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Every Pa. election should be contested

According to a Post-Gazette report by Ford Turner, 83 of a sampled 98 incumbents running for reelection to the state’s House of Representatives are running unopposed in the primary. In almost all those cases, would-be candidates see no use in giving up time, energy and political capital to lose an election they are fated to lose.

It’s a rational decision for people considering a run for office. It’s a bad phenomenon for democratic politics in our state.

In Allegheny County, for example, 14 of the incumbent state representatives kept their seats in the 2022 elections. In the four cases of elections following special elections, the district elected a member of the same party. In the one case when a primary challenger defeated the incumbent, the party kept the seat. Only one of the 20 districts switched parties as well as representatives.

The open seats with no incumbent aren’t much better. With many open seats, one party can be said to be the incumbent party and it almost always wins. The only question voters have, and only if they’re members of the incumbent party, is which candidate will win the primary and therefor the election. And since primary voters tend to be more hard line than other party members, they tend to pick more partisan candidates.

For example, the 63rd district, northeast of Pittsburgh, is a rural, heavily Republican district. The current representative, Donna Oberlander, ran unopposed in 2022 and 2020, after winning three-quarters of the vote in the two previous elections, and running unopposed before that. Five candidates are running in the Republican primary, one in the Democratic. The Democratic candidate has only the tiniest of chances of being elected.

In other words, in normal election years, all the incumbents running unopposed will win, almost all the incumbents facing a challenger will win, and even when the seat is open the same party will win. An earthquake in national politics can shift state and local politics as well, but in terms of offices like state representative, historically not that much.

Opinions vary on how good or bad this is. The officeholders themselves and people involved in the political system argue for the value of incumbency, because incumbents know how the system works and have good relations with other people in office, both needed to get things done, and they know their districts well.

Critics point to the other side: that they can get too comfortable in office, too used to doing deals, too caught up in partisan politics (see: Harrisburg), and too distant from their constituents and their constituents’ concerns, because they don’t need to worry about losing their office.

Both have a point. The responsibility for making sure that incumbents stay rooted in their home districts is the voters’. No possible structural change will reduce the desire to stay in office very much.

But we again point to the value of opening state primaries to independent voters, who tend to be much more moderate than the party’s primary voters. There are over 90,000 independent voters in Allegheny County. Their presence among the actual voters will encourage incumbents to consider more centrist points of view and more bipartisan efforts. It might also encourage new people to enter politics, and that would be a boon.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette