New Pennsylvania Senate seat key in battle for control of chamber

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

The newly created 40th state Senate District in Monroe and Northampton counties might not have an official incumbent, but Pennsylvania state Rep. Mario Scavello might be as close as it gets.

The veteran Republican state lawmaker has represented Monroe County in the House for the past 12 years, and he’s seeking to parlay that experience and name recognition into a new job with the Senate. His chance came after Republican-friendly redistricting dropped a brand-new district with no incumbent in his own backyard.

UNOFFICIAL INCUMBENT: Republican State Rep. Mario Scavello isn’t an official incumbent, but he has the experience and name recognition of one.

Even so, Democrats view the new Pocono region district as one of the key battleground races as they try to wrest control of the state Senate from Republicans, who have a four-seat advantage and believe they can widen that gap Nov. 4.

While Scavello is a formidable candidate, the Democratic Party also sees an opening for its candidate, lawyer and political newcomer Mark Aurand. Senate Democratic Campaign Committee Executive Director Joe Aronson said the seat is “up there” when it comes to races his party believes it has a shot to win.

“There aren’t that many senatorial districts that look like this one where there’s a glaring opportunity to pick up a seat,” said Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

It’s led a compelling political contest that has covered many of the usual political topics of the day, including school funding, a severance tax on natural gas drilling, property tax reform and a massive transportation funding law Scavello supported last year.

Another issue, though, has loomed larger in the race: Women’s health.

Propped up by at least $837,000 from the SDCC, Aurand has hammered Scavello in television ads for his stance on abortion and his one-time support of controversial legislation that would have required women to have an ultrasound before an abortion — a proposal that has also dogged Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this fall.

Part of Aurand’s criticism stems from a 2012 Pennsylvania Catholic Conference questionnaire in which Scavello answered he opposes abortion in all circumstances. In comments to The Express-Times, Scavello has since said he responded in error and would be OK with exceptions, such as for the health of the mother. On the ultrasound issue, Scavello said he pulled his support of the bill when it became too extreme.

Aurand has tried to capitalize on both shifting stances, and further criticized his opponent after Scavello said during a debate social and religious issues have “no business at all in a Senate debate.”

“We felt it was important that the voters understood that it was not clear what his issue was, his position was, and frankly, we’ve seen him do that on other areas as well,” Aurand said.

AURAND ON OFFENSIVE: Democratic candidate Mark Aurand has targeted Scavello’s shifting stances on women’s health issues in the race.

With people moving into the Pocono region from New York and other metropolitan areas, there’s a sense there are plenty of women voters andreproductive health issues are important in the race, Baldino said. At the same time, the Catholic Church is still a force, even if it doesn’t have as many members in the Pocono region as other parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania, he said.

“You’ve got both parties to lay claim to the mantle of being the candidate that defends and supports women,” Baldino said.

Scavello didn’t immediately return interview requests left with his campaign, but during one debate he blamed an Aurand ad for a threatening phone call his campaign received. That exchange eventually led to his comments that such issues such as abortion had no place in the race.

Not that there hasn’t been plenty of other policy issues to debate.

Like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, Aurand favors a severance tax on natural gas extraction that could be used to bolster education funding. He also favors a moratorium on new wells, saying the state needs to take a “timeout” to revamp regulations to better protect Pennsylvanians’ air and water resources.

Aurand also advocates for a higher minimum wage, another familiar refrain for Democratic candidates across Pennsylvania. He has also worked to portray Scavello as a “rubber stamp” for the embattled Corbett, who has trailed Wolf badly in most polls.

“I think sometimes Mario tries to hold himself as somebody who’s independent and has his own way of doing things, but if you look at his voting record, he by and large will go along with this own party,” Aurand said.

Scavello doesn’t appear to have a campaign website, but his campaign’s Facebook page links to his official state representative website. It touts Scavello’s work on the state budget, his work to overhaul the state’s school funding formula and his desire for property tax reform.

The lawmaker supported legislation that would have eliminated the school funding mechanism and replaced it with sales tax and personal income tax revenue. His Facebook page trumpets his building of a “coalition that is close to finally giving us real relief.”

“Property tax reform is a major problem is so many areas of our state. It is also an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. We cannot let our fellow citizens lose their homes just because they can’t afford to pay unfairly high school property taxes,” he said in a news release when the legislation cleared the Senate Finance Committee.

The legislation had already failed in the House and died before making it to a vote in the Senate this fall, leading Aurand to contend Scavello is promising constituents something that cannot be delivered.

Scavello has also touted last year’s $2.3 billion transportation funding law as a job-creating force that will make Pennsylvania’s infrastructure safer. Aurand seized upon that, too, chastising his opponent for supporting the gas tax increase that came with the funding package.

Scavello still has the advantage

Despite the criticisms from Aurand — and Democrats’ voter registration advantage in the new district — Scavello still appears to be the candidate to beat.

A Harper poll from September found Scavello leading Aurand 51-34, with nearly half of voters “unsure” of their opinion about Aurand. Scavello also canceled his appearance at a recently scheduled debate, behavior typical of a candidate who knows he’s leading, Baldino said.

Megan Sweeney, a state GOP spokeswoman, said the party is confident in Scavello heading into the final stretch of the race.

“The voters know him, they’re familiar with him and they know his record,” she said. “We’re very confident we’re going to be successful.”

That familiarity is one reason Scavello has some power of incumbency, even in a district that technically doesn’t have an incumbent.

“Because it’s Scavello and not an unknown Republican, it’s going to be Scavello’s race to lose,” Baldino said, “and it looks like he’s going to hold it.”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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