Pennsylvania's legislature has been controlled by Republicans for nearly a decade, but progressive organizers hope to shift the balance of power in this year’s election.
Democrats need to pick up four seats in the Senate and nine in the House to break Republican control. On Thursday, national grassroots organization Swing Left said it will help with volunteer and fundraising efforts in more than 20 districts statewide.
The political committee’s chief strategy officer, Catherine Vaughan, said prospects are promising for Democrats in Pennsylvania. She noted that the the party ate into Republican majorities in the state House and Senate in the last midterm election.
“We were really heartened by the progress that we saw in 2018, by the extent to which we saw candidates running, doing an amazing job building amazing campaigns and also just the groundswell of progressive activism,” Vaughan said.
In 2018, Democrats flipped five of 25 contested Senate seats and 14 of 203 House seats from GOP control. Republicans, meanwhile, won three districts previously held by Democrats but failed to flip any Senate seats.
Locally, the group plans to target Republican state Reps. Valerie Gaydos and Lori Mizgorski. Gaydos represents the state’s 44th House District, consisting of suburbs northwest of Pittsburgh, while Mizgorski represents North Hills communities in the 30th state House District.
Swing Left will also invest in the 37th state Senate District, where it seeks to protect Mt. Lebanon Democrat Pam Iovino from a Republican challenge.
Vaughan predicted that the three Pittsburgh-area seats will be battlegrounds in the fall partly because they were decided by fewer than 5 percentage points in recent elections.
The Republican campaign committees for state House and Senate members did not respond to a request for comment on Swing Left’s campaign.
Swing Left’s initiative in Pennsylvania is part of a broader push to wrest power from Republicans in state legislatures across the country. The group has said it also hopes to flip seats in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Swing Left previously focused on congressional races and was part of the successful effort in 2018 to win Democratic control of the U.S. House.
Vaughan noted, however, that this year’s state-level races will have implications for the balance of power on Capitol Hill, with state legislatures set to draw new congressional districts after the 2020 census.
“We want to make sure that we have fair maps right off the bat in 2021,” Vaughan said.
The legislature adopts new congressional maps every 10 years to account for changes in population. In Pennsylvania, the new maps for Congressional districts are handled just like any other legislation: Both chambers pass a bill to be signed by the governor. (Districts for the state legislature itself are drawn by a five-member commission, with outcomes that are less dependent on which party controls the legislature.) Republicans controlled both chambers in the legislature and the governor’s office the last time districts were drawn. That gave them a free hand to draw the Congressional map, and they ended up holding 13 of 18 House seats until the state Supreme Court threw out the maps in 2018.
Vaughan said Democrats have pledged to draw fair districts, even if they take power from Republicans.
“What Democrats need is fairness,” Vaughan said. “We don’t need the table to be tilted in our favor. We just need fair maps.”
Vaughan said her organization weighs several factors to determine which races to target. She said past state and federal elections offer insight into “whether districts are getting bluer or redder over time.”
Local party leaders and volunteers also inform Swing Left’s strategy, as do polling and fundraising data and the extent of grassroots support, according to Vaughan. She noted, however, that her organization will not endorse any candidates in primary elections, to avoid “putting a thumb on the scale” in those intra-party contests.
Swing Left is a somewhat unusual hybrid “Carey committee” that can contribute to candidates’ campaigns as a traditional PAC while also making independent expenditures as a super PAC. It helps volunteers who sign up online to find voter outreach opportunities such as door-knocking, letter-writing, and phone banking.
In Pennsylvania, Swing Left coordinates with 21 groups in 9 cities, according to spokesperson Alex Pilla. The organization hosted nearly 160 events in the state last year.
Pilla added that Swing Left raised more than $370,000 in grassroots donations in Pennsylvania during the 2018 campaign cycle. Nationally, the group raised $11 million for candidates, according to Pilla.
The Pennsylvania legislative seats in which Swing Left plans to invest this year include:
- 9th Senate District, currently held by Thomas Killion (R)
- 13th Senate District, currently held by Scott Martin (R)
- 15th Senate District, currently held by John DiSanto (R)
- 37th Senate District, currently held by Pam Iovino (D)
- 49th Senate District, currently held by Daniel Laughlin (R)
- 18th House District, vacated by Gene DiGirolamo (R)
- 26th House District, currently held by Tim Hennessey (R)
- 29th House District, currently held by Meghan Schroeder (R)
- 30th House District, currently held by Lori Mizgorski (R)
- 44th House District, currently held by Valerie Gaydos (R)
- 53th House District, currently held by Steven Malagari (D)
- 105th House District, currently held by Andrew Lewis (R)
- 106th House District, currently held by Thomas Mehaffie (R)
- 119th House District, currently held by Gerald Mullery (D)
- 143th House District, currently held by Wendy Ullman (D)
- 144th House District, currently held by F. Todd Polinchock (R)
- 151th House District, currently held by Todd Stephens (R)
- 152th House District, currently held by Thomas Murt (R)
- 160th House District, currently held by Stephen Barrar (R)
- 168th House District, currently held by Christopher Quinn (R)
- 178th House District, currently held by Wendi Thomas (R)