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Primary will help set stage for next crop of state lawmakers

May 13, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — This year’s legislative races in Pennsylvania have drawn extremely high levels of interest, with reports of activists swamping normally quiet organizational meetings and an unusually large number of candidates making it onto the ballot.

Republicans hold strong majorities in both chambers, 121-82 in the House and 34-16 in the Senate, so they correspondingly have more turf to defend. Democrats have made a push to challenge as many Republican seats as possible in swing areas, and they hope to capitalize on a national political tail wind.

In some areas, the voting on Tuesday will be of particular interest, with multiple candidates taking on incumbents or seeking their party’s nomination in areas where the general election in November is unlikely to be competitive.

The retirement of eight-term incumbent Rep. Adam Harris, R-Mifflin, in a conservative and rural district near the center of the state, has prompted nine Republicans and a single Democrat to place their names on the primary ballot.

Although the Republican field is large, there is not a wide range of ideologies, forcing voters to make their choices on other grounds, said Monte Kemmler, a retired bakery owner from Mifflin County who is active in county and state GOP politics.

“There isn’t that big of a difference, so it’s going to come down to the all the strategy of the candidates, name recognition, who can get out the vote, who can put their name out there the most,” Kemmler said.

A similar dynamic is at play in heavily Democratic Philadelphia, where five Democrats are seeking to succeed Rep. Curtis Thomas, and four are running in the district of Rep. Bill Keller, who’s retiring.

After news reports about his chronic absenteeism during session days in the Capitol, and a divorce that included claims of physical abuse, Rep. Kevin Haggerty decided to forgo re-election in a Scranton area district. That prompted five fellow Democrats to jump in, including a pair of brothers.

As one of just two Republicans in the state House from Philadelphia, Transportation Committee Chairman John Taylor’s retirement has resulted in four Democrats seeking the nomination, along with one Republican.

Two Democrats whose legal troubles have been in news are seeking re-election but have primary opponents: Reps. Tom Caltagirone, of Berks County, and Vanessa Lowery Brown, of Philadelphia. Caltagirone’s alleged sexual misconduct toward an employee caused the House Democratic caucus to settle with the woman for $250,000 last year, and Lowery Brown awaits trial on charges she improperly accepted cash from an informant.

Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware, announced in March he would not seek another term after two former girlfriends accused him of sexual and physical abuse, claims he vigorously disputes. He has withdrawn from the ballot.

No matter how the incumbents do, this year’s races are certain to bring lots of new faces to the Legislature. Nineteen Republicans and six Democrats in the House are retiring, and there are three vacancies that will be filled on Tuesday through special elections in Washington, Bucks and Bradford counties.

Among the notable retirements are Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, whose plans to run for Congress were derailed by the redistricting lawsuit that put him into the district of incumbent U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson; Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton; and Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, the ranking Democrat on Appropriations.

In the Senate, where half the 50 seats are up, all four vacancies because of retirement are Republican: Chuck McIlhinney of Bucks County, Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County, Scott Wagner of York County and John Eichelberger of Blair County. Wagner is seeking the gubernatorial nomination this week, while Eichelberger is running for Congress.

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