One of the many quirks of our political system is that each year there are winners and losers among politicians whose names are not actually on the ballot. This year is no exception. Neither Governor Tom Wolf nor State Senator Scott Wagner was up for election this year, but results of the balloting sent their career paths in opposite directions.
Governor Wolf has had a tough first two years in office dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature. His efforts to dramatically expand government spending, and to implement the historic tax hikes needed to pay for that agenda resulted in the longest budget stalemate in state history. The Republicans won.
Tuesday voters rewarded the GOP with even larger legislative majorities. Democrats in the state senate are now on life support. Two Democratic incumbents were defeated by challengers; a third Democrat seat went Republican after the incumbent gave up several months ago and resigned from the ballot. Combined the three seats give Republicans a 34-16 edge and something rarely if ever seen in state government: a veto proof majority.
Meanwhile, across the rotunda in the House of Representatives Republicans saw their already historically high majority expand by three seats as four incumbent Democrats and one incumbent Republican lost. The Republican pick-ups came in southwestern Pennsylvania which has been trending toward the GOP for several election cycles. In fact, the most endangered species in Penn’s Woods might well be the non-urban legislative Democrat, with only a handful of Democratic lawmakers representing districts outside of the state’s urban cores.
All of this matters because next year’s state budget battle is shaping up to be even tougher than the first. Republicans caved into Governor Wolf’s spending demands this year, but failed to fully fund the budget. That coupled with revenue sources that either never materialized or have failed to meet projections presages a major fiscal fight next year.
Not only have Republicans added to their numbers, but this year’s legislative elections moved both chambers further to the Right. Moderate state senators like Cumberland County’s Pat Vance and Lancaster’s Lloyd Smucker have been replaced by far more conservative legislators. The continued drift of the House GOP caucus from moderate southeastern dominance to conservative central and western Pennsylvania influence means tougher sailing for those wanting to raise either taxes or spending.
Governor Wolf also saw his agenda rejected in another race; that the battle for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat. The Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, was Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff and architect of the tax and spend plan that triggered the epic budget battle. Incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey made hay of that effectively painting McGinty as out of touch with the financial needs of average Pennsylvanians. He won, she lost.
How then do the fortunes of one state senator rise on all of this? Senator Scott Wagner was an establishment pariah when he ran for an open seat in York County in 2014. Shunned by his own party Wagner accomplished an historic first in Pennsylvania: He won a special election on a write-in defeating both party nominees.
The upstart senator has quickly gained clout and was tapped by his colleagues to lead the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. The SRCC as it is known is tasked with recruiting, funding and electing Republicans to the state senate. After playing a major role in helping to win several seats two years ago, Wagner effectively recruited candidates like Senator-elect John DiSanto of Dauphin County who upended Democratic incumbents last week. Much of the credit for the senate’s now veto-proof majority goes to Wagner.
This is important because Scott Wagner has made no secret of his desire to run for governor in 2018 and is widely expected to announce his candidacy within weeks. Having built a strong senate majority gives him a leg up both on the Republican nomination and on a grassroots organization for the battle against Tom Wolf who is expected to seek re-election.
Thus the 2016 election has set the stage for the beginning of the next big electoral battle in Pennsylvania. Political fortunes have risen and fallen. And the never ending cycle of campaigns has already begun anew offering no respite for weary voters.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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