Pa. House control set for court battle over special elections

Democrats won a majority of seats in November, but three vacancies in the narrowly divided chamber complicate which party has the power.
The Pennsylvania state Capitol is seen on Dec. 14, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

A pitched battle over control of the narrowly divided Pennsylvania House of Representatives is heading to state court, as party leaders vying for the speaker’s gavel cannot agree on who, exactly, has the power to schedule three special elections to fill vacant seats in the Pittsburgh area.

Democrats won elections in 102 seats in the state House of Representatives in November’s elections, the barest possible majority in the 203-seat chamber. The result was one of the biggest surprises in midterm elections that did not play out as Republicans had hoped.

But three vacancies — all seats in Democratic-heavy areas — mean Republicans will begin the next session with a majority of the legislators who will be sworn in, 101 to 99.

Authority to call special elections to fill those vacancies, which would almost certainly restore the 102-101 Democratic majority, lies with the presiding officer of the state House. Both House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton have claimed the mantle of presiding officer.

McClinton, who had herself ceremonially sworn in as majority leader earlier this month, has called all three special elections for Feb. 7, the earliest date allowed under state law.

Cutler held his own ceremonial swearing-in ceremony days later. He set a special election to fill the seat of one legislator, who died before Election Day, for Feb. 7. He scheduled the special elections for two other Democrats who resigned their seats to take higher office for May 16, in conjunction with an already-scheduled primary election.

The Department of State, headed by acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman, recognized McClinton’s writ, setting all three elections for Feb. 7. But Cutler sued to block elections in the two seats where legislators resigned.

“I recognize what’s undisputed is that voters in Pennsylvania in 102 districts elected Democrats to represent their voices, their ideas and to form an agenda with their support in mind,” McClinton told Pluribus News in an interview this week. “One of the things that I’ve been hearing from many Republicans — although not in their leadership team — is that they recognize that my caucus won the majority. They’re congratulating me, they’re telling me they look forward to working with me in my new role.”

A Cutler spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. But in a statement after he issued his own writs of election to coincide with the May primaries, Cutler said he acted “with the authority of a clear and undeniable majority” in the state House.

“It is unfortunate that we had to arrive at this conclusion today, but the illegitimate and illegal writs of election issued last week by the leader of the minority party in the House, with the cooperation of the Pennsylvania Department of State, forced this continued action and the ongoing litigation over those writs,” Cutler said. “This is what happens when Democrats continue to redefine terms to fit their singular belief of what is right and show their true nature as pure partisans, instead of as rational stewards of our shared institutions.”

A state court is set to hear arguments in the case beginning this week.

Regardless of when the elections take place, Democrats will be favored to hold all three seats: President Biden carried a district left vacant by Rep. Anthony DeLuca’s (D) death in October with 62% of the vote. He carried 80% in a district held by former state Rep. Summer Lee (D), who resigned to take a seat in Congress. And he won 57% in a district held by former Rep. Austin Davis (D), who will be Pennsylvania’s next lieutenant governor.

Republicans met Saturday to pick nominees in all three districts. Democrats have nominated a local party committee chairman to run for DeLuca’s seat, but they have not yet picked nominees in the other two races.

If a court accepts Cutler’s argument that he alone has the authority to call special elections, Republicans would maintain their majority in the legislature for at least the first five months of Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s (D) term in office. Shapiro will already have to contend with a state Senate that remains in Republican hands.

In the midst of the bitter feud between Cutler and McClinton, another variable may force them to the negotiating table: State Rep. Lynda Schlegel-Culver (R) is running for a state Senate seat left open by the resignation of Sen. John Gordner (R). If Schlegel-Culver wins and resigns from the House, and Democrats win the Feb. 7 special election to replace DeLuca, both parties would have 100 seats in the state House.

In the interview, McClinton said Republican control of the state House will give the GOP one more chance to pass a proposed amendment to the constitution to bar access to abortions, a measure that died in the waning hours of this year’s legislative session. If Republicans pass that measure, it would circumvent Shapiro and go straight to the voters for ratification or rejection.

“We don’t take it lightly,” McClinton said. “And that is why we’re fighting very hard currently, even in the appellate court system, to make sure that voters in these districts that are unrepresented currently get to have their voices heard as soon as possible.”