The long-term political effects of Pennsylvania's 18 new congressional districts will be unknown for years. In the short term, mapmakers have drawn a district north and east of Pittsburgh that will host the biggest congressional race in the state next year.
Republican lawmakers controlling the redistricting process stretched far to protect the state's 12 GOP congressmen when they released the maps Tuesday night. At the same time, they packed Democrats into five safe seats largely around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- and one pushing Wilkes-Barre and Easton into a seat based farther to the south -- leaving few seats open to clear competition.
The new 12th District shared by Democrats Jason Altmire of McCandless and Mark Critz of Johnstown is the exception. Not only will it force one of the state's Democrats out of office, but it will leave them in a district with a slight Republican registration edge and a tough re-election battle in November when they share the ballot with President Barack Obama.
No matter which Democrat wins the 12th District primary, "they will only have a few hours to savor victory before they're thrown into the maelstrom that is the general" election, said Chris Nicholas, a GOP consultant and the Pennsylvania Business Council's political director. "You're going to have a battered and bruised Democratic primary winner, who will be broke."
The state Senate moved on the new district lines Wednesday, making way for a final House vote next week. That was over complaints from officials of both parties over the way counties were chopped up in the state's southeast, a move that will likely push more Republican votes to such GOP incumbents as Jim Gerlach, R-Chester, and Pat Meehan, R-Delaware, but slice up county and municipal borders.
Montgomery County -- home to the third most Democratic voters in the state -- has parts of five congressional districts.
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, voted against the map approved by the Senate state government committee, complaining that it was an attempt by fellow Republicans to "compensate" for the surplus of Democrats on the state's voter registration rolls. "It could have been done in a more contiguous and compact way," he said.
Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler also faulted the design of the maps, while acknowledging Democrats would have done the same thing if they were in control. (Indeed, Democratic leaders released their own map Wednesday full of similarly elastic districts. The one for Mr. Critz went from Greene County all the way to Tioga County in the northcentral part of the state.)
"Gerrymandering and redistricting are the foundation of a lot of the problems we have in this country. You draw these safe seats, and what it's doing -- whether they are safe for Democrats or Republicans -- is you are really giving a lot of power to the extremes of each party," Mr. Ceisler said.
The 12th District again is an exception. The district stretching from Beaver County in Mr. Altmire's district to Mr. Critz's home in Johnstown is represented by Democrats but voted for John McCain in 2008, making it a better fit for a moderate in either party.
Voters in the new 12th District supported the 2008 Republican presidential candidate about 4 points more than in the old one, further aiding a GOP candidate next year. Possible GOP candidates include state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, and Edgeworth attorney Keith Rothfus, who lost to Mr. Altmire by less than 2 points in 2010. Mr. Rothfus lives in the new 18th District but plans to move into the 12th, possibly in Sewickley, which is two blocks from his home.
In the state's northwest, mapmakers helped freshman U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, by taking away half of the Democratic stronghold of Erie County and giving his 3rd District all of Republican-friendly Butler County. He also picked up the Democratic towns of New Castle, Lawrence County, and Farrell, Mercer County.
The new makeup will make it tough for anyone from Erie -- the state's 4th biggest city -- to reclaim the 3rd District seat, former Democratic congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper said.
"The power has shifted to the south," she said.