By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, might feel like he has a target on his back.
This first-term Republican in a tightly contested swing district in the Philadelphia suburbs is exactly the type of candidate Democrats are hunting for this election season.
He won by a slim margin during the GOP wave in the 2010 election, has to win re-election in a district with more registered Democrats than Republicans and has voted for some Republican initiatives, which are unpopular with politically moderate Montgomery County residents.
But playing defense is not always a bad thing.
“Certainly it’s a good problem to have, when you have so much success in 2010,” said state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee. “We’re in a better position right now than we expected to be.”
The state House has 203 districts, but control of the chamber will be determined in only a handful of them. Nearly half of the districts have one candidate on the ballot, and many others are essentially “one-party” districts thanks to demographics and years of creative mapping by state lawmakers, who want to secure as many seats as possible for their party.
Stephen’s district, the 151st, is one of the exceptions.
In suburban Montgomery County, the district is about as finely balanced as possible — Democrats outnumber Republicans by only about 500 registrations — even though Stephens won the district by more than 1,400 votes in 2010.
In the 151st District, the Democratic challenger is attorney Will Sylianteng, who said the state should have imposed a stiffer tax on natural gas drillers and supports closing corporate tax loopholes.
Stephens said he believes voters will look at the individual candidates and not be influenced by Democratic attempts to make this election a referendum on Corbett’s first two years in office.
“We’re fighting for jobs and a better business climate here in Pennsylvania,” Stephens told PA Independent on Wednesday.
Democrats suffered historic losses in 2010 that saw them fall from a slim majority to a 112-91 minority after the GOP picked up 15 state House seats. Their percentage of the House chamber was at the lowest level since the 1950s.
This year, they hope to start digging out from under that landslide by targeting Stephens and other first-term Republicans who won swing seats in Democratic-leaning districts two years ago – including state Reps. Joe Hackett, of Delaware County; and Warren Kampf and Dan Truitt, both of Chester County.
State Rep. Brendan Boyle, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said they can make some progress.
“I think we’re certainly going to have a net pickup of seats,” said Boyle, D-Philadelphia. “But certainly this is no wave election; this is a return to normal.”
The Democrats have made up a little ground. They won a special election in Philadelphia earlier this year that cut the Republican edge in the state House to 110-91 with two vacancies.
Their No. 1 target is state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Washington, who illustrates the Republican wave in 2010 and the GOP’s vulnerabilities this year.
Saccone won the 39th District on the border of Allegheny and Washingtoncounties, by 151 votes two years ago. The district has more than 12,000 more Democratic voters than Republicans — the biggest registration gap in any of the districts won by the GOP in 2010.
Saccone’s challenger is his 2010 rival, former state Rep. Dave Levdansky, D-Allegheny, who is trying to win back the seat he had held for more than 30 years.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party gave nearly $7,000 to Levdansky last week, another sure sign it is targeting the race as a possible pickup.
But without an electoral wave, Democrats will have a hard time picking up more than a handful of seats and fall short of reclaiming the majority, said Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“I don’t know how they get enough to take over. I don’t see that happening,” Madonna said.
Insiders say the GOP wave of 2010 was a combination of two forces.
Republican House candidates rode the national wave that carried the GOP to victories in gubernatorial and congressional races nationwide. In Pennsylvania, Republicans captured a number of House districts — primarily in the northeast, where Democrats tend to be more conservative than the national party — that had been trending toward Republicans for years.
Democrats know that they will not reclaim all lost House districts, so they are focusing on swing districts they lost in 2010, particularly eight in the Philadelphia suburbs, Boyle said, though they do not expect to win them all.
But Republicans are not playing defense exclusively. They hope to win the 74th District seat, home of retiring state Rep. Bud George, D-Clearfield, one of the few remaining Democrats to hail from a rural part of the state.
They are also on the offensive against state Reps. Rick Mirabito, of Lycoming, and Bryan Barbin, of Cambria, two Democrats from outside the party’s strongholds of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the northeast.
And in the best case scenario,the Republicans hope to knock off state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, the minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a key post within the General Assembly.
Even though he is not on the ballot, Corbett plays a role in the General Assembly elections this year.
The governor’s popularity is well below 50 percent statewide, and Democrats are making an issue of his commitment not to raise taxes to balance the budget — a policy that has resulted in cuts to several areas of state government.
“That has been a theme in many of the districts, whether they are suburban, urban or rural,” Boyle said. Some Republican candidates are distancing themselves from the governor’s policies, he said.
Stephens and other targeted Republicans are pushing back against that message — pointing out that the cuts in funding to school districts was mostly the result of the end of the federal stimulus.
“The voters understand when $1 billion in stimulus goes away, they don’t want to have to make that up with their taxes,” he said.
But Madonna said state issues and Corbett’s popularity may matter less than the names on the top of the ticket in this presidential election year.
“I don’t see people focusing on state issues in this election,” Madonna said. “Maybe at the margins it will help, and maybe in very close races it will help.”
Contact Eric Boehm at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter @PAIndependent for breaking news updates.