2010-07-22 / Local & State

Control Of Pa. House Up For Grabs

By Mark Scolforo
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – If Republicans pick up just three seats in the 203-member Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the November election, it could bring sweeping policy changes to a state that can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be blue or red.

There will be plenty to talk about on the campaign trail, from the dysfunctional budget process and state spending to the “bonusgate’’ corruption cases and lingering resentment over the 2005 pay raise and the 2001 pension grab.

The campaign news this summer has focused on the two high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate, but the outcome of legislative races could largely determine what the state does about its multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, the funding crisis for public-sector pensions and redistricting – not to mention the thousands of bills lawmakers will introduce over the coming two-year session.

The House is currently controlled by Democrats, 104-99, and Republicans are salivating at the chance to parlay a favorable national political climate into a return after four years to majority status.

The Senate is expected to remain firmly in GOP control, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett currently leads in polls over Democrat Dan Onorato.

Pennsylvania has two Democratic U.S. senators and a majority of Democrats in its congressional delegation. But Republicans came out ahead in last year’s state judicial elections and have momentum going into the Nov. 2 balloting.

At this point, campaign strategists in both parties are trying to get a handle on the best places to direct their resources, a more-artthan science process that assesses poll numbers, fundraising figures and the political skills of individual candidates.

Beating almost any incumbent is a tall order, so attention will be concentrated in the seats that are up for grabs. This year that factor clearly favors the Republicans.

In the House, Democrats have a decent shot of winning a suburban Philadelphia district represented most recently by GOP Rep. Mario Civera, R-Delaware. But many of the GOP’s other retirements are in relatively safe districts that are not expected to switch hands.

House Republicans are reeling from two straight election cycles of losses in key swing areas, but this year they can target vacancies created by the departures of Reps. Tim Solobay, D-Washington, John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, Bryan Lentz, D-Delaware, Rich Grucela, D-Northampton, Barbara McIlvaine Smith, DChester, and Speaker Keith McCall, D-Carbon.

“We’ve got a menu of seats we can win from,’’ said Rep. Dave Reed of Indiana County, the House Republicans’ point man on campaigns.

Reed’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Mike Gerber of Montgomery County, said it’s too early to label any race as competitive or noncompetitive. He sees the stakes as being particularly high this year, given the GOP’s potential to control both the executive and legislative branches.

“Checks and balances help maintain the integrity of our democracy,’’ Gerber said. “The poor judgments that were made when Tom Ridge, a Republican, was governor, and the Republicans controlled the House and Senate continue to haunt us today and will haunt us for decades.’’

In the Senate, Democrats have three vacancies – the seats held by departing Sens. Bob Mellow, Ray Musto and Barry Stout – but Republicans could be similarly vulnerable in suburban Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley, where their incumbents represent areas with a record of voting for Democrats.

Senate President Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, who heads the GOP’s campaign efforts, said he is determined to provide whatever financial support his incumbents need to win. Scarnati is counting on the national mood to work in their favor, and to make the case that his caucus has blocked unpopular Democratic proposals.

Political scientist Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said the one thing to count on this fall is at least one surprising defeat for a sitting lawmaker. Madonna said public opinion research shows an enthusiasm gap, with Republican voters more likely to vote this fall, and independents leaning Republican.

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