A Redder Pennsylvania

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Representative Mike Turzai, is congratulated by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett as Democratic Governor Tom Wolf looks on. 

This week the Pennsylvania state Senate passed two conservative bills: one to withhold state grants from municipalities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities—so-called sanctuary cities—and another to ban abortions after 20 weeks.  

There’s been a lot of attention paid to the fact that Donald Trump is the first Republican to win Pennsylvania in a presidential election since 1988. The Keystone State had long been part of Hillary Clinton’s “firewall”—she polled generally well there throughout the election, and its 20 electoral votes were seen as critical for her Electoral College victory. Given that Barack Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2012, and Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, won his election in 2014, Trump’s victory on November 8 took most analysts by surprise.

But Trump not only won Pennsylvania, he also helped deepen Republican majorities in the heavily gerrymandered state legislature. House Republicans picked up three seats, giving them the largest GOP majority in six decades (122 out of 203). Senate Republicans also picked up three seats, now claiming 34 out of 50—the first veto-proof, two-thirds majority for one party in modern history.

Last year, Harrisburg legislators talked up a 20-week abortion ban and a transgender bathroom bill, both which Wolf promised to veto. He did veto a bill that would have reduced teachers’ seniority rights during layoffs, and a bill that would have delayed releasing identifying information of police officers who used deadly force. Progressive groups have been steeling themselves for Republicans to use their newly tightened grip on Harrisburg to revive these and other efforts.

Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, says that in addition to the abortion bans, they’ve already seen a bill that would prohibit municipalities from using their own funds to provide abortion coverage for low-income women. While this kind of preemption is new for Pennsylvania, Republicans have been pushing preemptive legislation in other states, like barring cities from raising their own minimum wage statutes.

Stevens says she expected the 20-week abortion ban to come up again, even though many legislators know this will not be popular with most Pennsylvanians. On Wednesday, three senate Republicans voted against the 20-week ban, and one Democrat voted in favor.

“The governor’s veto will be sustained if needed, although it’s a narrow window,” says Stevens. The House is only a dozen votes short of their own veto-proof caucus.

Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, an LGBT advocacy organization, says he’s concerned that the Trump administration will give license to Pennsylvania lawmakers to advance discriminatory policies. “For example, if the administration in Washington attempts to push through laws that allow people to discriminate based on their ‘deeply held religious beliefs,’ then I’m absolutely sure that will move forward in Pennsylvania too,” Martin says. He also expects the transgender bathroom bill to resurface “again, in even louder ways this time around.”

The Keystone State is currently the only state in the Northeast where employers can still fire someone for their sexual identity. Though Wolf signed two executive orders this past spring to expand protections for LGBTQ workers, Martin thinks Harrisburg legislators ultimately do not fear political penalties for voting against gay rights.

“We cannot predict what the new session will bring from the General Assembly, but can assure Pennsylvanians that Governor Wolf will continue to fight against the status quo and special interests seeking to move the commonwealth back decades,” said J.J Abbott, Wolf’s deputy press secretary in a statement to The American Prospect. “[He’ll] continue to fight for Pennsylvania values and stand up to Harrisburg and Washington politicians when they seek to roll-back LGBTQ rights, civil rights, health care access, women’s health care, and other policies that protect working and middle class families.”

Andy Hoover, the communications director for ACLU of Pennsylvania, says his organization’s biggest concern right now is around immigration, and it has no clear sense yet of how Trump’s efforts will impact those politics in Pennsylvania. “There’s always been a contingent in our legislature that wants to enact extreme immigration policies like we see in Arizona and Alabama,” Hoover says, though so far they’ve had little success. Last year, for example, the House and Senate passed versions of a bill that would impose fiscal penalties on municipalities that require warrants if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials want to detain individuals. It never made it to Wolf’s desk, but now GOP leaders are storming ahead with new anti-sanctuary city legislation, mirroring efforts in roughly a dozen other states.

On the labor front, union leaders expect threats to continue to mount. Ted Kirsch, the president of Pennsylvania’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate, says that even though “right to work” is not necessarily on the GOP’s Harrisburg agenda, Republicans are clearly aiming to weaken labor, pointing to their efforts to eliminate seniority protections and undercut unions’ ability to collect dues. Kirsch says he expects “a whole long list” of anti-union measures to advance in the next few years, and he’s already met with the governor to discuss it.

On the other hand, G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, is skeptical that Republicans will focus on these issues. “Republicans want to balance the budget, they want pension reform, they want to deal with the structural deficit,” he says. “They have serious intention of looking at property tax. I think they’ll have their hands full, and I can’t see social legislation being much of a priority.”

In the backdrop of all this stands the 2018 election—a race that observers expect to be no shoe-in for Wolf, especially after the results of 2016’s contest. Five Republicans have already expressed an intent to challenge him.

“His job performance in the polls has been under 45 percent, and typically midterms work better for Republicans because of turnout,” Madonna says. “But I thought Wolf did have a pretty good year last year, and we just don’t know what’s going to happen nationally with the president, and whether there will be a wave that benefits Democrats or Republicans.”

It’s true Wolf accomplished more in his second year than his first—his first was marked by a historic nine-month budget stalemate, and he often could do little more than issue executive actions and line-item vetoes. (See: Liberal Governor, Divided Government, Summer 2016) But this past year the governor signed a bill to combat the opioid crisis, he legalized medical marijuana, and he signed a new public school funding formula. So he’ll certainly have things to campaign on.

Thirty-six gubernatorial seats up for grabs in 2018, and it will be the first time Americans, and Democrats particularly, have a real chance to vote on Donald Trump’s conduct and agenda. Though Wolf’s reelection may pose a particular challenge, Republicans will also have to defend eight gubernatorial seats in states that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

Planned Parenthood’s Stevens feels optimistic that Wolf will prevail. “I think a lot is going to happen in the next 12-18 months,” she says. I asked her if she expects abortion to play a major role in the race. “There is zero chance that it won’t when Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood [clinic] escort is running for re-election at a time when Planned Parenthood is under absolute siege,” she replied.

Though Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate, the ACLU’s Hoover thinks the state’s legislative landscape will look similar to last year’s, with Republicans unable to overcome Wolf’s vetoes. The big difference, he says, will be the 2018 gubernatorial race.

“That will impact every vote legislators take,” he says. “They’ll be thinking through the lens of does this help our guys, or does this help Wolf?”

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