The path to a majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives likely runs through about a dozen towns clustered together on the Allegheny River, just northeast of Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania House of Representatives District 33, a swing area stretching from Sharpsburg to Harrison, presents a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats and a seat critical for Republicans to hold. It also provides a way to see changes in voting patterns happening across the state and country: leafy, affluent suburbs moving left and white, blue-collar areas moving right.
The district has gone back and forth between the Democratic and Republican parties. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election here by a one-tenth of a percentage point — a margin of 58 votes — and voters that year also narrowly re-elected now-retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. Voters later gave a nearly 22-point margin of victory to Gov. Tom Wolf in his 2018 re-election campaign, and President Joe Biden won by four points in 2020.
With current Republican state Rep. Carrie DelRosso now running for lieutenant governor, the House seat is up for grabs.
Mandy Steele, the Democratic candidate for the 33rd District, has lived here her whole life and in 2019 became the first woman and first Democrat elected on the Fox Chapel Borough Council. Steele said she has been involved for years in community advocacy.
Steele noted that the northern part of the district has a history of manufacturing and energy production, with an ATI specialty metals plant running in Brackenridge and a PPG facility in Springdale pumping out coatings. She said she hopes to restore economic vibrancy and manufacturing potential to the area through clean energy.
“I have a background in logistics and clean energy, and I have been aware of this potential for years,” Steele said. “When the new [district] maps were drawn, I understood that we needed someone in there who was going to embrace this, and so I decided to run.”
Along with clean energy, Steele’s campaign focuses on supporting public schools, funding law enforcement and prioritizing transit investment. She is also vocal about protecting abortion access for women, an issue voters have told her is important to them.
“[Voters] are really concerned about abortion, and just getting to the doors and connecting with them and saying, ‘I’m a mom of four little kids, and my daughters, at this point, have fewer rights than I did,’ that resonates with them,” Steele said.
Steele said she has been knocking on doors since January and has been to thousands of households in the district.
“I’m able to meet people face to face and say, ‘Look, I am your neighbor and … we can create jobs and improve our infrastructure and uplift all of our communities when we pursue this opportunity,’” she said. “People are excited about that message of hope and optimism, and they believe in it. They know that it’s real, and they know that we’ve got to move on it.”
Ted Tomson II, the Republican candidate, is a small business owner and lifelong Allegheny Valley resident. With a background in finance and public policy, Tomson has been personally and professionally involved with the district community, according to his website. His family owns Tomson Scrap Metal, a recycling company with locations in Brackenridge and Harrison.
Tomson said in a September interview with KDKA-TV that one of his top priorities will be working to strengthen the local economy. He explained on his website that he wants to make sure “government and business can look at each other as partners instead of adversaries.”
“By rebuilding infrastructure through government and private industry improvements that support high-paying jobs and assist small businesses, we can restore the economic benefits and influence our district once enjoyed,” his website reads.
Tomson also advocates for supporting the production of coal, oil and natural gas, supporting first responders, maintaining “integrity” of elections, tackling the opioid crisis and expanding broadband access. He has been endorsed by the Laborers’ District Council of Western Pennsylvania, as well as LifePAC, a group that opposes abortions.
Tomson appeared on a pre-primary flyer from LifePAC, which included candidates who supported banning abortion without exceptions for rape and incest. He said in the September interview with KDKA that he supports exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health, while adding that abortion is “not really a defining issue in my campaign.”
Tomson’s campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.
‘Evenly matched’ district
The 33rd District is largely pulled in different directions by its two geographic halves.
Areas such as Brackenridge and Harrison, which dot Freeport Road in the northern part of the district and in some cases have a local poverty rate double what’s seen statewide, are moving quickly to the right. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney won Harrison by four points in 2012, while former President Donald Trump won by more than 11 points in 2020.
Michael O’Connell, a longtime Republican strategist who has lived in Harrison for 25 years, said some “pretty dependable” Democratic areas are now going through a generational transition. He has found the voting shifts underway in this area, where row houses fill small blocks and signs on light poles honor hometown veterans, to be largely driven by “cultural” factors.
“There’s a sense of attachment to place and to identity that makes the Republican message resonate. It’s not about the details, it never really has been about the details of, ‘How precisely do you do a tax cut?’” he said. “It’s about, ‘Yeah, we got your back, we understand where you’re coming from.’ And there’s a comfort level there.”
O’Connell will sometimes find voters uninterested in getting into the weeds on policy, which he said was “profound” and can make them “impervious to a lot of persuasion.” He argued that “what’s left for campaigns to do” is to focus on turning out voters — efforts that include knocking on doors, making phone calls and sending reminders to fill out mail ballots.
“The unanswerable question is not whether this is a long-term phenomenon because, as the song says, Trump didn’t start the fire,” he said of current political changes. “And, yes, it became more pronounced under Trump, in both directions, but that’s not where the story begins.”
Shifts in voting patterns are just as stark just a few miles down Route 28.
Longtime Republican voters in the district’s southern section appear to be quickly changing their party allegiance. Just a few years after affluent Fox Chapel voted by nearly 18 points for Romney, the Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential election, the borough helped send Biden to the White House with a 23-point margin of victory.
Allison Stein, who leads the Fox Chapel Democrats, said she thinks the Republican party has “gone too far” for voters in her community.
“There’s a commonality amongst us here in Fox Chapel. Most of us have school-age kids; most of us came here for the public schools,” she said. “Most of us, just, we don’t want government up in our face, we want it just to run. We don’t want to see temper tantrums on Twitter all the time.”
The local Democratic committee, which had essentially been dormant, revived itself in fall 2018 and has since racked up wins in local elections. The borough council, which had never seen a member who was a woman or a Democrat, now has two, including Steele.
Stein, who described herself as the “quintessential suburban soccer mom” who didn’t pay attention to politics until 2016, now has the job of trying to convince her neighbors to vote up and down the ballot for Democrats. She said she’s seen abortion rights as a key motivator this election and focuses her pitch on candidates aligning with a voter’s values.
“Plenty of people are free in saying to me, ‘I wouldn’t have an abortion, but I don’t want the Legislature or other people to decide for women what they can or can’t do with their bodies,’” she said. “If I can explain to them that the state Legislature has a lot of control over that, it helps to convince them to vote straight blue.”
O’Connell, who has worked in politics for decades, said he was "not sure there's a result that would surprise me" and isn’t sure how all of these changes will add up on Nov. 8.
“It’s a funny district,” he said. “It looks neat and compact and simple on a map, but it is everything from Fox Chapel itself up to the Butler County line. A map of partisan preferences of that is a mirror image of what it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.”