Looking for a Sign that the Dems Will Make Big State Legislative Gains

In the 2010 midterm elections, the Democrats lost a net of 702 state legislative seats across the country. That tied 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Republican Party lost the same amount in a midterm election during an economic recession. The only examples of a larger slaughter in modern history came in 1938 when Franklin Roosevelt suffered the worst political loss of his career (769 seats), in 1966 when Lyndon B. Johnson received a strong rebuke (782 seats), in 1922 when Warren Harding’s unpopular tax cuts and labor policies cost him (907 seats), and in 1932 when Herbert Hoover was swept out of office amid the Great Depression (1,022 seats). The Democrats hope to add to this list when all the votes are counted on Tuesday.

Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, there is plenty of hope that we’ll contribute to the Democrats’ national numbers. The process began a year ago, and I wrote about it after looking at the off-year 2017 election results.

Here in the Philly suburbs, the realignment definitely came, and it came with historic force. Nowhere was that clearer than in Chester and Delaware Counties. In Chester County, the Democrats won races for four so-called “row office” positions, with a general massacre of Republican officeholders throughout the county that extended even to magisterial district judges. For perspective, since Chester County was incorporated in the 18th century, no Democrat had ever been elected to any of the nine row office positions.

In Delaware County, the Democrats won two county Council seats and took all three of the row offices that were on the ballot. Amazingly, this is the first time in history that any Democrat has won a competitive countywide election there.

These results for the local GOP are equivalent to what happened to the Democratic Party in the South over the last couple of decades.

The latest polls for governor and U.S. Senate show Democrats Tom Wolf and Bob Casey Jr. cruising to reelection. Pennsylvania’s U.S. congressional districts were redrawn after the state Supreme Court ruled the Republican-drawn maps to be an unconstitutional exercise in gerrymandering, and the entire southeast of the state has been impacted. The likely result is a complete sweep of the suburban Philly seats by the Democrats, with the possible exception of the Bucks County-based seat held by incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick. Where I live in Chester County, I expect to be represented in D.C. by a Democratic congressperson for the first time since I moved here in 2005.

It’s not a happy time to be a Republican in the southeast part of Pennsylvania, and I can’t imagine that the party’s voters are too enthused about going to vote on Tuesday knowing that it’s highly unlikely that their preferred candidates will win. But there are still some state senators and state representatives who will survive, either because they have strong connections to their communities, their opponents are weak, or because their districts are made up of strong conservative pockets of the region.

While many people, including myself, will be looking at the U.S. House and Senate results and the nation’s many governors’ races, I’ll also have my eyes on some of the local contests. For example, Republican Stephen E. Barrar serves in the 160th District of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives which straddles Delaware and Chester counties. He’s been serving that area since 1996. I first became aware of him when he indirectly deemed me a criminal for registering Pennsylvania voters in 2004 as ACORN’s Montgomery County coordinator. At his website, he proudly brags about his role in destroying ACORN.

He gained statewide recognition for his outspoken opposition to the questionable activities of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and ultimately helped bring about the demise of the organization.

Barrar doesn’t appear to be a scoundrel or have any major scandals whirling around his campaign. He’s mainly been getting good local press, some of it with the help of Tom Wolf’s administration in Harrisburg. But he will have to rely on his own skills to get reelected.

The last time state Rep. Barrar faced a competitive election was in 2014, when Tom Wolf was elected as Pennsylvania’s governor. Wolf narrowly lost the 160th District by 37 votes, but Barrar was reelected by a 2,700 vote margin.

Stephen Barrar (R) 13,303 62.2%
Whitney Hoffman (D) 7,944 37.4%

In 2016, Barrar faced only an independent challenger, but Hillary Clinton (17,345 votes) carried the district over Trump (16,623 votes). Because there was no Democrat on the ballot for the 160th District in 2016, there were about 8,000 voters who cast a vote for president and then didn’t bother to cast a vote in the state representative race. In 2014, there was almost no drop-off from the top of the ballot at all (both the ’14 elections saw about 21,300 votes cast).

Most of the 8,000 people who didn’t vote for PA-160 in 2016 were probably Democrats who weren’t going to cast a vote for a Republican under any circumstances and didn’t want to vote for an independent they knew nothing about. On the other hand, even though there were 8,000 missing votes, Barrar won the support of 6,000 more voters than Trump. That demonstrates his crossover appeal and helps explain why Barrar might be able to survive the tsunami that is expected to arrive on Tuesday.

The thing about tsunamis, though, is that they wash over the guilty and innocent alike, and the political variety can claim victims like Barrar whose district is careening away from him at an accelerating rate. And, of course, it’s also important to have an actual viable opponent, which Barrar did not have two years ago. This time he’s facing a real-life candidate named Anton Andrew.

Andrew has a unique biography.  He lived in Jamaica and Trinidad until the age of ten, when his family relocated to Washington D.C. He has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Hofstra University School of Law. He began his legal career as a public defender in Miami, Florida before becoming a senior advisor to the president at Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest Historically Black College or University (HBCU).  He’s running in a district that is 85.7 percent white.

That might not sound very promising, but in addition to having some potential coattails assisting him at the top of the ballot, Mr. Andrew also happens to be on the better side of the issues in this district at this time.  Barrar is taking the unpopular position on the fracking severance tax and he’s not strong enough on the gun issue which is really driving things to an unanticipated degree in the suburbs. Andrew is better positioned on marijuana and probably helped himself by opposing Brett Kavanaugh more than Barrar did by supporting him.

Honestly, I have no idea who will win this race, but I will keep my eye on it because if Barrar falls it will indicate to me that the Republicans on the state legislative level are going to get wiped out in historic numbers all across the country.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.