Pennsylvania Democrats haven’t had a trifecta in 31 years. Could that change in November? - TAI News
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The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. (Anna Gustafson)

The last time Democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania had what’s known as a trifecta, or control of the state House, Senate and governorship, Bill Clinton was serving his first year as president, MTV played Janet Jackson and Dr. Dre on loop, and the general public had just been introduced to the phrase “World Wide Web.”

In the 31 years since 1993, Republicans have had a trifecta 12 times. The GOP has been the majority party in the Senate every year since 1994, and Republicans have controlled the House more times than not.

However, Pennsylvania is starting to change.

Redistricting and voters’ concerns over access to abortion paved the way for Democrats to take control of the state House in 2023, 13 years after they’d last been the chamber’s majority party. Since then, they’ve held on to their narrow 102-101 majority over the course of seven special elections and have passed a flurry of progressive legislation, including bills that would boost the minimum wage, mandate background checks for all firearm purchases, and protect access to abortion. All of those bills are languishing in committee in a Republican-led Senate that is highly unlikely to vote on them.

Now Democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania are hoping to achieve what their counterparts have recently accomplished in Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota, and Massachusetts: gained control of the state House, Senate and governorship.

Political experts and Democratic lawmakers say the same factors that gave Democrats control of the House — Pennsylvania’s political maps, which were redrawn in 2022 and created more competitive districts for Democrats, and the battle over reproductive rights — could help them retain that chamber and retake the Senate in November.

“Republicans have unquestionably been helped by the types of districts that have been in play for a long time and that now have been modified to be much more competitive for Democrats,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and the director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg University in Allentown. “We saw the impact of that in 2022 with the Democrats taking the House. I think in 2024 there’s at least a reasonable opportunity for Democrats to take the Senate.”

For Pennsylvania Democrats to gain that trifecta, they’ll need to retain their majority in the House, where every seat is up for reelection in November, and flip four seats in the Senate, where half of the seats are up for reelection. Republicans now hold 28 seats in the Pennsylvania Senate, compared to Democrats’ 22 seats.

If Democrats only flip three seats, they’d still have the advantage because Democratic Lt. Gov. Austin Davis would cast a tie-breaking vote if necessary.

Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, is not up for reelection until 2026.

Flipping seats

Democratic lawmakers told the Pennsylvania Independent that they are paying particular attention to three districts in the Senate: the recently redrawn 15th District in central Pennsylvania, the 37th in Allegheny County, and the 49th in Erie County. Each of those districts is currently represented by a Republican. Democrats also said they’re looking to retain control of the 45th in Allegheny County.

“That’ll get us the ability to work with the lieutenant governor to receive the majority and then set the agenda going forward, which is really the most important thing for us,” said Democratic state Sen. Jay Costa, the minority leader in the Senate.

Should Democrats flip the Senate, Costa said, they would prioritize passing legislation to increase the minimum wage, protect reproductive rights and provide paid family and medical leave for state residents, among other issues.

Michael Straw, the communications director for the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said Republicans are focusing on retaining the Senate seats they currently hold and further expanding their majority in the upper chamber.

“The first priority for the SRCC is to defend and maintain our Republican majority,” Straw wrote in an email. “Senate Democrats already announced their intentions to contest SD-15, SD-37, and SD-49. While our candidates in these seats have proven records and have put themselves in a strong position, we are taking nothing for granted. As far as offensive pick-ups, Democrats in Harrisburg have been pushing some radical policies. So, we see some real opportunities in Western and Southeast Pennsylvania to expand our majority.”

‘Under constant attack’

Whether Democrats can flip the Senate will ultimately come down to who comes out to cast their ballots in November’s election, said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. If there’s a swell of support for President Joe Biden at the polls, that would likely bode well for other Democratic candidates, Sweet-Cushman explained. However, if Democratic voters sit this election out or if former Republican President Donald Trump wins, that could be problematic for Democrats at the state level.

Still, Sweet-Cushman said, state Democrats have reason to be optimistic: “I think the Democrats have every reason to put resources into trying to get there because the map’s not bad for them.”

Reproductive rights could also galvanize Democrats to vote, Sweet-Cushman said: “The messaging on protecting reproductive rights is going to help them, undoubtedly, and if they can get that message out to voters, that there’s a need to elect Democrats to preserve that right in Pennsylvania, especially if people start to feel like Trump is going to win the presidency and that federal threat may be there, that’s where you could see independents who maybe don’t even want to vote in the presidential, maybe won’t vote in the presidential, will still show up and vote down ballot for Democrats.”

State House Majority Leader Matt Bradford said Democrats are focusing on abortion as they campaign for November’s election. One candidate prioritizing reproductive rights is state Rep. Patty Kim, a Democrat who’s running against Republican Dauphin County Treasurer Nick DiFrancesco in the 15th Senate District.

“My most fundamental legislative priority will be to protect the basic rights which are under constant attack,” Kim wrote to the Pennsylvania Independent. “I want to protect reproductive freedom and the right we all have to a safe and secure vote.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.