One of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Republican lawmakers is being challenged by a Democrat who has never held public office. Speaker of the House Mike Turzai has represented the 28th district north of Pittsburgh since 2001. But Democrats say the area has changed since then.
“The district now, especially because it’s become more and more highly educated, might not be as well suited for the hardline Republicanism which [Turzai] has traditionally represented,” said Matt Merriman-Preston, Democratic political consultant with Ampersand consulting.
Merriman-Preston says changes to the district’s political landscape go beyond the lawn signs. The 28th district includes Bradford Woods, Franklin Park, as well as Marshall, McCandless and Pine townships.
Shifting demographics, and discomfort with President Donald Trump among college-educated suburbanites, makes some Democrats more hopeful about the prospects for Turzai’s opponent, Democrat Emily Skopov. Skopov decided to run against Turzai in November of 2016 -- before anyone was talking about a Blue Wave for Democratic challengers.
“Not that I started the wave, I was just pre-wave. I didn’t know that there would be a wave,” Skopov said.
Skopov worked in California’s film industry before she moved to Wexford in 2010 with her family. She says that experience prepares her to join the state House.
“You cannot write a TV episode or a movie without reaching a consensus among a ridiculous number of people,” she said.
Skopov said that Turzai, meanwhile, delayed action on issues like medical marijuana or the 2017 state budget, which was backed by Gov. Tom Wolf and state Senators in both parties. She said if she were elected, she wouldn’t take a paycheck until the budget is passed.
“I think of Mike Turzai as a party of one,” Skopov said. “[F]or years he stomped his feet and didn’t wanna do it or avoided the conversations or refused to call things to a vote or cancelled the vote.”
Turzai did not respond to multiple calls, emails, and texts for an interview about this race over the course of a month. His campaign said his schedule was too full.
But defenders like Cindy Waeltermann praise his record.
“I think he takes a lot of the heat for doing things that conservatives like. Holding the line on the budget -- it’s not always the most popular thing to do, but I think it’s important,” Waeltermann said.
Waeltermann is a Republican and lifelong district resident. She’s also the managing editor of the local news site Access McCandless.
“I’m thinking about keeping taxes low, being able to provide things for residents that don’t necessarily translate into higher taxes,” she said.
Waeltermann said she appreciates Turzai’s work to secure grants for district needs like parks and local firefighters. And she says many voters support his efforts to privatize the liquor control board.
Turzai is staunchly pro-life, and also received an A rating from the National Rifle Association. Skopov is backed by a number of unions, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club. While she says she’s a gun owner herself, she’s also received an endorsement from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Driving through the district, there are a lot of campaign signs, for Turzai and Skopov. Waeltermann says there’s much more of a mix of signs than there used to be.
Republican consultant Charlie Gerow acknowledges the district is changing. He credits Skopov with an aggressive campaign. But his money is on Turzai – for some of the same reasons Skopov thinks he should be defeated.
“I think the fact that Mike Turzai was the one man standing between Pennsylvanians and a tax increase is very much to his benefit and I think voters in his district recognize that and I think voters across the state do as well,” Gerow said.
Gerow has history on his side. Turzai beat his Democratic opponent in 2016 by 30 percentage points.