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Election results might shake up leadership in Pa. legislature

| Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, 10:36 p.m.

State lawmakers return to Harrisburg this week for closed-door caucus leadership elections, and the results might shake up who leads legislative Democrats for the next two years.

Republicans, who expanded their ranks in last week's general election, are unlikely to see major leadership change, aides said. But it could be a reckoning for Democrats, who suffered losses as Republican Donald Trump took Pennsylvania on his path to the presidency.

House Democrats will begin next session with 81 members, their lowest total since 1957-58 after losing four seats — all in Western Pennsylvania. House Republicans number 122.

Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, is eyeing his fourth two-year term as caucus leader. He oversaw three terms which included net electoral losses for Democrats.

“I'm upset. We wanted to win seats we thought we could,” Dermody said. “The Trump effect had a huge impact all across the state and had an impact on down-ballot races, obviously.”

“Of course they're frustrated,” Dermody said of his members. “I'm frustrated.”

Locally, House Democrats lost control of the 58th District, held since 1998 by retiring Ted Harhai. Three other House seats in Fayette, Washington and Beaver counties also went Republican.

Heading into the weekend, no one was challenging any top-tier positions: caucus leader, appropriations chair or caucus whip.

Rep. Madeline Dean, D-Montgomery, is challenging Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, for policy committee chairman.

Despite the losses, at least one House Democrat believes top leadership is unlikely to change.

“Incumbency is very powerful,” said Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, a Dean backer. “More likely than not, they will still be in those positions days after leadership elections. Fear of retribution is a real concern.”

In the Senate, Democrats lost three seats in Erie County, the Johnstown-Altoona area and the Harrisburg area. The defeat is compounded by the loss of Democratic seats in 2014.

Senate Republicans will command a veto-proof 34-16 seat advantage next session.

Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, seeks support for a fourth term as top Senate Democrat. He said he didn't want to discuss the internal caucus election process.

GOP leaders House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, and Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, are expected to retain their posts, said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin. The coveted chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee is available because of a retirement.

The Senate Republican leadership team has circulated letters asking senators to re-elect them to their positions, said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.

Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said the election results were probably beyond the two Democratic leaders' control.

“I don't think there was much they could do about it,” Madonna said. “There are limited things you could do in presidential elections when you've got this little wave going on.”

The House is in session Monday through Wednesday. The Senate returns Wednesday for one day.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856 or kzwick@tribweb.com.

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