The decisive shift in control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will hinge on an upcoming special election later this month. Republican voters will be striving to regain the majority in their caucus, even though they are confronting a challenging Democratic stronghold in a Pittsburgh district.
The race pits a former Democratic congressional staffer against the daughter of two local officials who were politically active.
Democrat Lindsay Powell, 32, and Republican Erin Connolly Autenreith, 65, will face off for the Allegheny County state House seat on Sept. 19, one week before the chamber is scheduled to return to floor session in Harrisburg.
They are vying to replace a progressive Democrat, former state Rep. Sara Innamorato, who resigned in July to seek the county executive job. Her departure left the House at a 101-101 tie.
The district is a Democratic stronghold Democratic strategists predict their party will be able to retain. A previous special election in which the Republican candidate lost by a wide margin may be why the GOP hasn’t drained its coffers to try to flip the seat, said Trevor Southerland, House Democratic campaign strategist.
“Because it’s a special (election), it would be easier for them to do in a general, but they’d have to be up on TV, they’d have to have an army of field organizers knocking on doors, ton of mailers and digital ads,” he said. “We’re just not seeing that.”
Republicans in Allegheny County know they are fighting an uphill battle.
“Even in a regular election year, it would be very, very difficult for a Republican to win this. However it remains to be seen how the electorate feels,” said Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, adding that Autenreith “is working very hard.”
Powell is seeking office for the first time but jokes she has worked in every job in government except for the one she is seeking. She previously worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, both New York Democrats.
Constituents say they want more affordable housing, a strong local economy and improved community assets, Powell said.
“People are concerned about making sure they can stay in their community and make Pittsburgh home, and keep Pittsburgh home,” she said.
Several Democrat-led initiatives, such as whole home repair and broader protections for LGBTQ+ people, were critical pieces of legislation that didn’t move until Democrats reclaimed control of the state House earlier this year, she said.
“We won’t continue to see this progress if we don’t retain it,” Powell said.
Democrats barely flipped the number of districts needed to control the House in November. It was their first claim to the majority in 12 years, with a 102-101 margin they have since maintained through several special elections. Having first-year Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in office has aided their agenda.
This year, Democrats have used their newfound power to advance a number of the caucus’ priorities. But the Legislature remains politically divided, with a firm Republican majority in the Senate that has sought to advance its own priorities, including school vouchers and constitutional amendments. Passing such measures would be easier with a favorable House.
Autenreith’s potential election, flipping party control to the Republicans, would not change things very much in the Capitol, she said.
“I think it would boost the Republican Party, of course, but that’s not the reason I’m running,” she said.
Autenreith comes from a political background: Her father was a mayor of McKees Rocks near Pittsburgh and her mother served on a borough council. She previously ran for the state House in 2000 but lost to the Democrat seeking reelection. Autenreith currently serves as Republican committee chair in Shaler.
Education is a central political issue for her, she said. Autenreith supports vouchers for private school and said she thinks education is vital to get at other challenges facing the district, including housing and crime.
“I think there’s going to be a shift in this country in the next year or two because it’s hit a boiling point,” she said. “People don’t want to live like this, live to be afraid to go downtown, to go to major events.”
The House isn’t due back until a week after the special election decides the fate of the majority, leaving aspects of the final state budget undone. Innamorato’s departure makes advancing measures on party-line votes more difficult for Democrats.
Innamorato won a contested Democratic primary for Allegheny’s county executive in May as part of a progressive slate in local elections. She will face the lone Republican primary contender, Joseph Rockey, in the November general election.
Another Democratic state representative, longtime Bucks County incumbent John Galloway, is running for district judge, meaning early next year the Democrats will likely face another race in which their majority is at stake.