Republicans claim sweep of three House specials in midst of coronavirus outbreak

By: - March 17, 2020 11:12 pm

Eric Davanzo, K.C. Tomlinson, and Tim Bonner.

Republicans claimed a sweep in three state House special elections Tuesday, keeping the partisan balance of the lower chamber intact, and dashing Democratic hopes of a strong night.

The wins came across the commonwealth, from suburban Philadelphia to old milltowns south of Pittsburgh to a rural district in western Pennsylvania, and left the GOP confident for the rest of 2020 — including up to November’s critical presidential election.

Assuming the results hold, and are ultimately certified, the GOP would continue to hold a firm majority of 110 seats in the 203-member House. The results also are a big blow to Democratic hopes to close a nine-seat deficit and flip the chamber in this November’s general election.

“All three of these candidates won on the strength of their community ties and message,” Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, and chair of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “As the 2020 Election begins to come into form, we in the House Republican Caucus are confident we will not only hold, but expand our majority.”

All three seats were formerly held by Republicans. Two looked in play for Democrats, but the party did not draw out enough former Blue Dogs in southwestern Pennsylvania or Trump-skeptical suburbanites outside Philadelphia to flip a district.

The elections also happened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic despite calls for House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, to push them back. In a statement conceding all three contests, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said Turzai’s rescheduling balk was “a disgraceful power grab.”

In one of the most watched races, Republican K.C. Tomlinson, a funeral home director, beat Democrat Harold Hayes, a union plumber, in suburban Philadelphia’s 18th District. Republicans claimed victory, although no vote count had been published by the Department of State as of Tuesday night.

The Bucks County district is made up entirely of Bensalem Township, which borders northeast Philadelphia.

Tomlinson is the daughter of GOP state Sen. Robert M. “Tommy” Tomlinson, who also represents lower Bucks County. Down ballot, moderate, union friendly Republicans such as Tomlinson have thrived even as Democrats have made big gains near the top of the ticket.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, Republican Eric Davanzo, a union carpenter, beat Democrat Robert Prah, an Army veteran and firefighter, in the 58th District. Davanzo won 53 percent of the vote, according to unofficial tallies. 

The Westmoreland County seat includes once blue strongholds such as the cities of Monessen and Jeanette, southeast of Pittsburgh. But the district and the wider region has trended steadily red over the past decades.

The easiest hold for Republicans was in the 8th District, where Tim Bonner, an attorney and former assistant district attorney beat Democrat Phil Heasley. The western Pennsylvania district includes parts of northern Butler and eastern Mercer counties, and has been historically Republican. 

Bonner won 75-25 percent against, according to preliminary results on the Department of State website.

The Bucks County results, in particular, represent a reversal for growing Democratic strength in Pennsylvania’s suburbs. 

Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas said in a statement that Tomlinson’s win showed that “Pennsylvania will be a red state in 2020 on the strength of our candidates,” from President Donald Trump’s reelection on down the ballot to the General Assembly.

The elections also came in the midst of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 outbreak, with 96 cases spread across 15 counties throughout the state as of Tuesday.

Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Democrats asked House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, to postpone the elections, particularly in Bucks, to protect public health in light of the virus’ spread. 

Turzai rebuffed the request, saying it would create voter confusion.

Bucks County even launched a last minute legal challenge Monday to delay the election, citing health concerns. A judge ruled against their suit.

Dermody cited these health concerns for the poor showing, claiming that coronavirus fears “disenfranchised thousands of voters.”

“At a time when we should be putting politics aside, House Republicans put politics ahead of the health of seniors and residents of the commonwealth,” Dermody said in a statement. “These results do not reflect fair elections.” 

Turnout statistics available in one race, in Westmoreland, showed 20 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls.

The calls to delay elections were not only in Pennsylvania. At least five states pushed back statewide primary elections planned for the coming weeks due to coronavirus concerns. One state, Ohio, planned to cast votes Tuesday.

To mediate concerns, election officials in all three elections adopted hygiene measures, such as providing hand sanitizer, wiping down voting machines, and letting voters bring their own pens to mark their ballots

Voters in the elections also could not cast their vote by mail. The law approving the new voting measure does not go into effect until the April 28 primary.

The seats were open after the former representatives resigned to take local office in their respective counties.

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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.