Republican state representatives in Southwestern Pennsylvania were faced with the reality last week that they will be in the minority for the next two years as Democrats are on their way to winning the state House in what was unthinkable before Election Day.
Several close legislative races in the eastern part of Pennsylvania trended blue, which would catapult Democrats to a slim majority in the state House for the first time in 16 years, while Republicans will retain control in the Senate.
That storyline flew mostly under the radar locally as Republicans swept all legislative races in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties. But some Republican politicians and even seasoned political analysts were unaware of the potential transfer in power in the House until they awoke the morning after Election Day.
“I was in the group that thought it was impossible,” said Joseph DiSarro, a professor of political science at Washington & Jefferson College. “I did not think the House was in jeopardy of going to the Democrats. I really thought the Republicans had a stronghold on the (legislature). And you might say I was caught flat-footed on that.”
Reapportionment following the decennial census led to new districts being drawn by an independent commission and not the state legislature, which independent observers said led to less gerrymandered maps while Republicans objected to the plans. But DiSarro said it wasn’t the maps but poor GOP candidates at the top of the statewide ticket that “trickled down” to the lower races. He mainly blamed gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who was trounced by Democrat Josh Shapiro, but said U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz didn’t fare much better in his failed campaign against John Fetterman.
“Doug Mastriano didn’t have much of a campaign. He didn’t really have any campaign,” DiSarro said. “Oz ran a better campaign, but made serious errors that came back to haunt him.”
While it didn’t hurt local Republicans who ran the table here, the doomed statewide campaigns clearly damaged other candidates in close races elsewhere. As a registered Republican himself, DiSarro said this campaign was tough to watch with Mastriano running few television commercials and avoiding media outlets covering the election.
“When you’re running for governor, you have to go out and help (local races) and they will help you,” he said. “This is certainly a learning experience for the Republican Party. I take my hat off and I’m very impressed by the campaign of the Democrats.”
Larry Stratton, a professor of ethics and constitutional law at Waynesburg University, said he never considered on election night the possibility of Democrats taking control of the state House and was surprised to learn it had headed in that direction.
“That possibility proves yet again that all of the political forecasting models and all of the other presumptions which political experts and political scientists presume to know are thrown out the window and called into question by the actual voting behavior of citizens,” Stratton said. “And that’s a good thing, actually.”
Republicans won all legislative races in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties Tuesday night. In Greene County, incumbent Republican Rep. Bud Cook bested challenger Douglas Earl Mason in the newly-formed 50th District. (Cook received 62% of the vote in the race.)
But Republicans weren’t as fortunate in other House races or statewide campaigns, with Democrats Shapiro and Fetterman winning in convincing fashion. Now, Shapiro will be able to govern with a House majority, which could give him more leverage with the Republican-controlled Senate, according to Stratton.
“I think he’s just impressive as an executive, and that cuts multiple ways whether you think his execution style is good or bad,” Stratton said of Shapiro. “But he’s confident, and he may be able to triangulate with the House and Senate.”
Now that all area state representatives are in the minority party, it’s unclear how much that will affect their legislative powers that will likely diminish the region’s political clout in Harrisburg.
Stratton thinks the election in federal races in which the Republican “red wave” never materialized shows that the more things change in politics, the more they stay the same with Congress likely being split between the two parties.
“That’s the whole system of checks and balances was to prevent huge swings in power,” Stratton said. “America is a 50-50 electorate, and after all that was said and done with all the millions or billions spent (on campaigns), we’re back in a 50-50 standstill. And maybe that’s a good thing.”