A special election in suburban Scranton will test Democrats’ hold on the northeast

By: - March 12, 2019 10:00 am

Bridget Malloy Kosierowski and Frank Scavo. (Courtesy campaign Facebook pages)

Pennsylvanians outside Scranton and in West Philadelphia are going to the polls today to fill two vacancies in the state House of Representatives.

Democrats previously held both seats. In the 114th, former Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich died last fall, too close to the November election to have his name removed from the ballot.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, voters in the 190th will choose a replacement for former Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown who resigned in December after being sentenced for bribery. She won re-election in November. 

The 190th is a four-way race between the local Democratic party’s third choice, Movita Johnson-Harrell, who could become the first Muslim woman to serve in the House. She will face two independents — one of whom has Brown’s blessings — and a Republican.

With a strong Democratic base, the 190th isn’t expected to produce a surprise result.

Politicos are instead watching the 114th in Lackawanna County, as it’s taking place in a historically Democratic district in an region trending Republican.

“If the GOP does win, it’s a great way to start of special election season,” Republican political operative Chris Nicholas said. “No one thinks the GOP is gonna switch the seat in Philly.”

Ancestral Democrats

The 114th re-elected Kavulich in 2016 with two-thirds of the vote even as it supported then-candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for president by seven percentage points.

Democrat Bridget Malloy Kosierowski, a registered nurse, will face Republican school board member and perennial candidate Frank Scavo for the seat Tuesday. 

Both support reducing property taxes, while Kosierowski also wants to increase the minimum wage. Scavo meanwhile touts his opposition to abortion access.

Reporting by the Scranton Times-Tribune and Capital-Star revealed Scavo made anti-Muslim statements on Facebook and Twitter. Scavo apologized, but the Old Forge school board still voted to strip him of his presidency. 

READ MORE: What does 2019’s “special election season” look like?

Since 2000, Democrats have controlled the seat as part of their wider hold on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre region, also known as the Wyoming Valley.

The area is widely described as ancestrally Democratic and comparable to southwest Pennsylvania. Think union immigrant industrial workers, who once were reliable parts of the Democrat’s New Deal coalition.

From 1992 until 2012, both Lackawanna and neighboring Luzerne County voted for the Democratic candidate for president.

At the state level, the region was once home to a strong delegation of longtime Democratic representatives, like Phyllis Mundy, Eddie Staback, and Todd Eachus — a former House Majority Leader.

Eachus was upset in the 2010 Tea Party wave by Republican Tarah Toohil, while Mundy retired in 2013. Her seat flipped the following year. In 2011, Staback’s district was redrawn and given to neighboring Monroe County — more representative of New York commuters than coal miners.

Then Trump happened. Luzerne County went red in 2016, while Clinton narrowly won in Lackawanna.

Four of the Wyoming Valley’s six Democratic-held state House districts voted for Trump, sometimes by as much as 26 points. All backed President Barack Obama in 2012.

Rebounding Democrats?

But at the top of the ballot, there’s been a swing back in Democrats’ favor, Rep. Marty Flynn, D-Lackawanna, said.

Running for re-election last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf captured both Luzerne and Lackawanna. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton native, won Lackawanna but lost Luzerne, where he faced Hazleton’s Lou Barletta.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, whose Trump-friendly northeast district was a key Republican target, won reelection by nine percentage points.

Cartwright, Casey, and Wolf each won re-election while carrying the now contested 114th House District.

Flynn said he thinks this is a sign of “buyer’s remorse” from some voters who picked Trump, pointing to the unpopular GOP tax plan.

If that regret is happening at the top of the ballot, it will likely trickle down, Flynn added.

Unlike candidates at the top of the ticket, Republican strategist Nicholas said down-ballot candidates can’t latch onto white hot national issues like immigration.

On Tuesday, it could come down to the candidate. Setting aside Scavo’s anti-Muslim social media posts, Nicholas said “Republicans decided to stick with the fellow who paid his dues.”

Scavo ran for state Senate in 2010 and 2018, losing both times. A different face could do better, Nicholas said, but he “wouldn’t ding the GOP if Mr. Scavo does not win.”

Flynn said he doesn’t “think Scavo has endeared himself to the voters” through controversial social media posts. Looking at Kosierowski, he feels confident her profile will carry her to victory. He predicted she’ll win by five to ten points.

“She’d be hard to beat no matter where she is,” Flynn said.

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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.