Incumbents in Congress opposed in just 2 districts this primary

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After a turbulent decade with big and contrasting partisan shifts, a quieter atmosphere has descended on Pennsylvania's congressional picture.

The 2006 and 2008 election cycles brought gains in the Democratic direction within the delegation. The Republican tide of 2010 swept out several Democratic incumbents, and after the subsequent GOP-controlled redistricting, the GOP delegation further solidified its position.

In 2010, the state was represented in the U.S. House by 12 Democrats and seven Republicans. Now after the 2010 Census and national reapportionment dictated the loss of one of Pennsylvania's seats, the balance is 13 Republicans and just five Democrats. Two pending retirements among incumbent members create the possibility for a partisan movement in the fall, although only one of those two seats is regarded as a prime November battleground.

In the May 20 primary, only two incumbents face competitors from within their own parties.

In the 14th District, Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, faces a repeat challenge from Janis Brooks, who heads a North Versailles social services agency. Mr. Doyle, the state's most senior congressman, defeated her by a 4-to-1 margin the last time around. He is once again regarded as an overwhelming favorite to continue to represent a district that includes the city of Pittsburgh and eastern and southern suburbs stretching down to the Mon Valley.

No Republican has filed for the seat, which is just as well. The district was already heavily Democratic and it became more so in redistricting as GOP mapmakers, interested in improving the prospects of Republican candidates in adjoining districts, shifted more Democratic voters into the 14th.

The other incumbent challenged from within his own party this month is Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, who won a special election to succeed his father in the seat in 2001. He's also followed his father into the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

It's still a powerful post, but less so since the demise of the earmark culture that fueled the elder Shuster's clout.

He faces two challengers, Art Halvorson, a retired Coast Guard officer, and Travis Schooley, a Franklin County farmer. That divided opposition is just one of the incumbent's advantages in the race. He reported a contribution total of more than $2.8 million, compared with about $160,000 for Mr. Halvorson and $20,000 for Mr. Schooley.

The Halvorson candidacy initially attracted attention from some national conservative groups, but he hasn't been able to translate that spotlight into significant fundraising.

Mr. Shuster and Mr. Halvorson have traded characterizations on who is more conservative. The challenger has tried to portray Mr. Shuster as the heir to the big-spending ways of his father. The incumbent has tried to put his principal challenger on the defensive by noting that while he has criticized federal spending for farm subsidies, he also has benefitted from the program.

Given their disparity in resources, Mr. Shuster has the more powerful megaphone for his message.

The race in the new 12th

The new 12th Congressional District stretches from Lawrence and Beaver counties across a narrower band of northern Allegheny and Westmoreland counties and into parts of Cambria and Somerset counties. It is the hybrid of two seats that attracted a national focus in recent elections.

Former Rep. Jason Altmire won a major upset in 2006 when he ousted Republican Melissa Hart from the old 4th District, which included communities in the western part of the new 12th District. The balance, the former 12th District, had been represented by the late John Murtha for a generation.

Former Rep. Mark Critz, now a candidate for lieutenant governor, won that seat in a special election in 2010.

With one Pennsylvania seat on the chopping block after the 2010 Census, Republicans chose to force Mr. Critz, a former Murtha aide, and Mr. Altmire into the same district. Mr. Critz won their primary, but Republican Keith Rothfus, who had lost narrowly to Mr. Altmire in 2010, managed to oust Mr. Critz, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Vying for the chance to take on Mr. Rothfus this year are Erin McClelland, a Harrison businesswoman, and John Hugya, a retired Marine Corps colonel and another former aide to Mr. Murtha.

Mr. Hugya makes no apologies for the brand of big federal spending his former boss advocated. He sees major infrastructure projects as the only way to restore vigorous growth to a stalled economy.

Ms. McClelland operates Arche Wellness, a rehab center for substance abuse and other medical and psychological issues. She maintains that her knowledge of the health care system will allow her to be a voice to correct flaws and improve the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

She places particular emphasis on the need to be more aggressive in eradicating medical errors, which she sees as a fundamental problem in the health care system.

She has a big fundraising lead over Mr. Hugya. Her receipts of about $150,000 are triple Mr. Hugya's contributions.

Ms. McClelland has also picked up the lion's share of the labor endorsements in a district where unions have been influential in recent primaries. In April, the state AFL-CIO threw its weight behind her candidacy.

The Democrats' fundraising is dwarfed by Mr. Rothfus' war chest, more than $1.4 million at the end of the latest reporting period. While Mr. Rothfus only narrowly managed to defeat Mr. Critz two years ago, the non-partisan Cook Political Report categorizes the district as solid Republican.

While President Barack Obama was winning the state easily in 2012, Mitt Romney carried the district by 17 percentage points. Ms. McClelland notes, however, that Democrats retain a registration advantage in the district, and that the state Democratic attorney general, Kathleen Kane, managed to carry it despite the strong Romney showing.

While Mr. Rothfus doesn't seem threatened at this point, some Republicans are at least paying attention to Ms. McClelland. Megan Carpenter, the Beaver County GOP chair, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, contending that a television ad running for her business, and featuring her, represents an unfair campaign contribution. Ms. McClelland shrugged off the complaint, maintaining that the rehab center had advertised regularly throughout its existence.

"It was a $2,900 ad buy from midnight to 5 a.m.," she said.

On the other side of the state

A more crowded and intensely contested primary is begin waged on the other side of the state, as four Democrats are battling for the nomination to succeed Rep. Allyson Schwartz in a district that includes parts of Montgomery County and Philadelphia. The winner is expected to retain the heavily Democratic 13th District.

The state's other open seat, also in the Southeast, is the 6th District, which includes parts of Chester, Berks, and Montgomery counties.

Rep. Jim Gerlach, the moderate Republican who's represented the district since 2002, made a surprise decision earlier this year not to seek re-election. Gerlach was a regular target of Democrats through his tenure, but despite the Southeast's increasing Democratic voting performance, he managed to fend off successive well-funded challenges.

Things are quiet there now. Both the Republican and Democratic primaries are uncontested. Manan Trivedi, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee the last time around, will face Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello in the race to succeed Mr. Gerlach.

The 6th District, along with the 8th District, the Bucks County seat now held by Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, represents the Democrats' best opportunities to cut into the GOP majority in the state delegation. While the Cook Political Reports categorizes both as leaning Republican, they are the only Pennsylvania seats on Cook's list of competitive districts.

In Western Pennsylvania, the fiery Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, has no opposition for renomination. In the fall, he will face Dan LaVallee, who is unopposed on the Democratic ballot. In a neighboring district, the 18th, Rep. Tim Murphy is in the enviable position of having no opposition in either the primary or the general election, barring the unlikely emergence of a write-in challenger.

Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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