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PA Election 2024: The State Senate Races to Watch as Democrats Seek the Majority

Political insiders told Spotlight PA that only a small number of districts, mostly in western and central Pennsylvania, are competitive in this year’s state Senate elections.

PA Election 2024: The State Senate Races to Watch as Democrats Seek the Majority

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

Photo courtesy of Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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Democrats want to flip the Pennsylvania Senate this November, and party backers are eyeing a handful of districts as key to taking control of the chamber for the first time in 30 years.

Political insiders told Spotlight PA that only a small number of districts, mostly in Western and central Pennsylvania, are competitive in this year’s state Senate elections.

In addition to picking up those seats, Democrats will also have to fend off Republican challengers in vulnerable districts where residents have increasingly voted for GOP candidates.

Because of the high stakes, political observers expect these races to draw big money and national interest, which happened in 2022 when a flood of cash helped Democrats flip the state House.

Republicans hold 28 state Senate seats to Democrats’ 22. GOP control of the chamber is the norm. Except for a brief 16-month interlude in the 1990s, Republicans have held a majority in the upper chamber since 1980.

The chamber’s 50 senators serve four-year terms, and half the body stands for election every two years. In presidential election years like 2024, lawmakers in odd-numbered districts are on the ballot.

If Democrats flip the upper chamber and hold onto the state House, the party will control the governor’s mansion and the legislature in 2025, a so-called “trifecta” that would pave the way for lawmakers to pass a far-reaching agenda over Republican objections.

Other states with such an arrangement have guaranteed workers access to paid leave, repealed laws restricting abortion or labor rights, and provided free tuition at public universities for eligible families. Pennsylvania currently has the only full-time split legislature in the country.

Republicans must hold the state Senate — or flip back the state House — to retain leverage in negotiations with first-term Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is in office through at least 2027. This would allow them to push for taxpayer-funded school vouchers, expanded voter ID, and fewer regulations, among other topics, in annual budget talks.

Tim Wagner, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said its message will focus on the numerous bills passed by the Democratic-controlled state House that have withered in the upper chamber under GOP leadership, from a higher minimum wage to stricter gun laws.

“These are issues that are sitting right there that Senate Republicans refuse to move on,” Wagner told Spotlight PA.

The Senate Republican Campaign Committee is tasked with raising money to protect incumbent GOP lawmakers and win seats from Democrats. Maintaining the majority, the SRCC said in a statement, is its top priority.

“But we see some really good pick-up opportunities to expand our majority further in southwest and southeast PA,” the statement continued. “We have recruited strong candidates in these seats that provide a stark contrast from the failed Democrat agenda of high inflation and rising crime.”

Democrats must net three seats to tie the body or four to gain an outright majority.

Because Democrats hold the lieutenant governor’s office, the party would control the chamber’s agenda, determine committee assignments, and select the president pro tempore even if the state Senate is split evenly 25-25.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Austin Davis would be able to cast tiebreaker votes on amendments or procedural questions. However, he would not be able to vote on the final passage of a bill, meaning Democrats and Republicans would need to find common ground to pass legislation.

Here are the districts that have the potential to determine control of the state Senate:

SD-15

Central Pennsylvania’s 15th District is a top Democratic target in 2024. It contains Harrisburg and its suburbs, such as Hershey, on the eastern side of the Susquehanna River.

Before the district’s boundaries were redrawn in 2022 as part of the redistricting process, the 15th included more rural Republican areas, including Perry County on the western side of the Susquehanna. But after the redraw, the district shifted south and is now contained entirely in Dauphin County, which has voted increasingly Democratic in recent elections.

Incumbent state Sen. John DiSanto (R., Dauphin) flipped the seat in 2016 and held off a challenger under the old lines in 2020, but has since announced he will not again run for reelection. Political observers often say it is easier to flip an open seat than to beat an incumbent, who could have an edge in fundraising or name recognition.

As of Feb. 14, two Democrats have filed to run in the primary including state Rep. Patty Kim (Dauphin), who Wagner mentioned as a top recruit. Two Republicans have also filed, according to Pennsylvania Department of State records.

Democratic candidates: State. Rep Patty Kim; Harrisburg pastor Alvin Taylor
Republican candidates: Dauphin County Treasurer Nick DiFrancesco, Army veteran Ken Stambaugh

SD-37

A prototypical suburban swing seat, the 37th District has flipped back and forth from Democrats to Republicans four times since 2012.

Currently, it forms a crescent shape encompassing Pittsburgh’s northern, western, and southern suburbs, including a mix of wealthy and working-class enclaves such as Franklin Park, Jefferson Hills, Moon, Sewickley, and Upper St. Clair.

The district leans slightly more Republican than it did before redistricting. In 2020, President Joe Biden won the district by about one percentage point. If the election had been held using the new district lines, former President Donald Trump would have won it by about the same margin.

Still, the region’s suburban voters have increasingly voted Democratic at the top of the ticket, so the party is optimistic.

Incumbent state Sen. Devlin Robinson (R., Allegheny) was first elected in 2020, flipping the seat. As of Feb. 14, one Democrat has filed to run against Robinson, according to Pennsylvania Department of State records.

Democratic candidate: Nicole Ruscitto, educator and former local township councilor
Republican candidate:
State Sen. Devlin Robinson

SD-45

The 2020 race for the 45th District was decided by just 69 votes.

Fast forward four years, and longtime incumbent state Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny) has announced he is not seeking reelection, kicking off a highly competitive race.

The district includes many old industrial towns and aging suburbs to the south and east of Pittsburgh, including Elizabeth, McKeesport, Monroeville, Plum, and Whitehall.

The seat became more favorable to Democratic candidates after redistricting, which cut out parts of Republican-leaning Westmoreland County.

In 2020, Biden won the district by two percentage points. If that election had been held with the new district lines, he would have won by more than seven percentage points.

As of Feb. 14, three Democrats and two Republicans have filed to run on the primary ballot, according to Pennsylvania Department of State records.

Each party’s establishment has a preferred pick. For Democrats, that’s state Rep. Nick Pisciottano, another top recruit according to Wagner. He has dozens of endorsements, including from Brewster and many leading legislative Democrats. For Republicans, it’s small business owner Jen Dintini, who’s been backed by state Senate GOP leadership.

Democratic candidates: State Rep. Nick Pisciottano; social worker Makenzie White; former Duquesne Mayor and environmental organizer Nickole Nesby
Republican candidates: Security services business owner Jen Dintini; local GOP committee member Kami Stulginskas (Spotlight PA could not identify a website or social media account for this candidate.)

SD-49

This Erie-based seat has been the Democrats’ white whale since GOP state Sen. Dan Laughlin flipped it in 2016.

Redistricting only slightly changed the district’s boundaries — it now takes up a little more of Erie County, a historically purple region that has elected lawmakers from both major parties. The district includes almost the entire county, save for the city of Corry in its southeast corner.

Laughlin has been a vocal moderate in the state Senate Republican caucus, backing a minimum wage hike and recreational marijuana legalization, among other causes. However, these ideas have received little traction in the upper chamber with his GOP colleagues.

Still, Laughlin has remained popular. He won reelection in 2020 by almost 20 percentage points, even as Biden carried the seat by about two points and then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro won by almost nine.

As of Feb. 14, two Democrats have filed for a chance to take on Laughlin in November, according to Pennsylvania Department of State records.

Democratic candidates: Erie County Democratic Party Chair Jim Wertz; Selena King, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D., Pa.)
Republican candidate: State Sen. Dan Laughlin

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