Can a moderate Republican like Tom Killion survive in the Philly suburbs?

After Democratic successes in southeastern Pa., he returns to a state Senate seat that will be a political target

  • Ed Mahon

Tom Killion and Tom McGarrigle, two Republicans from Delaware County, often found themselves on the same side of issues.

In March 2017, the two Toms stood on stage together and pushed for increased protections for domestic violence victims — and increased gun restrictions.

Both called for some version of a severance tax on natural gas drilling — a frequent priority of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

In October 2018, after Republican leaders in the state Senate chose not to call a vote on clergy abuse legislation, they put out a joint news release saying how disappointed they were.

The two state senators were frequently on the moderate end of the Republican spectrum, staking out positions that might make sense for a moderate Democrat. But after November’s election results, it’s increasingly uncertain whether that type of Republican can survive in suburban Philadelphia districts.

That could give conservative members more power to set the agenda for the caucus, and it could make compromise more difficult.

McGarrigle is already on his way out. He lost in November to the Democratic mayor of a small college town, and his term ends today.

Killion will return to the state Senate, which will still be controlled by Republicans. His four year-term began in 2016, so he’s not up for re-election until 2020.

“Tom Killion ought to be very worried. …I know we’ll be coming after that seat,” said Dick Bingham, chairman of the Chester County Democratic Committee.

Killion brushed off concerns about the next election. He said, as a candidate, you always think you can survive — and you always have to assume you’re in trouble.

“You can’t worry. That’s the game we’re in. It’s what we chose to do,” said Killion, who plans to run for re-election. “You buckle up and just work hard to get your message out.”

A wave in the Philly suburbs changes the Legislature

On election night, McGarrigle lost by nearly 10,000 votes, according to the unofficial returns.

Here’s how the Delaware County Daily Times described part of his concession speech:

McGarrigle told his supporters, “This had nothing to do with you. This had to do with a very unpopular president in a very unpopular time in this country. It’s really a shame but you know what? I had a hell of a run and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Then, as his voice broke, he said, “To my friends and family, I thank you.”

Democrats picked up five state Senate seats in November: four in the Philly suburbs and one in Allegheny County.

Republicans did hold on to two state Senate seats in the Philly suburbs, including the Bucks County seat held by incumbent Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson. In 2014, Tomlinson won re-election by about 17,000 votes. This time, he won by about 75.

For Killion, it was “horrible” to see McGarrigle lose. They’ve been “friends forever,” he said.

“Nothing against his replacement. I mean, that’s part of the game. You win. You lose,” Killion said. “But Tom and I were good friends. As far as I’m concerned, he was a great senator. I know he was a great senator.”

Killion could have the same fate in 2020.

State Sen. Tom Killion, a Republican from Delaware County, is up for re-election in 2020. He is seen here in his Brookhaven district office on Wednesday Nov. 28, 2018.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

State Sen. Tom Killion, a Republican from Delaware County, is up for re-election in 2020. He is seen here in his Brookhaven district office on Wednesday Nov. 28, 2018.

“Hollywood East”

Killion has described his district as “probably the most diverse” in the state.

“I have the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor,” Killion said.

It includes: Chester, a city that has received national attention for its high crime rate; the Marcus Hook industrial complex along the Delaware River; the headquarters of convenience chain Wawa; the mushroom farms of the Kennett Square area; and lots of middle-class and wealthier suburbs.

His district, the 9th, is split between Delaware and Chester counties. The former has voted Democratic in presidential races from 1992 onward, but Republicans managed to keep local control. Then, in 2017, Democrats surged there, picking up two seats on County Council. Chester County has, historically, been more reliably Republican nationally — but Trump lost there in 2016 and local Democrats had big wins there in 2017.

Killion’s Brookhaven office is in the Delaware County section, a few miles from the Delaware River. It’s in the same shopping center as a martial arts studio, a pediatrics office and an eye care center. Inside, he has a green and white shamrock decoration that says “failte” — a Gaelic word for welcome.

During an interview there, Killion was asked about lessons from the election for the Republican caucus in the Senate. He didn’t mention any. Instead, he talked about the unpopularity of President Donald Trump, how the Republican statewide and congressional candidates lost by a lot in the area, and changes in the region, which has been shifting toward Democrats.

In this upcoming session, Killion will be pushing for several measures in a caucus that has lost some of the more moderate Republicans.

He wants to expand the film tax credit by tens of millions of dollars to $100 million a year. His district is home to Sun Center Studios, which he recently referred to as “Hollywood East.” (Killion saw part of the filming of a “Creed II” boxing scene there. His pitch is all about the jobs the studios support, from caterers to lumber providers.)

He wants to pick up legislation from an outgoing Republican, a bill that aims to transition Pennsylvania to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

And he wants to create extreme risk protection orders that allow a judge to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns. It’s a measure that Wolf has supported and the NRA has opposed.

So how will he try to get those bills through the new Senate?

Killion didn’t describe a major shift in strategy. On the extreme risk protection order bill, for instance, he talked about taking a similar approach he did for a bill that increased restrictions in domestic violence cases. That won support from Senate leadership.

“We’ll sell it as a public safety bill, as well as an individual safety bill,” Killion said.

The Republican caucus, Killion said, has clearly moved further to the right. But he said the leadership will hear him out on issues.

“They get it. They understand the issues in the southeast,” Killion said. “…Would it be easier if I had three, four other voices that were saying the exact same thing as me? Sure. But I just have to speak louder.”

Sun Center Studios in Delaware County is seen in this Nov. 28, 2018 photo.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Sun Center Studios in Delaware County is seen in this Nov. 28, 2018 photo.

Abortion, guns and the 2020 election

Despite some votes where Killion and McGarrigle might line up with a typical moderate suburban Democrat, there were differences. Killion and McGarrigle, for instance, both voted in favor of legislation to ban abortions at 20 weeks — which was vetoed by Wolf.

In the November election, Planned Parenthood endorsed McGarrigle’s opponent and the four other Democrats who flipped state Senate seats.

“I know that folks talk about the Republicans who lost in the southeast as moderates, but for women’s health votes, that really wasn’t the case,” said Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood’s political arm in Pennsylvania. “So those wins were a very big deal.”

Stevens said the decision by Republican leaders to move forward on abortion bills makes Republicans in southeastern Pennsylvania more vulnerable.

Killion didn’t criticize Republican leadership for the abortion legislation — but he said he’d rather focus on bills Wolf won’t veto.

“I mean, I’m pro-life, and so I support that legislation,” Killion said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got make sure you can win.”

Killion worked with state Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks County, to increase gun restrictions in domestic violence and protection-from-abuse cases. It was a rare instance of a gun restriction passing in Pennsylvania.

But Quinn won’t be returning to the Capitol. She ran for a Bucks County state Senate seat that was previously held by a Republican. She lost by about 6,500 votes.

“I think the loss of moderates will hurt the chance for bipartisan work on many, many issues,” Quinn said recently, according to Billy Penn.

CeaseFirePA executive director Shira Goodman said she expects Tim Kearney, the Democrat who defeated McGarrigle, will be a strong voice on gun violence issues and will vote in ways she likes. And with more Democrats in the state Senate, it might be easier to move some bills through committees.

But Goodman said the absence of McGarrigle, who supported the domestic violence bill and other gun restrictions, is a loss. The party caucuses meet behind closed doors, and those discussions can be key for which bills pass.

“Will there be Republicans who are pushing those issues?” Goodman said, later adding, “What does that mean for getting things on the agenda, and convincing the caucus to move?”

During a recent floor speech, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, talked about the importance of compromise.

In the state House, the new majority leader, Bryan Cutler, pointed to the losses of several moderate Republicans in the southeast as one reason consensus could be harder to reach.

“I think both caucuses shifted a little bit away from each other, so I think that yeah we’ll have some challenges because of that,” Cutler said.

Kearney, the Swarthmore Democrat who defeated McGarrigle, said he’s optimistic that Republicans will be more willing to compromise on guns and other issues given their smaller majority in the state Senate.

“I hope that the Republican majority kind of wakes up and can really talk about these things in a different way,” Kearney said.

 

Will the wave be stronger in 2020?

Killion is now the only Republican state senator representing either Delaware County or Chester County.

“If there’s anybody in Harrisburg who should be terrified right now it’s got to be Tom Killion,” said David Marshall, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

Killion’s seat, along with one in Erie County, look like they will be two of the top opportunities for Democrats in 2020, Marshall said.

Val DiGiorgio, chairman of both the state GOP and Chester County GOP, said any suburban seat presents a challenge for Republicans nationwide.

“We need to do a better job of showing to suburban voters, especially women, that we have an agenda for health care, that we have an agenda for education,” DiGiorgio said, “and that we care about the needs of people, other than folks just in our districts — that we’ve got a national message.”

DiGiorgio described Killion as a seasoned lawmaker, who knows how to vote with his district and to communicate with the people there.

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant, also talked about the national trends that hurt southeastern Pennsylvania Republicans in November.

For Killion, Nicholas’ advice is to focus on doing good work in the Senate, the kind of work that helped Killion win seven state House races and two state Senate races over the years.

“And you have to hope that the wave that shook through has kind of, you know, spent all its energy,” Nicholas said.

Katie Meyer, WITF’s Capitol bureau chief, contributed to this report.

 


What the Senate will look like in the new session

Light blue = District flipped from Republican to Democrat

Dark blue = Democrat

Red = Republican