Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pa. election 2024: Bryan Cutler survives primary challenge, Kevin Boyle loses Pa. House seat

GOP state Rep. Bryan Cutler speaks at the Capitol
Commonwealth Media Services
GOP state Rep. Bryan Cutler speaks at the Capitol

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking state House Republican has survived a formidable primary challenge from the right, heading off what would have been a big shakeup in Harrisburg.

Elsewhere in the state, the Democratic party establishment got its way with the ouster of a northeast Philadelphia representative who has been absent from the Capitol and is, according to his family, dealing with a mental health condition.

Several other state House incumbents also faced tough primaries. As of Wednesday at 10 a.m., one Republican incumbent had lost his seat while two other lawmakers facing serious primary challengers held on. Other races had yet to be called by the Associated Press, including one separated by just a handful of votes.

The most-watched race of the primary was in southern Lancaster County, where Minority Leader Bryan Cutler was defending his seat against business owner and church deacon David Nissley in the conservative, mostly rural 100th District.

Cutler, a former X-ray tech and lawyer, joined the state House after beating a GOP incumbent in 2006. He rose through the Republican ranks, with his colleagues electing him as majority leader in 2018. Cutler later became state House speaker, a role he held until Democrats flipped the chamber in 2022.

He has a record of bipartisan compromise — supporting, for instance, Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail voting law Act 77. That bipartisan change has repeatedly gotten Cutler and other top Republicans in hot water with the wing of their party aligned with former President Donald Trump, who since 2020 has attacked the use of mail ballots.

Cutler has defended the law but argued it was “hijacked” by judicial rulings. “The problem with Act 77 is it was completely rewritten by the courts,” Cutler said in a forum this month.

Nissley made his Christian faith central to his campaign, saying he was “greatly influenced by the unapologetic mingling of church, state, and family throughout the COVID pandemic.” He cast Cutler as insufficiently conservative to represent the district and too open to compromise with Democrats.

The district’s voters, Nissley told Spotlight PA Tuesday, “want bipartisanship, but not at the expense of principle.”

Along with highlighting Cutler’s role in passing Act 77, Nissley and the groups supporting him also criticized Cutler for voting in favor of a power-sharing agreement that installed a Democrat, state Rep. Mark Rozzi, as a temporary speaker last year.

Cutler also faced a primary challenge in 2022 on similar lines, but Nissley was particularly well-funded, getting cash from a mix of Lancaster County business owners and a conservative political group mostly funded by billionaire Jeff Yass.

Despite all the spending, voters didn’t seem to buy the attacks against Cutler. Joanne Dissinger, an 84-year-old Republican from Quarryville, said she’s known Cutler since he was a “knee-high grasshopper” and was surprised he even faced a challenger.

“I can’t imagine anyone else being in that position,” she told Spotlight PA after casting her vote.

Cutler, who received the bulk of his party’s institutional support, also got money from a different PAC largely funded by Yass, as well as from interest groups like the Pennsylvania Automotive Association and Pennsylvania Bankers Association and John Bear, a former state representative and the CEO of lobbying group GSL Public Strategies.

The state House Republican campaign arm, which also spent in Cutler’s favor, has also received money from Yass’ web of PACs as recently as November 2023.

Looking forward to November, Cutler said his priority was flipping the chamber and continuing to find compromise when it made sense.

“We have to actually govern when we're in the majority,” he told Spotlight PA. “And if you want your values to be represented at the negotiating table, you first have to get through the door.”

Embattled state Rep. Kevin Boyle loses seat

About 75 miles away in Northeast Philadelphia’s 172nd House District, another party-backed candidate also won his race — but this time, he was unseating an incumbent.

The seat is held by state Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia). Local police said last week a warrant for his arrest had been issued for violating a protection from abuse order. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office withdrew the warrant a day before the election because the order was not active.

As the chaotic scene unfolded the week before the primary election, Democratic legislative leaders said they believed Boyle needed professional help and supported his exit from the body. Leaders took what could be the first steps toward expelling him, filing a rule change to create a new, bipartisan subcommittee to confidentially investigate cases of “incapacity” of an elected official.

Boyle’s opponent, attorney Sean Dougherty, is politically connected. Dougherty is the son of state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty and the nephew of former Philadelphia electricians’ union head John Dougherty, a longtime political power broker now mired in legal issues.

Boyle, whose brother is U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.), has been open about his mental health challenges in the past. In fall 2021, state House Democrats, then in the minority, revoked his access to the state Capitol and took away his ranking status on a committee. He was arrested for violating a PFA taken out by his then-wife, although the charges against him were expunged.

Boyle stayed in office as Democrats flipped the chamber, and he became chair of the Insurance Committee, which was active for the first half of 2023. However, his presence in Harrisburg was again curtailed after a video surfaced in February 2024 of him getting into a verbal altercation at a Montgomery County bar.

Democratic leadership again revoked Boyle’s Capitol badge access and stripped him of his committee chairmanship while recruiting and funding Dougherty.

According to campaign finance records, state House Democrats’ campaign arm had spent $330,000 to back Dougherty as of April 19.

Other tough incumbent elections

Cutler wasn’t the only Republican who faced a challenge from the right this primary season.

Other members in similar situations included state Reps. Mike Cabell (R., Luzerne), Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), and Jim Gregory (R., Blair).

Gregory decisively lost his primary while Diamond won by a comfortable margin. As of Wednesday at 10 a.m., the AP had yet to call Cabell’s race, with the incumbent down by just 8 votes.

In Gregory’s race, as in Cutler’s, a central issue was his role in the power-sharing agreement that installed Rozzi as a temporary state House speaker. Rozzi essentially kept the seat warm until Democrats had enough votes to install state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia).

Gregory and Rozzi are both survivors of child sexual abuse and were close allies in an effort to advance a constitutional amendment that would allow survivors to sue their abusers even if the statute of limitations has expired. Gregory was instrumental in the power-sharing agreement, but later called for Rozzi to resign after he failed to leave the Democratic party, as he had previously indicated he would do.

Gregory’s opponent, Scott Barger, told WPSU that Gregory’s support for Rozzi put a stop to “any conservative agenda that we were working on.” Barger was mostly backed by local donors, but he also received $15,000 from a PAC associated with archconservative state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin). Mastriano was the 2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee.

The PAC also put $35,000 behind school board member Rachel Moyer’s challenge to Diamond in Lebanon County.

Like Mastriano, Diamond — a former anti-establishment activist turned state lawmaker — was a critic of pandemic lockdowns and skeptic of the 2020 election results. However, the two split after Diamond publicly called for Mastriano not to run for U.S. Senate in 2024.

Diamond received financial support from his legislative colleagues, the PAC of pharma giant Bayer, lobbyists, and Republican Party officials in Lebanon County.

In northeast Pennsylvania, Cabell enjoyed the backing of his colleagues and numerous establishment groups, including the building trades and a PAC connected to former Democrat-turned-independent Luzerne County state Sen. John Yudichak.

Cabell’s opponent is conservative activist James Walsh, who was backed by the same conservative group that challenged Cutler.

Among the contentious Democratic races on the ballot were one in Pittsburgh and one in Philadelphia.

To the west, state Rep. Abigail Salisbury (D., Allegheny) had a challenger backed by the prominent member of Congress who used to hold her seat: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.

Lee and other Pittsburgh progressives, many of them Harrisburg veterans, had initially supported local school board member Ashley Comans to take Lee’s seat, and that support continued despite Salisbury’s victory in a 2023 special election — to the chagrin of some of Salisbury’s current colleagues.

Comans ran again in this year’s primary and lost, earning just 37% of the vote, according to unofficial results.

And in West Philadelphia, a district with perennially messy politics continued as usual. State Rep. Amen Brown (D., Philadelphia), who was elected to the 10th District after a tumultuous period that saw two successive representatives in the district convicted of crimes, faced two primary challengers: progressive community organizer Cass Green and radio host Sadja Blackwell.

As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Brown’s race had not been called by the AP, though the incumbent was leading by more than 100 votes.

Green had raised nearly twice as much as Brown as of April 8, according to campaign finance records, with donations from teachers’ and service workers’ unions and local leftist organizations. Brown is a tough-on-crime and pro-school-choice Democrat who counts Yass among his backers.

His time in office has been turbulent. Along with running an unsuccessful bid for mayor last year, Brown has been repeatedly admonished for sloppy reelection paperwork and scrutinized for accusations of questionable businessdealings.