Pa. Democrats win 3 Allegheny County special elections -- and control of the state House

Adam Smeltz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Political News

PITTSBURGH — Democrats declared victory in three special elections for the state House on Tuesday, putting the party on the brink of controlling the lower chamber of the legislature for the first time since 2010.

While votes were still being counted late Tuesday night, early returns showed all three Democrats enjoying commanding leads that would be almost impossible for Republicans to overcome — in one case by more than 85 percentage points.

Political analysts and insiders had widely expect Joe McAndrew, Abigail Salisbury and Matthew Gergely to establish clear margins of victory over their Republican opponents in preliminary returns late Tuesday for the 32nd, 34th and 35th districts, respectively, all representing Allegheny County.

If that happens, the winners would cement a razor-thin Democratic majority in the state House, 102 to 101, when they take office, likely later this month. That would end a partisan stalemate that has effectively frozen the General Assembly in place since early January.

An Allegheny County employee directs drivers outside the County Office Building near a mail-in ballot drop-off spot in Downtown Pitttsburgh.

Mr. McAndrew, Ms. Salisbury and Mr. Gergely would succeed, respectively, the late state Rep. Tony DeLuca and former state Reps. Summer Lee and Austin Davis. Ms. Lee won election to Congress in November, and Mr. Davis as lieutenant governor. Mr. DeLuca died in October before posthumously winning reelection.

Republican nominees Clayton Walker, Robert Pagane and Don Nevills are widely seen as long-shot candidates in the heavily Democratic districts. In an interview last week, Mr. Pagane said he would “need every single vote I can muster if I’m going to pull this off.”

Longtime Democratic Party leader Nancy Patton Mills, in an interview over the weekend, said the availability of absentee and mail-in ballots helps “get the vote out” in the off-cycle races. Voters in the districts requested more than 25,000 of those ballots and had returned more than 15,000 as of Monday, according to the county Elections Division.

“(Democratic campaigns) have utilized social media very effectively,” said Ms. Patton Mills, a former county and state party chair. “I think they’ve had a lot of events featuring not only one candidate but all three.”


Turnout usually hovers around 10% for off-year special elections like these, said political analyst Chaz Nuttycombe.

But the prospect of flipping majority control in the House was likely to motivate both parties, said Mr. Nuttycombe, the director at CNalysis, which specializes in state legislative elections.

The majority party controls what legislation gets a vote in the lower chamber. Republicans control the state Senate.

“Pretty much just like any other election, the more that is at stake, the more reason people would have to come out,” Mr. Nuttycombe said. “I would say that’s more important for special elections.”

While Democrats won more seats in the November midterm elections, the death of one and elevation of two others gave state House Republicans a temporary two-seat majority. After Republicans were unable to secure the speakership, lawmakers struck a compromise to install Mark Rozzi, a moderate Berks County Democrat, as speaker.

Mr. Rozzi adjourned the House last month and began a cross-state “listening tour” with a bipartisan working group. Its work includes gathering public input for the House rules, which members must finalize before they can vote on legislation. Republicans have called the group a stalling tactic until Democrats could establish an outright majority after the special elections.

Whether Mr. Rozzi will retain his leadership post is a key question. Speculation has focused on whether Democrats may attempt to replace him as speaker with state Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, the Democratic leader. Mr. Rozzi has said he wouldn’t necessarily step aside to support her ascent.


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