By BROOKE SCHULTZ
Associated Press
/Report for America

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The balance of power in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is at stake for the fourth time in a year as voters next week will choose between a Democratic school board member and a Republican political newcomer in a suburban Philadelphia district.

Democrats controlled the House by one vote until Rep. John Galloway resigned in December to become a magisterial district judge, leaving the chamber split at 101-101. The race to replace him is slated for Feb. 13 in Bucks County north of Philadelphia.

The district has long been reliably Democratic and shares a county with long-time Republican areas where the GOP has been losing power over two decades. Democratic presidential candidates have won the county since the 1990s and President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020 in Galloway’s district, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-two.

Even though those signs look good for Democrats, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is spending $50,000 to protect the party’s majority in the chamber.

“These races are really, really important and they deserve the attention and resources that meet the impact of the work that they’re doing,” said Heather Williams, president of the committee, the national party's group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures.

On the national level, the committee is planning to spend at least $60 million on statehouse races across the country this cycle. That’s its largest ever budget and will feature special emphasis on erasing GOP majorities in Arizona and New Hampshire and in the Pennsylvania Senate, while holding small Democratic majorities claimed in 2022 in Minnesota and Michigan.

Leslie Martes, the group’s vice president of political and strategic initiatives, said down-ballot legislative races in places like northeast Pennsylvania, and Tucson and Yuma in Arizona, may help actually help Biden’s reelection bid in a reverse coattail fashion. Her team is hoping to generate enough Democrat excitement in legislative races that its candidates can “push those margins” and add to vote totals for the president beyond swing states’ traditional population centers, where Democrats are already looking to run up the score, like Philadelphia and Phoenix.

“Our candidates are usually not always in these big cities where they’re focused on turnout for the president,” Martes said, adding, that “actually will help the top of the ticket cause we’ll be turning out voters on the issues that voters care about this year in the state legislative role, which will also drive them in the presidential race.”

Democrats have the governor's office. Republicans hold the Senate. A Republican win in next week's special election would give the GOP a majority that could advance school vouchers and constitutional amendments on issues such as abortion, voter identification and curbing the governor’s regulatory authority.

It is the Republicans' fourth chance in a year to flip the majority back to their favor. Elections last year in February, May and September broke in Democrats' favor, in largely Democratic areas.

House leaders scheduled no voting days for January and February while the partisan divide of the chamber is split 101-101. That will change after the Feb. 13 election between Democrat Jim Prokopiak, 49, and Republican Candace Cabanas, 45.

“It’s an interesting thing to be thrown into this because I’m not a politician, and I’m really just running to support working class families in lower Bucks County,” said Cabanas. “I’m not necessarily here to tip a majority, you know, and create like some kind of hoopla in the state House.”

She said high gas prices and rising cost of living are among her top priorities, along with education. She said there remains concerns after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools.

“It seems like Pennsylvania schools spend a fairly decent amount of money, like we’re up there with our spending,” she said, “but we underperform.”

Prokopiak, who was first elected in 2021 to the school board in a district north of Philadelphia, wants to see more funding for education — not just K-12, but vocational and skills-based learning, he said, to make sure the workforce is competitive. Affordable housing is also essential, he said, and with that comes raising the minimum wage. The Democrats who control the House passed a minimum wage hike last year, but it did not progress out of the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“No one can afford to live on the federal minimum wage in this area. If we’re going to be talking about good paying jobs and creating life sustaining jobs, the first thing we have to do is raise the minimum wage because it’s clear that is not sustaining anybody,” he said.

Women’s reproductive health — and the right to an abortion — is also a concern of his. The difference between a Republican majority and Democratic one is access, he said.

“I have two 14 year old girls who don’t have the same rights their mother had at their age, which is unconscionable,” he said.

Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Will Weissert contributed from Washington.

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