Pennsylvania politics are heated. It soon could be utter chaos

Last updated on December 26, 2022

PHILADELPHIA — Democrats in Pennsylvania won the majority of seats in the state House this fall, powered by voter backlash to the fall of Roe v. Wade.

But come next year, it’s anybody’s guess which party will actually hold the speaker’s gavel.

A razor-thin victory by Democrats, combined with a handful of vacancies and the hardball political culture in the state capitol, has kicked off a high-stakes battle for control of the House.

At the heart of the matter is a disagreement over which party has the right to set the special elections to fill seats that became empty because two Democratic state House members resigned for higher office and another died. Democrats want to hold the contests — which they are expected to win — right away, allowing them to claim their majority next year. GOP legislators, meanwhile, hope to push back the date for three more months, in the process keeping their majority intact. One Republican has even announced a bid for Speaker herself, hoping to take advantage of the likely small window in which the partisan balance of power is tilted her party’s way.

A razor-thin victory by Democrats, combined with a handful of vacancies and the hardball political culture in the state capitol, has kicked off a high-stakes battle for control of the House.

Both parties see the ensuing fight as not just as a matter of political power, but democratic governance and the rule of law itself. Privately, they fear the next few weeks could plunge the state into an unprecedented level of chaos.

If GOP lawmakers succeed, they could use their window of control to pass amendments to the constitution requiring voter ID, easing the rollback of regulations, and potentially even limiting abortion rights. Attempts to amend the state constitution were passed last session and if they pass in two consecutive sessions, they will be put on the ballot for voters to consider without the need of the signature of Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro.

After anti-abortion, Trump-allied Republicans were soundly rejected at the ballot box in this year’s midterm elections, Democrats argue that such a move would amount to a flouting of November’s vote.

“On Jan. 6, we saw [a] revolt with actual violence,” said Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. “On Jan. 3, we’re going to see an attempt to do a different kind of rejection of the will of the American people, but it’s just as dangerous.”

Republicans in turn, argue that it’s their opponents who are staging a paperwork coup. In a statement this month, House GOP leader Bryan Cutler said his Democratic counterpart, Joanna McClinton, perpetuated an “unprecedented, illegitimate, and illegal power grab” when she took an oath as majority leader in an unpublicized ceremony and attempted to order special elections to fill the vacant seats in early February.

Before Election Day, few members of either party would have predicted this outcome. Though Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano was widely forecast to lose, Republicans were expected to hold onto control of the state House. Instead, Democrats carried a narrow majority of seats, 102 to 101, for the first time in a dozen years.

Though Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano was widely forecast to lose, Republicans were expected to hold onto control of the state House.

But their celebrations were short-lived. Two Democratic state House members — Summer Lee and Austin Davis — stepped down because they won higher office. Another Democrat, Rep. Tony DeLuca, died shortly before the election. That left Democrats with an anticipated 99 seats to Republicans’ 101 at the start of next year.

McClinton was sworn into office by a county judge the same day Lee and Davis resigned. Afterward, the acting secretary of state, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, signed off on McClinton’s dates for the three special elections to be on Feb. 7.

But soon after McClinton’s move, Cutler was ceremoniously sworn in himself by another county judge as majority leader and then tried to order the Lee and Davis special elections for the latest possible date in May. As for the DeLuca seat, Cutler and McClinton have agreed to holding the election for it on Feb. 7.

Around the same time, Cutler sued the Secretary of State on the grounds that McClinton did not have the power to order the special elections, and the question of who has the right to set them is now in the Commonwealth Court’s hands.

In an interview, McClinton said she is the rightful majority leader because “102 districts elected Democrats to represent them, to represent their values, to speak on behalf of their voices, and they rejected the extremism and the election denialism of the Republican caucus in a significant way.”

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for Cutler, said “the math speaks for itself” and that Democrats are attempting to “redefine the term ‘majority’ to somehow claim that a 99-seat minority gives them the power.”

In this chaotic environment, lawmakers are jousting over the battle for House Speaker for next year. Legislators are scheduled to be sworn into office and elect the position on Jan. 3. Having just asserted the title of Majority Leader, McClinton is running for Speaker, while Cutler has said he is not. But another Republican, Rep. Valerie Gaydos, recently circulated a letter among her colleagues announcing her bid for Speaker.

Though Republicans have the votes to elect a Speaker in January if they stick together, they have no margin for error. Democrats are keen on stopping that from happening. Asked if she is trying to pick off a handful of Republicans to back her, McClinton said “members of our leadership team are talking to members in the Republican caucus about really just building a strong and fruitful relationship over the next term.”

Making matters even more complicated is that a Republican state House member is running to fill an open seat in the state Senate, which will be decided in January. That, in turn, could reduce the number of Republicans in the House chamber to 100. Should Democrats win the DeLuca seat as expected and the court decide to hold the other two special elections in May, both the parties could each end up having 100 state House seats for a period of time.

Should Republicans ultimately win the speakership, it would likely be short-lived. Democrats are favored to win all three special elections, whenever they are held. Davis and DeLuca won their state House districts by double digits, and Republicans did not even field an opponent against Lee.

Charlie Gerow, the Pennsylvania-based vice chair of the Conservative Political Action Coalition, said that “we’re traveling in uncharted waters” in Harrisburg and that there is a “possibility for surgetprises,” including a compromise speaker.

He said he expects House Republicans will pass some proposed amendments to the state constitution next year, calling voter ID “kind of a layup” while conceding that the “abortion one will be a little bit more difficult.” Other Republicans have said that the abortion proposal, which would declare that the procedure is not protected in the state constitution, is unlikely to come up in the House due to the blowback over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in the election.

Earlier this year, Republicans pushed through voter ID, abortion-related and other proposed changes to the constitution, meaning that if they are successful again next year, the proposals could go before the voters as early as May 2023.

The fight over control of the state House also presents a headache for Shapiro in his initial days in office.

The incoming governor, who won by nearly 15 percentage points, has a history of working across the aisle. He won the support of current and former Republican officials during his campaign, and placed some Republicans on his transition team. But the uncertainty surrounding the state House could complicate efforts at bipartisanship.

“If you want to hit the ground running in sort of the famous first 100 days, I think it creates an obstacle at least in terms of passing legislation,” said Larry Ceisler, a longtime state political observer working in public relations. “And then, obviously, if the Republicans prevail and start pumping out constitutional amendments, that potentially creates animosity and distrust.”