- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Republicans have controlled the Pennsylvania Senate for most of the past three decades, and now they have new bragging rights:

The Senate is the last state legislative chamber in the Northeast in Republican hands.

The party’s success there could provide a template for fellow Republicans looking to win back majorities not just in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, where they lost the New York Senate and Delaware House on Nov. 4, but across the country.

“The Republicans in the state Senate are smart cookies and know how to win,” said Bob Asher, the party’s national committeeman in Pennsylvania. “Maybe there ought to be a campaign school in Harrisburg, and you could send people to it.”

The Republicans withstood a surge in Democratic voter registration inspired by President-elect Barack Obama’s candidacy and maintained power in the state Senate thanks in part to Pennsylvania voters’ history of ticket-splitting.

Party leaders say a key strategy has been to pick candidates who reflect the values of their districts and to avoid divisive social issues. They also have benefited from a pragmatic streak in the Legislature, which they demonstrated by cooperating with Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell on the legalization of slot machines, school funding and alternative energy.

“That helps them … maintain that legitimacy in a sea of blue,” said Michael L. Young, who runs a Harrisburg-based opinion research polling firm.

Flexibility has been necessary for survival: Seven Republican senators hail from suburban Philadelphia, where Mr. Rendell is popular and Mr. Obama won big, while others represent staunchly conservative areas.

Victories on Nov. 4 left the Pennsylvania Senate as the only state legislative chamber in Republican control in the 12 states north of Virginia and east of Ohio.

Nationally, Republicans retained control in 14 legislatures - down from 21 as recently as 2002 - but lost about 100 legislative seats. Democrats boosted their majorities from 23 to 27, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Pennsylvania by more than 1 million voters, Mr. Obama carried the state handily and Democrats are claiming an expanded majority in the state House of Representatives, although the results of several close races are not certified.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which held a 29-21 edge in the Senate before the death of Republican Sen. James Rhoades, emerged with at least the same advantage and could secure a 30th seat after a special election to replace Mr. Rhoades.

The party picked up a seat in a suburban Pittsburgh district that last elected a Republican senator to a full four-year term in the 1930s.

Republicans received some unforeseen help in that race: Dairy farmer Elder Vogel Jr., initially considered a long shot, won after the original Democratic nominee was charged in a state investigation of suspected legislative corruption and dropped out of the race.

Leading the Republican effort to keep control of the chamber was Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III, who was elevated to Senate president pro tempore two years ago. He has sought to focus on bread-and-butter issues such as lower taxes and more health care benefits.

“If we can’t provide that, there’s no reason to vote Republican,” Mr. Scarnati said.

However, he also acknowledged that Republicans are helped by Pennsylvania voters’ willingness to split their ballots. The practice often is viewed as a sign of a well-informed electorate: The more voters know about candidates, the less likely they are to vote a straight party ticket.

Republican losses elsewhere in the Northeast can be traced to a broader national shift that has been under way for decades: Democrats are disappearing from the South while Republicans are losing numbers in the Northeast.

“It’s not that the [regional] ideologies have shifted so much as the party labels have shifted and are lining up with the national party ideologies,” said Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states, such as Maine, Connecticut, West Virginia and Maryland, have had Democrat-controlled legislatures for decades with few, if any, interruptions.

However, as recently as 2003, the Republican Party controlled the legislatures in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire as well as the Vermont House. New York’s Senate had been Republican since 1966 and the Delaware House since 1984.

This year, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate majority was fighting for four open seats that were viewed as competitive. Two Democrats retired, Mr. Rhoades died after a car accident, and a Republican incumbent, Sen. Robert Regola III, bowed out after his gun was used in the apparent suicide of a neighbor’s son.

The Republicans took three out of four - including the seat outside Pittsburgh where many thought Democrats had a lock.

“People were splitting tickets left and right, all different directions,” said Mr. Vogel, the victorious dairy farmer. “You’d see Obama signs and Vogel signs in the same yard. It was strange.”

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