This Pennsylvania Special Election Is a 2024 Litmus Test

“We are the swingiest county in the swingiest state.”

Orange barricades are erected outside of the Pennsylvania Capitol on January 14, 2021 after an FBI bulletin warned that armed protests were planned at state capitols ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/Zuma

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Democrats claimed a clear majority in Pennsylvania’s house of representatives in 2022, ending a decade-plus streak of GOP control in the lower chamber. And they’ve successfully defended their razor-thin upper hand in three special elections just in the last year. 

On Tuesday, that majority hangs in the balance again when a special election will determine which party fills the spot vacated in December by Democrat John Galloway, who departed the state legislature to fill a judicial position. Until last week, the chamber was tied 101-101 due to Galloway’s retirement. As of Friday, when Republican Joe Adams abruptly resigned, the breakdown became 101-100. 

The outcome of Tuesday’s race for Galloway’s old seat in statehouse district 140—representing lower Bucks County—will either create another tie or give Democrats a two-seat majority ahead of November, when all 203 house seats will be on the ballot. Half of the 50 seats in the state senate, currently controlled by Republicans 28-22, are also up for reelection in November. 

Running to fill the house opening created by Galloway’s resignation are Democrat Jim Prokopiak, a lawyer and Pennsbury school board member, and Republican Candace Cabanas, a political novice whose background is in home health care and hospitality. (In the coming weeks, yet another special election will be held to fill the vacancy left by Friday’s resignation of the Republican in the state house of representatives.)

Galloway’s former district is a fairly Democratic enclave within a historically purple county that has garnered national political attention in recent years. Bucks County is nearly split down the middle politically. According to state records, there were 197,941 registered Democrats and 193,908 registered Republicans as of 2023. In November, Democrats took the majority of the Central Bucks County School Board after the conservative-dominated board had instituted book bans and policies that resulted in rules requiring parental permission to call students by their self-identified names and pronouns, as well as the removal of LGBTQ pride flags from classrooms.

The extent to which voters from the suburban area turn out—and how those that do turn out decide to vote—on Tuesday, just nine months away from the the state’s much more inclusive General Assembly elections, could be a bellwether for both statewide and national trends in November. 

“Many people would say that we are the swingiest county in the swingiest state,” Prokopiak tells Mother Jones. “The issues being talked about nationwide are happening here in Bucks County.”

Democratic advocates are somewhat worried about the race’s outcome. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the party’s arm for electing Democrats to state legislatures, is spending $50,000 to protect the Democrat majority in the state house of representatives—including this seat—between now and November. While a Democrat has held the statehouse district for decades, US House Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, has also carried the area in recent elections.

The DLCC’s $50,000 outlay in Pennsylvania is part of a planned $60 million investment in statehouse races across the country; it is a remarkable increase over the group’s $15 million spending in 2016, signaling the Democratic Party’s growing interest in local races as state chambers legislate everything from abortion to LGBTQ rights to paid parental leave.

“State legislative races are going to play an important part in making sure that we’ve got really strong turnout and that our messages and our actions are resonating with voters,” says DLCC president Heather Williams.

If Prokopiak wins, he would have to run again in November, but a February victory would give him and his party a running start to retain the majority—and perhaps make gains beyond it.

“Protecting the right to collectively organize, the right for a livable wage, the fight for women’s reproductive rights and making sure that they stay legal,” he says. “The right for contraception. All those types of things are only protected by a majority in the state house.”

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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

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