Pa. Dems win special elections to capture state House

The three candidates easily defeated their Republican rivals in low-turnout races in solidly blue Allegheny County districts.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D) was set to become the first woman to lead the state House after Democrats claimed control. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Democrats won three special elections in Allegheny County on Tuesday, cementing control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years.

Democrats Joe McAndrew (D), Abigail Salisbury (D) and Matthew Gergely (D) easily defeated their Republican rivals in low-turnout races in districts where President Biden outpaced former President Donald Trump by wide margins.

“These victories will ensure our Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania state house is safe and enable us to continue to protect a woman’s right to choose, ensure the right to vote, and create a Pennsylvania with opportunities for all,” state Democratic Party chairman Sharif Street said in a statement late Tuesday night.

The three districts, which abut each other on the eastern side of Pittsburgh and its suburbs, had all voted for Democratic candidates in November. 

But one of the winners died the month before the election was held, and two others — Lt. Gov. Austin Davis (D) and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D) — resigned to assume higher office they won the same day.

As Democrats won back a surprising number of seats in November’s midterm elections, the vacancies became a crucial part of the battle for control of the overall House. Democrats won the narrowest of majorities, 102 of 203 seats, but only 99 members showed up in Harrisburg on the session’s organizing day to take the oath of office.

Both state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D), the leader of the Democratic caucus, and state Rep. Bryan Cutler (R), leader of the Republican caucus, claimed to be the rightful leader of the House majority. Each tried to issue writs of elections to fill the vacant seats; the dates Cutler set for two of the three seats would have been in May, giving Republicans a few extra months of control.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) administration sided with McClinton, setting all three elections for Tuesday.

When legislators returned to Harrisburg in early January, it was unclear whether either Cutler or McClinton — polarizing figures with few allies across the aisle — would be able to secure a majority of the vote to assume the speakership, even if on a temporary basis.

A last-minute compromise instead elevated state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D), a moderate from the Philadelphia exurbs who attracted more than a dozen Republican votes as a compromise candidate.

Even with a compromise candidate in the speaker’s chair, the state House has been mired in gridlock over a proposal to allow victims of childhood sexual assault to sue their alleged accusers in civil court. 

Now that Democrats will hold a clear 102-101 majority in the state House, it is less clear who will be speaker. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Rozzi hinted that he may not defer to McClinton, who remains the Democratic floor leader.

“I know how to count votes, first of all,” Rozzi told the AP. “So, you know, at the end of the day she still has to get the votes to become speaker of the House.”

At a press conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday, McClinton said the Democratic caucus “has never been more unified.”

Republicans maintain control of the state Senate, which could hamper some of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s (D) agenda as he begins his first term.