How Pennsylvania arrived at this odd stalemate in the House, and how — potentially — the uncertainty over which party is in control could be settled.
The battle for control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives could fairly be compared to a see-saw — one that’s stuck smack in mid-air.
In a highly unusual series of events, the Democrats’ celebration of the slimmest of majorities in Harrisburg following the November midterm elections turned out to be short-lived.
While Democrats won 102 House seats, giving them a one-seat majority, three of those seats are now vacant and await special elections to fill them.
Consequently, as it stands today, Republicans hold 101 seats to Democrats’ 99. While the special elections are scheduled for Feb. 7, Republicans are seeking an injunction from the Commonwealth Court to block that timeline and prolong their tenuous majority.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the saga’s highlights to help explain how the state arrived at this odd stalemate, which could entail serious consequences for Pennsylvanians, regardless of which party controls the House majority:
When Did the Democrats Take the Majority in the State House of Representatives?
The midterm elections were held on Nov. 8, 2022, but a number of close races were not settled for several days as mail-in ballots, absentee ballots, and provisional ballots were counted, leaving voters, and candidates, on the edge of their seats.
Democrats prevailed, supported by redrawn electoral maps and strong candidates for governor and US Senate at the top of the ticket. Democratic House candidates flipped a dozen seats from the GOP, propelling them to a narrow 102-seat majority in the 203-seat body. It was the first time in a dozen years the party held the majority in the House.
Why Are There Three Empty Seats Remaining in the House?
One Democratic winner, Rep. Tony DeLuca (D-Allegheny), died from cancer a month before Election Day, which did not leave enough time to remove his name from the ballot.
The other two seats, both in heavily Democratic Allegheny County, were left vacant when state Rep. Austin Davis was elected lieutenant governor and Rep. Summer Lee was elected to the US House.
Democrats must win all three seats to hold on to their one-seat majority. Each of the seats has been held by Democrats for about 40 years, with voters supporting them by significant margins.
Where Do Things Stand Now?
Pennsylvania House Republicans recently filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court to stop the three legislative special elections from moving forward on Feb. 7. If successful in blocking them until the May primary, which is what Republicans would like the court to do, there will be no clear majority for Democrats in the House until spring. Should that be the outcome, the GOP will retain some power in the first part of the year.
With that temporary control, some Republicans have suggested they will push for a constitutional amendment to ensure Pennsylvania’s Constitution does not protect abortion access. Another amendment being discussed would require stricter voter ID measures. With constitutional amendments, the issues are placed on the May primary ballot, where voters decide the outcome. The Governor cannot use his veto power.
What Are the Grounds for the Republicans’ Lawsuit?
The highest-ranking House Republican, Rep. Brian Cutler (Lancaster), who was speaker until Nov. 30, named the Department of State, acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman, and the Allegheny County Board of Elections as defendants in the legal challenge.
In their suit, Republicans say that since Rep. DeLuca’s death came before Dec. 1, 2022, when the House’s new session began, Democrats “cannot claim to have ever had a majority of 102 living members or more members than the Republican Caucus.”
And, according to the lawsuit, Democrat Rep. Joanna McClinton (Philadelphia) did not have the authority to set a date for the special elections.
McClinton had herself sworn in as Majority Leader and asserted she was the acting House Speaker. As such, she scheduled the special elections for February.
“Every voice in the Commonwealth, in every district, should be heard,” House Democratic Appropriations Chair Matt Bradford said after McClinton set the date of the special election. “And the best way to do that is to get to the February 7 specials as quick as possible.”
The court has said it will make a ruling soon.
Further Complicating Matters…
Democratic Rep. Mike Rozzi (Berks) was just elected Speaker of the House. However, he surprised legislators when pledged to not caucus with either Republicans or Democrats and to staff his office with members of both parties.
One other potential wrinkle: the Republican caucus could slip back to 100 members if Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver (Northumberland) wins a state Senate seat that recently opened when Sen. John Gordner resigned. She’s expected to win the seat, and Republicans are favored to hold the district Schlegel Culver is likely leaving, so that would put the GOP right back to 101 in the House of Representatives–but not until after another special election can be held.