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Pennsylvania election losses catch Republicans off guard

| Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, 11:30 p.m.

A stunning electoral setback for Pennsylvania Republicans could cast a shadow on the U.S. Senate and presidential races in 2016 and eventually affect the party's dominance in the state legislature, experts say.

GOP leaders spent the past week digesting the party's losses in the election Tuesday, when Democrats swept the statewide races for Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court.

The three Democratic candidates for Supreme Court raised more than $5.6 million combined — more than double their three Republican and one independent general election opponents.

Democrats have a statewide registration edge of about a million voters.

“You can hope that low base turnout and being wildly outspent for a high-profile race is a one-time thing, but it should be a significant concern in looking at the 2016 races,” said Keith Naughton, who managed the failed Supreme Court campaign of Republican Anne Covey, a Commonwealth Court judge from Bucks County.

“A loss like this is not something to dismiss out of hand,” Naughton said. “That just sets you up for another loss.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's campaign told supporters that the Supreme Court's 5-2 majority is “historic news worth sharing with your friends.”

Buoyed by the victories, state Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen said he is looking to next year, “when we will send a Democrat back to the White House, elect another U.S. senator and begin to take back the state legislature.”

Both parties won down-ballot races. But Democrats were eager to win control of the high court, where justices often decide ideological issues such as gun control and school funding, as well as business-related cases involving the environment, work rules and medical malpractice awards.

Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason said the loss of a GOP majority on the high court stings, but it is not indicative of what's ahead.

“The race caught the attention of the unions and trial lawyers early, and because of the unusual circumstance of having three positions open, they saw an opening and went for it,” Gleason said.

“You have to be careful how you interpret these results,” cautioned Charlie Gerow, a Republican media consultant in Harrisburg. “This was definitely a big win for both organized labor and trial lawyers, and a blow to the Republican Party, but if people start pointing to Wolf as the one who brought the victory home, that could not be further from the truth.”

To Chrisopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, it seemed as though Republican Party leaders took for granted potential wins in an off-year election, when GOP voters typically show up in larger numbers than Democrats.

“The funding disparity was striking and begs questions of why Republicans, who usually don't struggle on the campaign finance front, got beaten soundly in the money game this time around,” he said.

Gleason said his pitch to invest in the court races fell flat with donors. That hurt the party in other races, such as commissioner races in Cambria and Westmoreland counties, or places where people voted straight-party tickets, he said.

In Allegheny County, 70 percent of the 221,564 ballots cast Tuesday were straight-party Democratic votes, records show. Democrats won three open seats on Common Pleas Court in the county, and seven of nine County Council members are Democrats. Republicans offered no candidates for many seats: county executive, county controller, district attorney, county treasurer, Pittsburgh City Council and city controller.

In Westmoreland County, straight-party Republican votes topped Democratic ballots 9,397 to 9,112 among the 75,475 votes cast. The GOP lost its majority on the Board of Commissioners but won four of five row offices on the ballot and two of three open Common Pleas Court seats.

“There were nine contested positions up for grabs, and we won seven. That doesn't take the sting out of what we lost, though,” Westmoreland GOP Chairman Michael Korns said.

Gleason said he remains focused on 2016 races. In the presidential year, three Democrats — Wolf's former chief of staff Katie McGinty, Joe Sestak, a former congressman and Navy admiral, and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman — are seeking the Democratic nomination to try to take the U.S. Senate seat held by Pat Toomey, a Lehigh Valley Republican.

“I'm sure Sen. Toomey, despite fairly solid public standing, can't feel very good about the state's electoral scene right now,” Borick said.

Toomey has reported $8.6 million in campaign cash on hand. His spokesman Steve Kelly said Toomey has won elections “in good years, bad years, presidential years and mid-term years, and he has never lost a general election. We expect a competitive race next year, and we expect to win it.”

Republicans did log some important wins.

Guy Reschenthaler defeated Democrat Heather Arnet in the 37th District of the state Senate, which includes a wide swath of Pittsburgh's affluent western and southern suburbs. Republicans will hold a 31-19 edge in the Senate once Reschenthaler is sworn in, the largest majority in the Senate since 1954, according to the Pennsylvania Manual.

In Beaver County, the GOP took control of the courthouse for the first time in nearly 60 years; in Butler County, voters elected a Republican-majority county commission of three women.

Republicans hold the majority in 54 of 67 county courthouses and dominate statewide — 13 of the state's 18 U.S. House seats, 31 of the 50 state Senate seats and 119 state House seats, a 35-person advantage over Democrats.

Some analysts, such as Borick, aren't convinced the GOP should sit back on its laurels.

“Republicans continue to talk a good game in terms of plans to play hard here in 2016, but results like the ones we saw last week raise concerns that Pennsylvania remains fool's gold for the GOP in presidential election years,” Borick said.

The last time a Republican won Pennsylvania's electoral votes was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush won the presidency.

“It's fair to wonder if the only way the GOP can win PA in a presidential race is if it's a wave Republican election when the state's electoral votes would do nothing more than add to the winning total,” Borick said.

Staff writer Rich Cholodofsky contributed to this report. Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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