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 via ZUMA Wire

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Democrats asserted a distinct majority in Pennsylvania’s house of representatives in 2022, concluding a ten-year-plus streak of GOP control in the lower chamber. And they’ve effectively safeguarded their razor-thin upper hand in three special elections just in the last year. 

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

The result of Tuesday’s race for Galloway’s former 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 dominated by Republicans 28-22, are also up for reelection in November. 

Vying 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 newcomer whose background is in home health care and hospitality. (In the forthcoming weeks, another special election will be conducted to fill the vacancy left by Friday’s resignation of the Republican in the state house of representatives.)

Galloway’s previous district is a moderately Democratic enclave within a historically purple county that has attracted national political attention lately. Bucks County is almost evenly divided politically. According to state records, there were 197,941 registered Democrats and 193,908 registered Republicans as of 2023. In November, Democrats acquired the majority of the Central Bucks County School Board after the conservative-dominated board had enacted book prohibitions and policies that led to regulations requiring parental consent to address students by their self-identified names and pronouns, as well as the elimination of LGBTQ pride flags from classrooms.

The degree 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 Politics. “The issues being discussed nationwide are happening here in Bucks County.”

Democratic advocates are somewhat concerned about the race’s outcome. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the party’s arm for electing Democrats to state legislatures, is allocating $50,000 to protect the Democrat majority in the state house of representatives—including this seat—between now and November. While a Democrat has represented 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 prevails, he would have to run again in November, but a February victory would give him and his party a head start to retain the majority—and maybe make advances 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.”