Scott Sistek of New Stanton has knocked on a lot of doors trying to convince western Pennsylvanians to vote for him in the state's super-charged April 22 Democratic primary. Notwithstanding the dog that chomped down on his thigh while he was canvassing in Greensburg, Sistek says his campaign is going well.
But Sistek said he is worried that some of the 152,000 new, first-time Democratic voters are so excited about the presidential contest that they may forget to vote for others, like him, listed farther down on the ballot. "I do have a fear that new voters … are going to push one button and leave," said Sistek, a borough council president who owns a car wash in Mount Pleasant.
Sistek is running for one of some 40 contested seats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly while the rest of the state - and the country, for that matter - is focused on the historic run for the White House that has triggered Pennsylvania voter registration to soar to a record 8.32 million for a primary. Some 164,000 Pennsylvanians even switched party affiliations and became Democrats so that they could cast their ballots for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the primary. Both parties are holding primaries that day, but voters can vote only in their own party's contest.
Pennsylvania is always a key state in the run for the White House, but for the first time in nearly 25 years, its voters will play a crucial role in selecting the Democratic nominee, an unforeseen scenario that set off a barrage of dueling campaign events, unprecedented media coverage and rush for endorsements. Gov. Ed Rendell has been stumping for Clinton, while U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., whom Rendell beat in 2002 for the Democratic nomination for governor, has endorsed Obama.
Experts wonder whether the frenzy over the presidential race is robbing local contests of voters' attention. "All you hear is Hillary and Obama. Hillary and Obama," said Lowman Henry, chairman of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg.
A wild card is how the avalanche of new voters will affect contested or open state races that don't have incumbents running. "We're going to have the largest turnout in modern history in our primary. Who knows what will happen?" said G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "There is a bit of uneasiness among incumbents because of the unsettled environment," he said.
Pennsylvania is only the fourth state where the presidential and state legislative primaries have landed on the same day thus far in 2008 (the remaining 10 presidential primary dates also include state legislative elections) and the first where a statehouse chamber is so evenly divided. Democrats cling to a one-seat advantage in the 203-seat House, a margin that many experts expect will swell because of the pumped-up Democratic voter rolls.
"I'd be shocked if the Democrats didn't pick up three to five seats" this November, said Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. He expects Republicans to maintain control of the state Senate, where the GOP currently holds a 29-to-21 command. (Madonna has written columns published on Stateline.org regarding the Pennsylvania primary and Obama's chances there.)
Tim Storey, a state elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the expected huge turnout presents challenges for both Democrats and Republicans at the state level. Democratic candidates will have to figure out how to catch the attention of new voters while Republicans have to remind the party faithful that they need to turn out at the polls because there are state-level contests that matter for them, he said.
Businessman Bill Neff is one of four Republicans running for an open state Senate seat in the Pennsylvania Dutch county of Lancaster, which is considered safe for the GOP. Neff said he hopes the 30,000 Republicans in his county who switched to the Democratic Party did so to heed Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" campaign that urges Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton in Democratic primaries as a way to extend the divisive race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Neff said Republicans had a 3-to-1 margin in his county, and now it's slipped to 2-to-1. "This primary is important" for him and other state candidates, he said. It will decide who among the GOP challengers besides Neff will try to replace retiring state Sen. Gib Armstrong (R); the other Republicans running are Paul Thibault, former county commissioner, Lloyd Smucker, a supervisor in West Lampeter Township, and Steve McDonald, a county recorder of deeds.
Statewide, registered Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million. To help recoup its losses, the state Republican Party this month kicked off a new campaign urging every Republican who recently switched to the Democratic Party to re-register with the GOP. "We want them back," John McNally, who heads voter registration for the state party, said in a statement.
Pennsylvanians have until Oct. 6 to register to vote in the Nov. 4 general election or to switch their party affiliation. The state is just 40,000 away from shattering its record reached in 2004 when 8.36 million Pennsylvanians were registered to vote in a general election.
Both the seats Sistek and Neff are hoping to win are open this year because of retirements. Sistek is one of three Democratic candidates vying to replace retiring state Rep. Tom Tangretti (D), for whom Sistek worked as a legislative aide. The others are John W. Boyle, an attorney who was a field representative to U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D), and Roland "Bud" Mertz, who held top posts for the state's Homeland Security Office since 2003.
If Democrats do pick up more House seats, it is doubtful Democrats again will pick a House Republican as speaker, said Henry of the Public Opinion Research.
For the first time in state history, the party that wielded control in 2006 picked a speaker of the opposite party. House Democrats in 2006 brokered a deal with Republicans to elect Dennis O'Brien, a moderate Republican, as speaker, after Democrats recognized their pick didn't have the votes to win. The 2006 elections gave Democrats control of that chamber for the first time in 12 years.
Working against Pennsylvania Democrats this year, however, is a statehouse scandal known as "Bonusgate," in which state investigators are probing whether House and Senate leaders doled out nearly $4 million in taxpayer-paid bonuses to staffers as rewards for political work, and whether these staffers used public money for campaigning, which is illegal.
Experts say Bonusgate has not inspired the same level of hostility among voters as seen in 2006 when angry voters ousted 17 incumbents from the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the primary after lawmakers voted to give themselves a pay raise. More than 30 other legislators chose to retire the following year rather than face voters' wrath.
Without the pay raise issue to draw interest to legislative races, the candidates are sticking to local issues in their campaigns, namely property taxes, health care and jobs.
Some primary races have enough sizzle that they can easily compete with the Clinton-Obama fervor, including a heated battle to replace outgoing state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D) of South Philadelphia. Fumo is giving up the seat he has held for 30 years after he was indicted for conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice, and filing false tax returns.
"Our race is getting a lot of attention," said Brian Abernathy, a spokesman for Larry Farnese, one of three Democrats running for Fumo's seat. Abernathy said the excitement over the presidential race frees up money the campaign would have spent on get-out-the-vote efforts. "Voter turnout won't be a problem," he said.
In that race, Farnese famously has called opponent and union leader John J. Dougherty a "thug" and a turncoat. Anne Dicker, community activist and opponent of Fumo's push to legalize casinos in Pennsylvania, is the third Democrat in that contest.
Henry of the Lincoln Institute predicts Democrats in the state will continue to be energized after the primary and through the November elections. "Republicans will have to find a way to light a fire" under their members, he said.