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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Fundraising in Pa. state Senate and House races point to a dogfight in the general election

The Pennsylvania state Capitol.
Matt Rourke
The Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

As you might have heard — over and over again — we here at WESA have been consumed by our just-ended June membership drive. (If you haven’t given yet, there’s still time!) So fundraising has been on my mind, and I’m not alone: As voters look ahead to summer vacation, political campaigns are seeking to top up their coffers for the fall.

And while the sums involved in state legislative races don’t compare to the battle for the White House, the stakes are high in Harrisburg. Democrats have a one-seat majority in the House, so any race could determine control of the chamber. The gap is wider in the state Senate, but two key battlegrounds are here in Allegheny County.

With Republicans holding a 28-to-22 margin in the Senate, “We have to flip three seats in November and hold on to the others,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, who leads Democrats in the upper chamber.

Allegheny County races “will be priorities for us” as chances “to hold and build our majority,” said Senate Republican Campaign Committee spokesman Michael Straw.

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There isn’t much public polling in these contests, but you can sometimes spot intriguing match-ups by looking at fundraising totals — such as those the candidates reported last month after the April 23 primary.

You don’t want to read too much into these numbers. Because of the state’s lax reporting rules for legislative candidates, we won’t get another report until just days before the November election — and a lot can change during the summer. Too, the influence of outside spending groups can dwarf candidates’ own resources.

But the numbers can help bring some dynamics into focus. Take the 37th Senate District. Road maps for a Democratic capture of the Senate roll right through its South Hills and airport-area suburbs. Last month’s reports show the going won’t be easy.

Democrat Nicole Ruscitto begins the general election season with a little more than $120,367 in the bank. That’s a very solid total, buoyed by support from state Democrats and groups like Represent PAC, which backs progressive women and gave her $30,000. But she faces incumbent Devlin Robinson, a first-term Republican who has amassed a whopping $716,328, thanks in no small part to labor support. (Robinson chairs the state Senate committee that presides over labor issues, and he is that rare Republican who can land a state AFL-CIO endorsement.)

Costa waved such factors aside: “Nicole’s race will be won at the doors,” he predicted. Still, that’s a lot of money — enough to pick up 5,969 WESA tote bags, for example, if we were currently offering them to listeners who give just $10 a month.

Financial margins are tighter in the Senate race next door, where Democrats hope to protect the 45th District seat after incumbent Jim Brewster retires. The party’s nominee to do so is state House member Nick Pisciottano, who emerged from the primary with $60,323. He faces businesswoman Jen Dintini, who finished the primary season with just over $44,084.

Pisciottano has drawn backing from Costa and other Democrats, as well as a constellation of unions and allied groups: Dintini’s effort so far has relied very heavily on donations from GOP Senate leaders. But Straw said, “We are confident that Jen will have the resources and grassroots support she needs.”

On the House side, perhaps the most intriguing financial matchup is in the 44th state House District, which includes the airport area and some Ohio Valley communities. Democrat Hadley Haas’s campaign to topple Republican incumbent Valerie Gaydos begins the summer with an impressive $136,774 in her account.

Gaydos herself is sitting on a bit less than $41,847, and she appears to be the only incumbent in Allegheny County who emerged from the primary with less money than her challenger.

The Haas campaign ascribes its support to growing concern about such issues as reproductive rights and gun reform. And Haas laid her campaign groundwork early, raising nearly $82,000 last year.

Gaydos didn’t respond to a request for comment, but she’s shown she can turn on the fundraising tap easily. Two years ago, she reported raising nearly $110,000 between the primary and the general election. And she’s proven a resilient foe, beating Democratic rivals by about 10 percentage points in her past two re-election bids.

Still, just about any incumbent would prefer to be where HD-30 incumbent Arvind Venkat is right now: sitting on top of an eye-popping $460,052. As we say in public radio, that’s a lot of coffee mugs — 7,667 of them, if we were making our “Stand with the Facts” mugs available at a level of support of just $5 a month, or $60 a year.

True, that would leave no money for this fall’s race against Nathan Wolfe — who reported having $2,905 on hand last month. But that amount would help pay for the NPR programming that voters in the district rely on all year long.

Two open seats present tighter margins: In the GOP-friendly 28th, Jeremy Shaffer’s campaign to replace Rob Mercuri in the North Hills has $117,351 in the bank, nearly twice that of Democrat Bill Petulla’s $60,296. But Shaffer had a head start from previous runs for office; their 2024 fundraising efforts have been nearly neck-and-neck. And in the race for Pisciottano’s 38th House District seat, Democrat John Inglis has just $311 left after a razor-close three-way primary. Republican Stone Sobieralski hasn’t reported any contributions yet … which means both campaigns would struggle to get an Eton emergency radio thank-you gift even with a dollar-for-dollar match in effect.

Which is a shame, given that they come equipped with an emergency light, phone-charger, and hand crank in case the power goes out. But hey — if you missed out on any of these gifts, don’t worry: We’ve got a fall fundraiser coming.

For that matter, any of these candidates will probably be happy to take your money before Election Day, too.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.