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Pennsylvania Democrats take back state House control with three special election wins

The results could have significant ramifications for abortion rights in the state.
9/26/06 photo Ryan McFadden 200602159 Pennsylvania State Capitol, a look at the building on it's 100th anniversary
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg in 2006.Ryan McFadden / MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images file

Pennsylvania Democrats won a trio of state House special elections Tuesday night, handing them a clear majority.

The victories give Democrats the upper hand in a chamber that has seesawed in control since the November elections, resulting in a bipartisan "independent" speaker arrangement that quickly went sour. But with Tuesday's wins, the Democratic Party now is in a stronger position to block GOP-led initiatives, including a potential anti-abortion ballot measure.

Democrats won in three districts, according to projections by The Associated Press:

  • 32nd District: Democrat Joe McAndrew defeated Republican Clay Walker. The seat was left vacant after the death in October of Anthony DeLuca, a Democrat who had been in office nearly four decades.
  • 34th District: Democrat Abigail Salisbury defeated Republican Robert Pagane. The previous seat holder, Democrat Summer Lee, resigned after she won election to Congress in November.
  • 35th District: Democrat Matthew Gergely defeated Republican Don Nevills. Democrat Austin Davis resigned after he was elected lieutenant governor in November. 

All three districts encompass suburbs of Pittsburgh and other areas of Allegheny County, in the southwestern part of the state. President Joe Biden carried all three districts in the 2020 election by at least 16 percentage points.

The three Democrats who had previously held the seats all technically won re-election in November (DeLuca, who defeated his opponent, could not be removed from the ballot, because he died within weeks of the election), giving Democrats a temporary 102-101 majority in the chamber for the first time more than a decade. But because of DeLuca’s death and the resignations of Lee and Davis in December, the GOP actually eked out the current majority, with 101 seats to the Democrats’ 99.

That prompted arguments over who should lead the chamber — a dispute that led a group of Democrats and Republicans to come together to back state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a moderate rank-and-file Democrat who promised to operate as an independent, as leader.

The arrangement, however, has gotten off to a rough start.

Some Republicans who had lent their support to Rozzi have now called on him to resign — alleging that he did not honor a commitment to register as an independent.

Meanwhile, the chamber has been at a standstill since Rozzi was sworn in — no votes have occurred or rules or committee assignments have been passed — leading to some speculation that Democrats would nominate another speaker (most likely Democratic floor leader Joanna McClinton) if they won back the majority.

The three Democratic wins Tuesday put the party firmly back in the House majority, albeit narrowly. Democrats hold the governorship — Josh Shapiro was elected in November — and Republicans control the Senate.

With a narrow majority in the House, Democrats will now be in a stronger position to block Republican legislation. Among the most consequential measures is a GOP-backed constitutional amendment that asserts there is no constitutional right to abortion in the state. 

The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the proposed amendment last year as part of a broader omnibus bill in a process that bypassed the Democratic governor.

However, in Pennsylvania, proposed amendments can be placed on the ballot only if they pass in consecutive sessions. That puts Democrats in better position to block such an outcome in the current session.