Washington County’s lean to the right in Tuesday’s election contributed two seats to the 11-seat gain in the Republicans’ majority in the state Legislature, lending muscle to their agendas in the upcoming session.
“It’s gone from Republican control to Republican domination,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist based in Harrisburg with Quantum Communications.
Washington County is a “traditional source of strength” for Democrats, said Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democratic caucus. This cycle, Republican pickups may have been the result of dissatisfaction with national politics, he said. “They needed an anti-Obama proxy, and I think a number of Democrats suffered because of that.”
In the 46th Senatorial District, Camera Bartolotta became the first Republican to represent the district in decades when she beat incumbent state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.
In the 46th Legislative District, Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, lost by almost 13 percentage points to Jason Ortitay, a small-business owner from South Fayette.
The Washington County victories, as well as Republican Pat Stefano’s win in the previously Democratic 32nd Senatorial District in Fayette County, signal a change in voting habits, Gerow said.
“I think they’re part of a larger pattern of shifting alliances and allegiances in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” Gerow said.
Constituents may favor Republican policies on coal, natural gas or taxes, he said, given the history of coal in the area and the boom of the energy industry.
Though disappointed, Ron Sicchitano, chair of the Washington County Democratic Committee, said the losses can provide a wake-up call to the party to not get complacent. These races in particular, he said, were too vitriolic and based on personality.
“The issues were never discussed,” Sicchiatano said. “I think the electorate will suffer because of that.”
Ortitay and White ran a heavily negative race for the House, spurred in part by events of last year. White came under fire for establishing fake social media accounts and arguing with constituents who support natural gas drilling.
Bartolotta attacked Solobay for collecting “tax-free per diems,” referring to daily stipends lawmakers can receive on top of their salary. She had help from a political action committee run by conservative state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County.
Records from the Center for Public Integrity show Reform PA PAC spent $434,700 on 280 television ads attacking Solobay as a career politician. Executive Director Amanda Davidson said Bartolotta’s conservative principles prompted Wagner to take an interest in the race.
“She’s a highly qualified candidate, and she was willing to put in the work,” Davidson said.
For Senate leaders, the new margin of their majority should make it easier to get their agenda passed.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. The last two years, Republicans held a 27-seat majority, and now it’s 30. A bill needs 26 votes to pass the 50-member Senate.
“It allows us to be more aggressive on our agenda,” Scarnati said.
As results rolled in Tuesday night, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he thought voters responded to Republicans’ message of fiscal stewardship and holding the line on taxes.
“I think that message resonated,” Turzai said. “We continue to lead from out front, and I think it served us well,” Turzai said.
Of course, legislation will still require the signature of Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf.
“The new development for next year is the Democratic governor,” Patton said. “I think that will change thinking among Republicans as to what issues they even bother to try pushing.”
Patton said a smaller Democratic minority does not mean Democrats won’t have a chance to be heard. Wolf supports increasing education funding and a severance tax on natural gas drilling, issues House Democrats have long championed and that Republicans may support.
As for other issues, such as medical marijuana, that have support in the Legislature but have not passed, Patton said: “Having Tom Wolf in office may be enough to push some of them over the top.”
Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].