For the first time in at least a decade, Democrats are fielding candidates in each of the 11 state legislative seats serving Lehigh and Northampton counties.
Six of those seats are held by incumbent Republicans and five are held by incumbent Democrats. By comparison, Republicans are still looking for candidates to run in four districts held by Democrats.
That is a stark difference from previous elections, when Republicans campaigned more aggressively in terms of candidates and money, adding to their majorities in the Legislature. The House has 120 Republicans, 81 Democrats and tow vacancies. The Senate has 34 Republicans and 16 Democrats.
This election cycle, more Democratic House incumbents, around 80 percent, have donated money toward campaigns, said Rep. Pete Schweyer, D-Lehigh, who leads candidate recruitment efforts in eastern Pennsylvania for the House Democratic Campaign Committee. The candidate recruitment in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere has been the strongest since at least 2008 and it’s driven primarily by grassroots groups, Schweyer added.
“Folks are confident,” he said.
Still, Democrats face an uphill battle in many local districts. The legislative lines were drawn in 2012 to help Republicans. Regardless of those lines, some Democratic voters, particularly in northern Northampton County, have tilted right in recent elections. And, Republicans historically have done a better job of funding candidates, whether they are incumbents or newcomers.
Sean Gill, chair of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, said he is confident voters will back Republicans. The party, he added, will do everything it can to ensure a Republican wins the general election against any Democrat.
Lee Snover, Northampton County GOP chairwoman, said Republican House incumbents have served as bulwarks against Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed tax increases. Voters, she said, appreciate their conservative fiscal stances.
“The Republicans who are running are all experienced and all are against taxes,” Snover said. “They’ve stood up to Gov. Wolf.”
What’s changed for Democrats?
The 2016 surprise election of Republican Donald Trump as president, Schweyer said. Trump’s election galvanized his critics and reminded everybody that voting matters in all elections.
There’s also anger, Schweyer said, over school shootings, gerrymandered congressional and legislative maps and immigration, among other issues. People have realized they can impact those issues at the state level, he said. That anti-Trump sentiment and anger has created new progressive grassroots groups like Lehigh Valley for All, which is helping expand the Democratic Party’s base beyond the traditional labor and county party apparatus, he said.
As the movement has grown, Schweyer said, citizens have decided to get off the sidelines and run for office, confident and hopeful for a fighting chance in districts that have voted Republican in recent elections. The proof of that possibility, he added, occurred on Tuesday in Kentucky, where a Democrat won back a rural state House seat she lost in the pro-Trump wave of 2016.
Trump had won 79 percent of the vote in that district, published reports show.
“Donald Trump has awoken a lot of spirits,” Schweyer said.
So, too, did GOP U.S. Rep Charlie Dent’s decision not to seek re-election, which put into play two previously solid state Republican House seats.
When Dent made his decision, Republican Reps. Justin Simmons and Ryan Mackenzie, both of Lehigh County, entered the congressional race.
Simmons dropped his campaign shortly after The Morning Call reported he had missed 28 daily roll calls and 498 legislative votes since 2011. Simmons has attributed those absences to his wedding, a child’s birth, travel issues and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Simmons’ record, however, has drawn two GOP challengers for his 131st state district in the May 15 primary.
Mackenzie picked up a GOP primary challenge for his state House seat while he also runs for Congress in a crowded field.Still, Democrats have a way of getting in their own way.
The 2014 election is a case in point.
That year, incumbent GOP Gov. Tom Corbett had the lowest approval ratings of any modern-day governor and ended up loosing to Democrat Tom Wolf in the November election. But Democrats were unable — and in some cases didn’t even try — to link Corbett’s low popularity to Republican lawmakers. That year, Republicans picked up more House seats.
Then in 2016, 27 incumbent House Democrats raised no campaign money to defend vulnerable colleagues, or to recruit and help fund newcomers in 2016. Democrats lost two seats in the 2016 election cycle, deepening their minority status.
Those poor campaign performances have driven Democratic consultant T.J. Rooney bonkers. Rooney, a former state lawmaker and state Democratic Party Chairman, said legislative incumbent Democrats have to do a better job of fundraising and helping. Being a lawmaker is useless if all you are doing is expediting birth certificates and not making laws, he said.
If either incumbent loses in the primary, Democrats’ chances increase more against a GOP newcomer.
If a national Democratic wave does surfaces as pundits predict this year, it would be reminiscent of Republican waves in 1994 and 2010 and a Democratic wave in 2006, said G. Terry Madonna, Franklin & Marshall College pollster and political science professor. Those years, Congress flipped between the parties and the state House did, too, he said.
“National waves have an effect on legislative races,” Madonna said.
But Democrats are starting in such deep holes, they are unlikely to take over control of either legislative chamber, he added. That doesn’t mean they cannot pick up seats, he added, because Democratic candidates are coming out of the woodwork to run for elective office and national surveys show Democrats are 6 percent more likely to vote in the coming elections than Republicans.
“Democrats are extraordinarily motived, largely driven by their hostility and dislike of the president,” Madonna said. “There will be a wave. The question is how big or small will it be.”
Candidates for state House and Senate have until March 6 to circulate nominating petitions. Those who collect enough names and survive any petition challenges will make it onto the May ballot.
Here is a list of candidates circulating petitions:
22nd District: Incumbent Democratic Rep. Pete Schweyer; no Republican.
131st District: Incumbent Republican Rep. Justin Simmons; Republicans Beverly Plosa-Bowser and Vicki Lightcap; Democrat Andy Lee.
132nd District: Incumbent Democrat Rep. Mike Schlossberg; no Republican.
133rd District: Incumbent Democrat Jeanne McNeill; Republican David Molony.
134th District: Incumbent Republican Rep. Ryan Mackenzie; Republican Ron Beitler; Democrat Tom Applebach.
135th District: Incumbent Democratic Rep. Steve Samuelson; no Republican.
136th District: Incumbent Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman; no Republican.
137th District: Incumbent Republican Rep. Joe Emrick; Democrat Amy Cozze.
138th District: Incumbent Republican Rep. Marcia Hahn; Democrat Dean Donaher.
183rd District: Incumbent Republican Zach Mako; Democrat Jason Ruff.
187th District: Incumbent Republican Gary Day; Democrat Archie Follweiler.
Determined Democrats blanket Lehigh Valley with petitions for state legislative seats