Special Elections Matter—Pittsburgh, PA Democrats Come out in Droves and Flip State House “Blue” February 15, 2023
February 7, 2023. Remember this date for two key political reasons. On this date, President Biden gave an outstanding State of the Union address. He clearly stated his accomplishments and “Team Blue’s” strong agenda for the future. President Biden demonstrated that his GOP opponents, including hapless House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and his boorish followers, led by screaming Marjorie “white fur coat” Taylor Greene (R-GA), to be nothing less than true Trump reactionaries (See cnn.com, nytimes.com). At the same time, a major political earthquake occurred in swing state Pennsylvania that did not receive that much attention. In three special elections in the Allegheny County Pittsburgh area, Democrats handily clobbered their GOP opponents. In taking those three seats in the PA House, Democrats finally and clearly flipped the lower chamber for the first time since 2010. Democrats now have a 102- seat House majority to the GOP’s 101. With Josh Shapiro, Democrats additionally control the PA governor’s chair. Republicans, however, remain in control of PA’s State Senate (Smeltz, A., post-gazette.com, 2/08/23). Let’s look closely at why these three PA special House election wins are so important.
As previously mentioned, these three races occurred in PA’s Allegheny County, in the state’s western area where Pittsburgh lies. Allegheny County constitutes the Keystone State’s Number 2 county in population after Philadelphia (nytimes.com, Vigdor, N., 2/07/23). The three districts where these special elections occurred were in Allegheny County’s 32nd , 34th, and 35th House Districts, HD’s (post-gazette.com, Smeltz, A., 2/08/23). In the 32nd HD, Joe McDaniel, a former executive director of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee defeated GOPer Clayton Walker, a pastor. In that contest, McDaniel clobbered Walker 9,515-3,185 (nytimes.com, Vigdor & post-gazette. com, Smeltz). In the 34th HD, Abigail Salisbury, a Democratic attorney, easily defeated GOPer Robert Pagane, a security guard and former police officer with 6, 975 votes to his 821 (nytimes.com, Vigdor, & post-gazette.com,Smeltz). And in the 35th HD, Democrat Matt Gergely, McKeesport PA’s chief revenue officer, crushed GOPer tattoo shop operator Don Nevills 4,822 votes to 1,279 (nytimes.com, Vigdor, 2/07/23 & post-gazette.com, Smeltz 2/08/23). Although Democrats had won these very state House seats in the 11/2022 midterm, that gave them a 102-101 control of the state House chamber at that time, control of the PA House had to be decided again in three special elections on 2/07/23. Why? Because the first Democrat elected to the 32nd HD had died. At the same time, in both the 34th and 35th PA HD’s, the original midterm winners won election to higher offices, Congress and the PA Lt. Governorship respectively (nytimes.com, Vigdor). As a result, until Democrats swept all three Allegheny County House seats in the 2/07/23 special elections, the PA GOP held a majority in that chamber as well as the State Senate (post-gazette.com, Smeltz, 2/08/23).
This PA House flip to the “Team Blue” side, is not just about partisan bragging rights. Political parties often stand for very different policies and who wins elections, therefore, sets the legislative priorities. Before Democrats took back the PA House from the GOP, Keystone State “Team Red” pushed its reactionary agenda. The PA House GOPers aimed to restrict voting rights to suppress Democratic turnout. The PA House GOPers stood for placing new bans on abortion, after the Supreme Ct. overturned “Roe v. Wade.” With the Democrats retaking the PA House, GOPers will also be unable to override a veto by Dem. Gov. Shapiro. Pro-choice policies and protecting voters’ rights will remain in force (Vigdor, nytimes.com). Democratic House winner Salisbury from Swissvale ran on support for climate change and public education. Penn Hill’s Dem. McAndrew campaigned for a higher minimum wage and investing in renewable energy. McKeesport winner Mr. Gergely ran on “creating well-paying union jobs and supporting the local economy (post-gazette.com, Smeltz, 2/08/23).” These kitchen-table and major economic issues are what state and national Democrats will emphasize. Democrats will not give the ultra-rich and big business more tax breaks or let social conservatives suppress voting and women’s rights.
True, political analysts and both parties clearly understood that these three Allegheny County seats were painted dark, dark, “Blue,” and that GOPers had very little chance of taking these seats (Smeltz, 2/08/23, post-gazette.com). Still, Allegheny County Democrats showed the rest of the country that they did not rest on their “laurels” after Biden won in 2020. And even though this was a “do-over” from 11/2022, because of a death and two vacancies, the voters in the Allegheny County HD’s turned out in droves. It did not matter to them that these contests were special elections, races that often are low turnout affairs. In HD 34, Salisbury overperformed Biden’s 2020 performance by 13 points. McAndrew overperformed Biden in his “Blue” HD 32 by 24 points. And in HD 35, Matt Gergely overperformed Biden by 32 points. He clobbered GOPer Nevills 74%-25%. Since Biden won the White House, in 90 comparable special election races, no one has done better than Gergely (results.enr.clarityelections.com, HD35, Nir, dailykos.com).
Yes, this PA House margin is extremely narrow, but a “Blue flip” is a “Blue flip.” Gov. Shapiro and his Democratic House will still be facing a GOP Senate and compromises on many issues will have to be made. However, PA Democrats now have a chance to show they can govern as the sane adults who really pay attention to their constituents. Congratulations Allegheny County Democrats on your awesome voter turnout! The rest of the nation must follow you in state and national elections.