Republicans divided, Democrats look ahead as Senate special fight brews

Republicans divided, Democrats look ahead as Senate special fight brews

Author: Stephen Caruso/Monday, January 7, 2019/Categories: News and Views

With their five seat pickup in November, Senate Democrats made the biggest one-cycle gain since President Dwight Eisenhower’s first midterm.

They now could have a chance at one more.

With the resignation of former Republican Senator, now Congressman, Guy Reschenthaler Tuesday, Pennsylvania will hold a special election April 2 to fill his now vacant suburban Pittsburgh seat.

Located to the south of the city, including parts of Allegheny and Washington counties, the seat was solid Republican for decades, previously home to Mike Fisher and Tim Murphy.

But in 2012, Democratic State Rep. Matt Smith beat Allegheny County Republican Chair D. Raja for the seat 52-47.

Smith would later resign the seat to take a new job, sparking another special election won by Reschenthaler handily. But Smith’s win, as well as dominant margins from Gov. Tom Wolf and other top ballot Democrats, give the party hope that they could add to their burgeoning minority, and maybe even set themselves up for a shot at the majority in 2020.

“[Senate Democrats are] within four of a majority, and it can be within three in 2020 if we flip the 37th in this special,” Pam Iovino, a Navy veteran and Mt. Lebanon resident hoping to claim the Democratic nomination, said. “That is absolutely striking distance.”

Iovino is one of several names that have bubbled up in local media. At least four will be actively making their case to local Democratic committee people in a series of debates — Iovino, nonprofit executive Olivia Benson, progressive physician Bob Solomon and and former area Rep. Martin Schmotzer.

Republicans, meanwhile, reportedly have at least three names in the race, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — veteran and party activist Devlin Robinson, local town official Bob Dodato as well as Raja.

Announcing his run back in May 2018, Raja touted the endorsements of top Harrisburg GOP brass, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre).

As a businessman with experience on the Mt. Lebanon township commission, Raja pointed to a bruising primary before his 2012 run that hurt his chances in the general that year. But since, he said he feels he’s improved as a candidate.

“Being an entrepreneur, you learn from your losses,” Raja said.

He’s running as a fiscal conservative with the business sense to manage the state’s rocky finances.

The heavy weight establishment support hasn’t stopped some enthusiasm from growing for Robinson — or against Raja.

An op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after Christmas from Mary Ann Meloy, a former southwest GOP chair and Reagan administration official, criticized Raja’s failed runs as a bad omen for the special. Besides the 2012 race for the 37th, he also ran for Allegheny County Executive in 2011, losing 62-38 to current executive Rich Fitzgerald.

She also pointed to Congressman Conor Lamb’s March 2018 special victory and the loss in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs 38th Senate District to claim Raja “failed to build a party apparatus.”

While the losses stood out for some, Raja pointed to Republican holds in suburban state House races as proof of his leadership. Many of those wins came despite a lot of Democratic enthusiasm to do to the Pittsburgh suburbs what ended up happening in the southeast.

But some local Republicans were still questioning Raja’s electability. In an email sent to local committee members, Robinson stated that “we cannot risk nominating someone who can’t win” and that Robinson’s own bio, especially as a veteran, was key to a victory.

“As never before, you’ll need a candidate with more than a resume,” Robinson wrote in the email provided to The PLS Reporter. “You’ll need someone with a compelling story.”

Other local Republicans, like former Republican Allegheny County Councilman and committee men Ed Kress, said Republicans need a candidate who can win over the trades, still strong in the region even as labor’s power shrinks overall.

“I think the candidate for that district should have some union support,” Kress said.

He cited Murphy as a prime example, and worried Raja’s business background could run counter to organized labor.

Even without Republican infighting, it’s enough for Democrats to smell blood.

Democrats are four seats from taking over the chamber, and haven’t controlled it since 1970s.

David Marshall, head of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, saw winning April 2 as the next step in the long grind to a blue Senate.

Such a victory would cut the lead down to three seats, close enough to potentially attract national Democratic money to state Senate races in 2020.

The seat itself reminded Democratic observers of the flipped 38th in the northern part of the county, now represented by Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny).

Senate Republicans threatened to not seat Williams, but neither Iovino nor Marshall thought Democratic outrage from the controversy would directly carry over.

“It’ll kinda fade into the background into the bigger argument of trying to flip the chamber,” Marshall said.

Both candidates will be named in internal party processes. Political observers agreed the timing will likely result in lower turnout, which in normal times could have meant a Republican advantage.

But looking at Lamb’s March special, Chris Nicholas, a state Republican political consultant, wasn’t sure that advantage would hold.

“With the way both parties can get their troops excited, I don’t think it makes a difference,” he said.

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at or call at 845-891-4306.