National election playing havoc with local races

By Christine Haines

Published Tue Nov 08, 2016 2:15 AM EST

The presidential election is a wildcard in area legislative races, with some political leaders thinking it may help their candidates, while others doubt there are any coattails to ride.

One thing is certain — voter registration has swelled in recent weeks in both Washington and Westmoreland counties, with temporary staff brought in to help process the paperwork in a timely fashion.

In Washington County, 14,000 new voters registered in the past year, with a net increase of 10,000 voters over last year.

“Over 5,000 of those new registrations were dumped on us on deadline day. We brought in extra help. We couldn’t close out our books for the election until those were processed,” said Wes Parry, the assistant director of the Washington County Elections office.

Parry said there is one polling place change to note in California Borough. Precincts 1 and 2 will move back to the borough building to vote. Those precincts had been voting at St. Thomas Aquinas Church because of construction at the borough building, but that is now complete.

Westmoreland County Elections Director Beth Lechman said there are no changes in her county.

“We did not change any polling places this election from the last election. They’ll still have the same voting machines and we trained our poll workers the same way,” Lechman said.

Because of increased voter registration, there will be a few more voting machines in place and extra poll workers will be on hand, Lechman said. The county usually puts out 850 voting machines, but will be using about 880 this election. With 246,000 registered voters, Westmoreland County is at an all-time high.

“The margin between Democrats and Republicans is closer than it has been,” Lechman said.

The senatorial race, much like the presidential race has been contentious since the start with incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and former state Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection Katie McGinty, a Democrat, criticizing one another’s record as they crisscross the state seeking voter support.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, will again face his primary challenger, Art Halvorson of Manns Choice, who now will appear on the Democratic side of the ballot in the 9th Congressional District race.

Although he lost the GOP nod to Shuster, Halvorson received enough Democratic write-in votes to secure the party nod.

While not on the ballot, Uniontown psychologist Adam Sedlock, who has the backing of the Democratic party, is waging a write-in campaign for the seat.

In the state legislative race, Westmoreland County Republican Party Chairman Michael Korns said he expects Justin Walsh to do well in the race for the seat in the 58th Legislative District.

“I think Donald Trump is going to do well in Westmoreland County and very well in the 58th District. I think it will help Justin, but Justin’s also been out working for himself,” Korns said.

Korns said Trump’s popularity in the county offers two advantages locally.

“It helps get more Republicans out and it also helps us in making a pitch to traditional Democrats who may not have considered us before,” Korns said.

Walsh is running against Democrat Mary Popovich, with both vying to replace retiring state Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen.

Westmoreland County Democratic Party chair Lorraine Petrosky said it’s hard to predict how the national election will affect local races.

“I’ve been looking at some of the early voting and exit polls that are going on and is there going to be ticket splitting? Possibly. I’m at a loss for words on how this is going to go,” Petrosky said.

Petrosky said Popovich has had strong support in the district.

“We feel very good about Mary Popovich. She is a very good candidate and she has worked really hard for this,” Petrosky said. “You need to have cooperation in the state House and the Senate. You need people who understand compromise.”

Petrosky said as the election nears, the campaign is continuing to knock on doors and make telephone calls.

Washington County Democratic party chairman Ron Sicchitano said that’s the way campaigns are won in this region, face-to-face, with eye contact and a handshake, a technique he admits both his candidate in the 49th Legislative District, Alan Benyak, and Republican candidate Donald Bud Cook, have both been doing plenty often. The men are running for the seat held by longtime state Rep. Pete Daley, who is retiring.

“I anticipate a tight race. On Bud Cook’s side, he’s been campaigning very hard. On Mr. Benyak’s side, he’s very qualified and he’s also worked very hard,” Sicchitano said. “I anticipate a four point difference between them election night.”

Sicchitano said he doesn’t expect the presidential election to have as much impact on the legislative race as it could.

“In the presidential race they’re deadlocked right now, so there won’t be any coattails. This is an election unlike any that has occurred. They’ll be writing books about this election for years, because of the lack of civility. It’s no holds barred. It’s been in the gutter,” Sicchitano said. “There are no champions. The lesser of two evils will be elected.”

Washington County Republican Party chairman Scott Day said he’s expecting a high voter turnout locally.

“There seems to be a lot of energy for Trump in this area and I think it’s going to help the local Republican candidates on the ballot,” Day said.

Day noted that the state Republican committee has also taken an interest in the local races, particularly the race for the 49th Legislative District.

“Bud has not raised near the money Benyak has, but the state Republican Committee has pumped a lot of money into that race as well. They feel it’s a seat that can be won,” Day said.

For his part, Day said, Cook has been working the district hard, knocking on an average of 90 doors a night, expecting to reach some 21,000 households before Tuesday.

Day said the Republican Party has been gaining momentum in Washington County, gaining steadily on the Democrats who had enjoyed a 3-to-1 registration advantage over the Republicans 30 years ago.

Day said the current ratio is 1.2-to-1, with the registration rapidly approaching the point where the two parties are even. Day said that growth is also showing in the number of Republicans being elected to the state legislature from the county.

“We’ve done quite well over the past five to six years,” Day said. “A lot of the people who are moving into the area for the oil and gas industry are Republicans.”

Day said he is hoping on the national level for a decisive victory for one side or the other, not a vote decided by a slim margin that will result in challenge after challenge.

“We’re going to be bogged down in lawsuits. It’s nothing I want to see. It’s going to be a long, drawn-out affair,” Day said.

Voters will also pick the state’s next attorney general, auditor general and state treasurer, and decide whether the state’s constitution should be amended to allow justices serving at the Supreme Court level, along with other judges and magisterial district judges be permitted to serve until the age of 75. The current retirement age is 70.

The polls will be open today from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

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