Delco district at ground zero in state Senate battle

Democratic state Senate candidate John Kane (left) talking with Upper Darby resident Mahmoud Osman, said "working-class voters are tired of corporations getting all the tax breaks."
Democratic state Senate candidate John Kane (left) talking with Upper Darby resident Mahmoud Osman, said "working-class voters are tired of corporations getting all the tax breaks." (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 25, 2014

John Kane, a plumbers' union leader and Democrat running for state Senate, was knocking on doors on both sides of Thorndale Road in Aldan, Delaware County, hustling on a hot Sunday afternoon.

"How you makin' out?" he'd begin when someone answered.

"Do you have a death wish?" one man joked as he took the proffered brochure, referring to the county Republican organization's century-long dominance in most local races.

This year, in little places like Aldan, big things are at stake.

Democratic strategists believe Kane can carry this Delaware County-based district in November, considering its recent voting trends and Tom Wolf's big lead over Gov. Corbett, the Republican incumbent. And if they can win here, they have a shot at re-taking the state Senate for the first time in two decades.

Not if Tom McGarrigle gets his way. The other day, he parked a customer's white Pontiac on the lot of his 76 service station in Springfield after a brief diagnostic drive - "shaking like a wet dog," he said of the car's suspension. Chairman of County Council and a former township commissioner, McGarrigle is the GOP's choice to keep the 26th state Senate District, which hasn't elected a Democrat since the 1970s.

"The advantage I have over my opponent is a record," McGarrigle said.

This working-class district is the Democrats' top target in the fight for control of the Pennsylvania Senate, currently in GOP hands, 27 to 23. The two sides could spend up to $5 million combined to win the district.

"This is going to be like a congressional campaign, no doubt about it," said Aren Platt, a Democratic strategist advising Kane.

To Republican Michael Puppio, chairman of McGarrigle's campaign, the battle promises to be a "15-round prize fight, and it will go to the [judges'] cards."

Democrats have ambitions to flip the state Senate. To do that, they must hold two districts in western Pennsylvania that are trending Republican, win two seats in southeastern Pennsylvania and take the new 40th District in the Poconos.

Then the chamber would be knotted at 25 and a new lieutenant governor - presumably, Wolf's running mate, Democrat Mike Stack - could break the tie.

So goes the Democrats' theory. For it all to work, they need a landslide victory in the governor's race. The thinking is that the party's "base" voters will turn out in higher-than-usual numbers for a midterm election, motivated by a desire to evict Corbett, and then also vote Democratic for state Senate.

In addition, strategists say, some committed Republicans might stay home if Corbett's poll numbers don't improve.

"We're on the defensive in some places, but one thing we see across the country is that there is no single national narrative driving the election," said Kurt Fritts, political director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based national group that funnels money and expertise to the party's candidates.

That would make this year different from the midterms of 2010, when Republicans, fueled by the rise of the tea party and anger about President Obama's health-care law, took control of 23 state legislatures.

Polls this year suggest that, in most cases, voters will choose their state lawmakers based on state-specific issues rather than a desire to send a message to the White House, Fritts said. And in Pennsylvania, the dominant issue is Corbett - blamed by critics for cuts in education spending and an economy growing more slowly than in neighboring states.

National Democrats are pushing to take control of state senates in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as the houses in Arkansas and Iowa. Republicans say they are targeting senates in Colorado, Oregon, Iowa, Maine and Nevada, and the lower chambers in Kentucky, New Hampshire and West Virginia.

It's about more than the power to push agendas in state capitals. The national parties are also playing a long game, focusing on state legislative races to position themselves to control or influence congressional redistricting seven years from now - after the 2020 Census.

For both parties, that means energies are focused on places like the 26th Senate District in Delaware County, and the other southeastern Pennsylvania battleground - the Sixth District in lower Bucks, a seat long held by Republican Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson. Democrats are running Northampton Township Supervisor Kimberly Rose..

Tomlinson's is the most Democratic-leaning district in the state to be held by a Republican - but on the other hand, he survived a Democratic wave in 2006 when former Gov. Ed Rendell got 75 percent of the vote there at the top of the ticket.

In the 26th that year, Republican Sen. Edwin "Ted" Erickson, who is retiring this year, survived pulling 73 percent of the vote there.

In the new Poconos-based district, the fastest-growing in the state with an influx of New York emigres, demographics seem to favor Democrats. But the Republican candidate is an established name, state Rep. Mario Scavello, and about 75 percent of his House district is in the new Senate district. The Democratic candidate is Mark Aurand, a lawyer from the southern Lehigh Valley portion of the district.

For today's Democrats, it seems the state Senate has always been out of reach.

The GOP grabbed the chamber's majority in the Ronald Reagan landslide year of 1980, and has barely let go since. Democrats had brief 18 months of control, from 1992 to 1994, thanks to one Republican senator's party switch and the tie-breaking vote of then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel.

"We're not going to be cash-poor. We'll be able to compete," said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D.,Phila.), who is working on the races. "Republicans start with a message deficit because they've got Tom Corbett hanging around their necks."

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) begs to differ. He said the GOP's candidates are well-matched to their districts.

"Look, I understand the Democrats have to paint a beautiful picture, but they're using watercolors," said Scarnati, a western Pennsylvanian who is also chairman of the Republicans' Senate campaign committee. "The math just doesn't add up."

Back in lower Delaware County, Kane, business manager of Plumbers Union Local 690, said he hears from voters upset about funding cuts in the schools, and rising property taxes.

"Working-class voters are tired of corporations getting all the tax breaks - enough is enough," Kane said, sounding the income inequality theme that many Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans have trumpeted this year. "It's time we have a seat at the table."

His GOP rival, McGarrigle, said jobs were growing faster in Delaware County than statewide, and noted efforts he helped lead to keep two refineries in the county from closing (Corbett had a hand in that, too), as well as bringing PPL Stadium for the Union soccer team to Chester.

He said county property taxes have increased modestly in the past few years in order to beef up the 911 system and to keep the county's 900-bed nursing home for the indigent open amid a drop in the Medicaid reimbursements from the state.

McGarrigle said he favors a 4-percent extraction tax on gas drilled in the Marcellus Shale, with all the revenue dedicated to education - a position, which, as it happens, is odds with the man at the top of the Republican ticket.

"There are times I agree with the governor, but this is one where I disagree," McGarrigle said. "I'm running to represent this community."



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