There's a lot of attention being paid to the upcoming November election.
Mostly it's focused on the big race. The one with round-the-clock news coverage, nationally televised debates and millions upon millions of dollars in advertising.
But Donald Trump and Joe Biden won't be the only names Berks County voters find on their ballots. This year the county will see an unusually large number of competitive state legislative races as well.
And those running in those contests say the choices that voters make down the ballot might just be even more important than the race that will decide who gets to live in the White House.
There are 11 state legislative districts that include portions of Berks on the ballot this fall.
While there are two sitting members on the path toward another term with no opposition, there is competition in the other nine districts.
One seat will be open and up for grabs, with longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Thomas Caltagirone retiring.
The remaining eight races — seven in the House and one in the Senate — will feature contests with six Republican incumbents facing Democratic challengers and two Democratic incumbents getting Republican challengers.
That crowded political landscape means voters in communities throughout Berks will have choices to make in legislative races at a time when the state is struggling with a global health crisis, an economic fallout created by the coronavirus pandemic, an exploding budget deficit and a growing partisan divide.
The previous three election cycles were all less competitive than 2020, meaning several legislators won reelection simply by showing up.
Two years ago one-third of state legislative seats lacked major party competition. In 2016, there were no competitive races, and in 2014 about one-third were contested.
You have to look all the way back to 2012 to find an election cycle that was as competitive as this year has been.
There may be a number of reasons for this. For one thing, redistricting has left most legislative seats lopsided in favor of one party or the other. Also, potential challengers have acknowledged that incumbents have huge advantages in terms of financial resources and name recognition.
But, local political leaders agreed, you can't win a race if you don't put someone on the ballot.
Lots of choices
Kevin Boughter, chairman of the county Democratic committee, said the credit for fielding candidates in races lies with the people who decided to run in districts that have a voter registration edge that favors the Republican incumbents.
“I think the motivation to run has a lot to do with the direction that the Republican Party is headed,” he said. “These people wanted to get involved and try to make a positive impact on the county.”
Boughter said that while local Democrats are excited about the prospect of defeating Trump in the presidential race, there has also been a focus on changing the way things are being done in Harrisburg.
“Nothing is getting done on the issues that are important to Democrats,” he said. “The Republicans have the majority in both the House and Senate so they have been able to shut Democrats out of the process.”
Boughter said even some Republicans have grown weary of the gridlock, pointing out that a few of the candidates running for seats in the House as Democrats were once registered Republicans who switched sides.
“I think we have a chance to flip some seats, but the way the districts are drawn up heavily favors Republicans right now,” he said. “It will be an uphill battle for some candidates more than others. We know that, but we are not going to give up.”
Clay Breece, chairman of the county Republican committee, said he believes enthusiasm for Trump has been the reason why the party has fielded candidates in traditionally Democratic districts.
“Trump fever is raging in Berks County,” he said. “It comes down to the fact that people want to be part of a winning team.”
Breece said Republicans have never been more energized. He pointed to voter registration figures that show the margin between the two parties in Berks is smaller than it was four years ago when local voters played a critical role in helping Trump win the White House.
“I would submit the Trump phenomenon is making what would have otherwise been a politically unattainable goal of getting all Republican elected in Berks County a reality,” he said.
Breece also credited Gov. Tom Wolf for bolstering that Republican support, claiming his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has hurt citizens financially and violated their rights.
“There really isn't a choice because the (Democratic) candidates who are running in these seats are totally unqualified and incapable of doing the job,” he said. “It's not so much a choice as it is a contrast. They provide the voters a glimpse into the contrasts between Pennsylvania first and everyone else first.”
Some key races
The competition in this year's races is a stark contrast to the past few election cycles.
Nowhere is that more clear than when looking at the races in 11th Senatorial, 124th Legislative and 187th Legislative districts. Each of those races is contested this year but were the exact opposite of competitive in 2016.
That year, each incumbent not only appeared on the ballot under their own party, but managed successful write-in campaigns in the primary to win the opposing party's nomination as well. That meant they effectively ran against themselves in the general election.
Rep. Jerry Knowles, a Republican incumbent who represents the 124th, has done that twice since first being elected to office. He is concluding his sixth term.
“It's a lot of hard work to get on both sides of the ballot,” he said. “But I was able to get a good group of Democrats to support me in those efforts and I was grateful for that.”
Knowles said that regardless of whether he has an opponent, he continues to stay focused on serving his constituents. But he acknowledged that it can be difficult to balance the work that needs to be done in Harrisburg with campaigning for reelection every two years.
“It's just the way it works,” he said. “I always say that I'm there to represent the people of the 124th for as long as they choose to have me there and I take no offense if someone wants to challenge me.”
Taylor Picone, an officer in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, decided to do just that.
“When I started to take a look at running, I was surprised to learn that those in the state House and Senate often run unopposed for significant periods of time compared to the more flashy congressional races,” he said. “So that was one of the motivating factors for me to focus on a state House race.”
Picone said he believes voters need a choice because when there is only one candidate on the ballot that eliminates the ability to hold elected officials accountable.
“You can basically do whatever you want and there's no real consequences,” he said. “I genuinely believe that if I should win that someone should run against me in two years so that the voters have a choice and can validate whether I should be sent back.”
Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat who is seeking a third term in the 11th Senatorial District, agreed that competition in the political arena is healthy.
Schwank said whether she has a challenger has no impact on the way she campaigns. She said she feels she owes her constituents the opportunity to get to know who she is, what she stands for and what she has been doing each time she appears on the ballot.
“This is a chance for them to assess my job performance,” she said. “I never take anything for granted. I would be sending out mailers and showing up to community events because that's just what I do.”
Schwank said having choices at the ballot box is a fundamental component of democracy but that it seems even more important right now because of the division and unrest that dominates the political world.
“This process has to work,” she said. “Our faith in the system is important.”
Annette Baker, a homemaker and local radio personality, said after she lost a write-in campaign to challenge Schwank in 2016 — which led to Schwank appearing on both sides of the ballot — she had a better understanding of what it would take to win against the incumbent.
“We decided that I would run now,” the Brecknock Township resident said. “Looking at the way things are going in Pennsylvania, I decided that we couldn't wait another four years.”
Baker said she believes she has a really good chance of defeating Schwank.
“I think a lot of us sense there's a frustration with the incumbents, particularly the Democratic incumbents,” she said. “I've met dozens of Democrats who tell me that they're not voting for Democrats anymore because they don't recognize the party anymore.”
And she said with Trump on the ballot the local Republican committee sees this as their best chance to make a change in leadership despite the fact that registered GOP voters are outnumbered by registered Democratic voters by about 20,000 in the district.
Gary Day, a Republican incumbent who represents the 187th Legislative District, said that while registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in his district he believes the seat is more competitive than the figures show.
Day said he believes competition makes him a better candidate. He said he tries hard to listen to the opinions from all sides equally so that he has a better understanding of the issues that are important to Democrats in his district.
“The registration is pretty close,” he said. “I keep in mind everyone's ideas, and I think that's what makes me a better state representative.
“Obviously, I would like to be so widely loved that no one else ever ran against me,” he said with a laugh. “But when I take myself out of it and try to be objective I believe there should always be a choice for people.”
Michael Blichar Jr. said he's happy to be providing that choice in the 187th.
Blichar, who serves as an academic coach at Northampton Community College, said one of the things he has heard consistently from people on the campaign trail is that his opponent has been in office for more than a decade and they want more choices.
“I've heard people thank me for giving them an option,” he said. “I have already planned to run as many times as it takes to flip this district because I do believe it can be flipped. I think at some point people will start to see the lack of transparency and accountability they have with the incumbent in place.”
But, he pointed out, his chances may be better than expected given how many people are deciding to vote by mail.
“You don't have time to look up the candidates at the polls, but you do when you're sitting down at your kitchen table looking over the ballot,” he said. “Now when they look up my name they can find all my information and where I stand on the issues. And they will get to compare me and my opponent.”