption and fraud, but the state constitution allows it to seek jurisdiction over cases that are handled by county prosecutors. 

The attorney general also can file civil lawsuits on behalf of the Commonwealth.

The candidates:

Josh Shapiro: The Democratic incumbent for attorney general has promised to protect the civil rights of Pennsylvanians, defend the Affordable Care Act and pursue legal action against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis. In his first term in office, Shapiro has sued student lenders and joined fellow Democtatic Attorneys General to challenge Trump Administration’s border policies and postal service cutbacks. He’s also taken heat from criminal justice reform advocates for voting against commutations as a member of the Board of Pardons. 

Heather Heidelbaugh: Heidelbaugh, a Pittsburgh attorney is running as the Republican candidate for the state’s chief legal officer. She has pledged to fight corruption in government, help rural communities address the continuing opioid epidemic and protect consumers from phone scammers. Heidelbaugh also has pledged to serve her full term if she’s elected: something she says Pennsylvanians can’t expect from Shapiro, who is widely believed to run for Governor when Wolf reaches his term limit in 2022.

Richard Weiss: The Green Party candidate for Attorney General, Weiss supports criminal justice reforms, such as ending cash bail, decriminalizing drug use and establishing police review boards. Weiss is a former federal attorney. 

Daniel Wassmer: An attorney and college professor, Wassmer is the Libertarian candidate for Attorney General. If elected, he plans to make decriminalizing marijuana a priority among other criminal justice reform issues. Wassmer would also make antitrust usage a focus of his administration. 

The General Assembly

About 90 percent of the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s 253 lawmakers are up for election this year. That includes all 203 House members, and half of the 50-member Senate.

These lawmakers are responsible for drafting and voting on legislation as well as crafting the state’s annual budget in conjunction with the governor.

Perhaps just as importantly, legislators and their staff can guide constituents through red tape, whether applying for property tax relief, utility assistance, or a concealed carry permit.

Both chambers are currently controlled by Republicans. Democrats would need to flip four seats to tie the Senate, and nine seats to win the House.

If they keep control, Republicans likely will continue to prevent tax increases, cut regulations, while prioritizing school choice and socially conservative values.

Since 2019, the General Assembly passed a multi-million dollar tax credit for products made with natural gas, created a vote-by-mail system, expanded a tax credit that provides scholarships to private schools, and authorized hunting on Sundays.

Democrats, meanwhile, can point to all the issues they want done but were left incomplete under GOP-leadership, such as LGBTQ non-discrimination protections, a minimum wage hike or redistricting reform; or policies that passed and were vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf, such as expanded abortion restrictions or numerous bills to reopen businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These legislative elections are even more important than usual because Pennsylvania must redraw its congressional and legislative districts in 2021, shaping the balance of power for the decade to come.

Democrats are already well position for redistricting with Gov. Tom Wolf in the governor’s mansion and a majority of justices on the state Supreme Court elected as Democrats.

The maps below will help you find out who is on the ballot in your legislative district.

First, check for your district here.

Then, search by district number for the candidates on the ballot in the maps top left hand corner.