Bucks County special election will decide control of the PA House of Representatives

Jim Prokopiak, Democratic nominee for a Bucks County special election to fill a vacant Pennsylvania state House seat, picks up flyers to go door knocking from his election headquarters in Fairless Hills, Pa., Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Voters in the 140th Pennsylvania House of Representatives District will fill a vacant seat in a special election ending on Feb. 13. The race between Democratic nominee and Pennsbury School Board director Jim Prokopiak and Republican activist Candace Cabanas will determine which party holds the majority in the chamber and could have significant policy ramifications for all Pennsylvanians.

The Bucks County House seat became vacant in December when Democratic Rep. John Galloway resigned to take a judgeship. Democrats won a narrow 101-100 House majority in the 2022 elections and retained that one-seat majority through six special elections in 2023. With Galloway’s resignation, the House is evenly divided.

In 2023, House Democrats passed bills to raise the minimum wage, protect abortion rights, curb gun violence, boost hospital staffing levels, and fight employment discrimination. Those bills await action in the Republican-led state Senate.

But with the GOP already in control of the Senate, even a one-seat House majority could allow the party to circumvent Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s veto power and put constitutional amendment referendums on the ballot that would roll back reproductive rights.

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Heather Williams called the race for the 140th House District one of the most important special elections of the year.

“Everything is on the line — from control of the speaker’s gavel to the future of fundamental freedoms like abortion access,” Williams said in a prepared statement. “We cannot allow state Republicans to regain control of both chambers and legislate Pennsylvania backward. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”

As Prokopiak backs reproductive rights, Cabanas avoids the topic

Throughout the campaign, Prokopiak has centered abortion rights and access to contraception, while Cabanas has not made her position on abortion clear. Cabanas did not respond to a Pennsylvania Independent inquiry about her policy positions.

Cabanas’ party, however, has made its stance clear on abortion, and Pennsylvania Republicans have long worked to restrict access to abortion. In 2022, for example, GOP legislators tried to amend the state Constitution to say Pennsylvanians do not have the right to abortion. The effort did not advance to the voters. State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a far-right Republican who lost his bid for governor in 2022, said women should be charged with murder if they violated an abortion ban he proposed in 2019. That bill did not make it to the floor.

The majority of Pennsylvanians do not align with Pennsylvania Republicans’ push to restrict or ban abortion, and polling shows more than half of voters want abortion to remain legal in the state.

Prokopiak, an attorney and former Falls Township supervisor, told the Pennsylvania Independent that abortion rights and ensuring individuals have access to general reproductive care, including contraception, are among his top priorities.

“Jim firmly upholds a pro-choice stance, opposing any restrictions on a woman’s right to choose,” Prokopiak’s campaign website states. “Additionally, he endorses a constitutional amendment affirming and safeguarding a woman’s right to choose.”

With Roe v. Wade overturned and Republican legislators pushing to further restrict or altogether ban abortion, Prokopiak said it’s crucial that Democratic lawmakers work to protect access to reproductive care in Pennsylvania.

“When we talk about fighting for women’s reproductive rights here, those are Democrats that are doing that,” Prokopiak said. “Republicans are trying to take those rights away, not just for the right to abortion but also to contraception.”

Planned Parenthood PA PAC has endorsed Prokopiak, praising his work to ensure access to period products in school bathrooms.

“The House has been a legislative firewall against bans and a proactive champion of access to care. We can’t take any election, special or otherwise, for granted,” the group’s political director Adam Hosey said in a press release. “If this firewall were to crumble, we know what would happen – bans would pass the legislature, restrictive constitutional amendments could make it to your ballot. Jim is the firewall reinforcement the House needs right now and we’re proud to support him.” 

Cabanas’ position on abortion is far less clear than her opponent’s, and the Republican candidate’s campaign website makes no reference to it at all. A search of her social media posts turned up nothing on abortion.

In a recent Delaware Valley Journal podcast interview, she was asked about her positions on education and reproductive rights.

Cabanas responded that voters should determine when and whether the procedure is legal: “I believe that it’s our voters’ right in this district to decide this issue and create a basis for the laws enacted. My job’s to represent the decisions that the voters make in the 140th District to Harrisburg. Right now the law currently supports a woman’s right to have an abortion up to 24 weeks or six months, and this allows for exceptions due to rape, incest, life-threatening issues to the mother and her health. Honestly, if this is what our voters wish to continue, it’s my job as state representative to respect them and continue to represent them in Harrisburg. It’s a tough issue, it is a really tough issue, and it is sort of like the Democrats’ silver bullet to us because we have struggled to kind of have a cohesive answer. … I really believe in ‘by the people, for the people,’ and they get to decide issues like this for the region, so I really do hope people show up and vote their values and let us know what they want us to represent.”

Schools, wages and other policy priorities

In addition to reproductive rights, Prokopiak cites increasing the minimum wage, building more affordable housing, and equitably funding schools as his top priorities.

“This race will determine for this year whether or not Democrats stay in control in the state House and have a seat at the table in all these discussions about what impacts Pennsylvanians,” Prokopiak said. “And I believe that, certainly, the Democratic Party and the Democratic majority in Pennsylvania has shown that they’re willing to fight for middle class Pennsylvanians and fight for those who believe that we need a quality education system, we need an education system that is free of agendas, we need a system that allows women control over their own bodies. A Legislature that believes that supporting workers’ rights is important.”

The issues section on Cabanas’ campaign website says that she supports public safety, affordable health care, educational opportunities, and working families.

She told the Delaware Valley Journal that she was “absolutely” for school choice, without specifics about who would pay. “It really should be the parents’ choice of how they think their kid could be best educated.” Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate have proposed using public funds to pay for students in underfunded school districts to attend private schools; Shapiro vetoed such a plan in 2023.

Prior to her candidacy, Cabanas was an activist for conservative causes. In January 2017, she defended President-elect Donald Trump, telling journalist Zoë Murphy: “As a woman I’m not offended by Donald Trump. … You hear all this stuff in the media that he’s racist, he’s a misogynist. Look at his daughter Ivanka and her success. People think it’s a joke he used to have a reality TV show but look at the winner – a woman, and a member of the black community.”

In 2021, she vocally opposed equity policies in local public schools that would have used an adaptable model depending on students’ individual needs, claiming, “This education program that’s being implemented is designed to put people in a box.”