Pennsylvania races in House could tip the balance in Congress

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Democrats, battered in congressional elections two years ago, are struggling to reverse the tide that gave Republicans control of the U.S. House.

The year 2010 emerged as the third consecutive cycle of House elections to produce an unusually large turnover in the chamber, and Pennsylvania seats formed a big part of each of those waves. This year, with nearly two months to go to the election, the Pennsylvania scene appears more stable. And, while some leading Democrats predict that they can make the net gain of 25 seats needed to switch control of the House, Republican campaign officials contend that they will actually gain still more seats Nov. 6.

In a briefing during the recent GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he expected to see a gain of four to eight GOP seats when the counting is done. That would follow the 63 districts the GOP picked up in swamping Democrats across the country in 2010.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, has predicted that the results will allow her to wrest the speaker's gavel from Ohio's John Boehner in the new Congress. In a recent interview with Politico, she asserted that her candidates were in "a razor-thin race for the majority."

The Republicans' best -- and probably only -- hope for a pickup in Pennsylvania is in the 12th District, where Keith Rothfus is challenging Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, the winner of a close and expensive primary against colleague Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless. The fact that those two had to face off is an example of the added challenge House Democrats face this time around.

Along with their congressional gains in 2010, Republicans made commensurate strides in state legislatures that allowed them to redraw many House districts after the 2010 census and reapportionment.

Pennsylvania is one of 22 states where the GOP controlled both legislative chambers along with the governor's office. Democrats enjoy similar monopolies in only 11 states.

The fact that the GOP has only one real pickup opportunity in the state is a reflection of how well Republican candidates did in 2010, when they picked up five formerly Democratic seats along with the governor's mansion and a state House majority to complement the longtime GOP control of the Senate. For Republicans, all of the state's low-hanging fruit has already been plucked.

Republicans signaled their hopes for Mr. Rothfus in the competitive 12th District by giving him a coveted speaking slot during the Tampa convention and including him in the NRCC's Young Guns roster of House hopefuls across the country.

The Obama factor

Mr. Rothfus has tried to put the incumbent on the defensive, depicting him as an ally of President Barack Obama and the House Democratic caucus. Mr. Critz has emphasized his independence, however, taking several opportunities to criticize the president before voters in his socially conservative district. There has been no independent public polling in the race so far, but the Critz team has cited internal polling showing their candidate with a lead. Outside analysts, such as the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report, have consistently characterized the race as a toss-up.

In an interview during her party's Charlotte, N.C., convention, Rep. Allyson Schwartz -- the Philadelphia House member who handles recruitment and candidate services for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- expressed confidence about Mr. Critz's chances while describing several GOP seats in the state's delegation as targets.

Chief among them are seats on opposite sides of the state: the 18th District, in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair is being challenged by Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi; and the 8th District, centered in Bucks County, where Democratic candidate Kathy Boockvar is bidding to oust Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick. Mr. Murphy has won elections with ease since he was first elected in 2002.

The Bucks County seat is more of a classic swing district, pingponging between the parties over the last decade. Mr. Fitzpatrick originally won it in 2004, was defeated in the Democrat's 2006 sweep and recaptured it in 2010.

Republican officials in Tampa lauded their chances of defending other suburban seats in the Philadelphia region, claiming that the Democrats failed to recruit strong challengers there.

"The fact that we don't have to play defense on these seats is very helpful to us," said Mr. Harrison, adding that resources that might have gone to southeastern Pennsylvania are thus available for races elsewhere in the country.

But Ms. Schwartz and other Democrats contend they have credible opportunities in the 7th District, where Republican freshman Patrick Meehan faces George Badey III, and in the neighboring 6th District, where Rep. Jim Gerlach is being challenged by Manan Trivedi, a physician he defeated handily amid the GOP's 2010 landslide.

Mr. Obama carried all three of those suburban Philadelphia districts four years ago.

Social issues as leverage

In the 18th District, which extends from the West Virginia border south of Pittsburgh and into part of Westmoreland County, Democrats argue that they have an opportunity to oust the veteran Mr. Murphy because Mr. Maggi, like Mr. Critz in the neighboring 12th District, is anti-abortion and an opponent of gun control, taking away two volatile social issues that have hurt Democrats in Western Pennsylvania elections.

The social issue terrain is very different in the state's southeast, where Democrats hope to exploit conservative votes by the Republican incumbents.

"Many of them have taken extreme positions, and we're going to hold them accountable," Ms. Schwartz said. "When women and men find out that Fitzpatrick has been with [Rep. Paul] Ryan and others, it really makes a difference."

"And in Delaware and Chester County," she said, referring to the Meehan and Gerlach seats, "the Republicans come home and appear as moderates, but their voting records are very extreme."

Harrisburg Republicans did their best to protect their incumbents by making the 7th and 6th Districts more Republican as they drew the new districts. But Ms. Schwartz suggested that the new map presented opportunities for the Democrats in those districts because, while they contain more Republican voters than in the old districts, they also include many constituents new to the incumbents.

"Those are voters who are new to [Mr. Gerlach], who have no history with him, so there is opportunity there," she said.

Casting her net and her predictions more widely, Ms. Schwartz said Democrats have realistic chances of approaching the magic number of 25 by picking up multiple GOP seats in states including Florida, California, New York and New Hampshire.

Republicans have relatively fewer takeover targets, but that is because they start from a position of greater strength. Nationally, as in Pennsylvania, the GOP picked up most of the marginal seats within their grasp in the 2010 elections. Still, Mr. Harrison said the GOP expected to pick up multiple seats in North Carolina, a state Mr. Obama carried narrowly in 2008, but one in which the Democrats have been on the ropes in recent elections. He also cited the West Virginia seat held by Rep. Nick Rahall as among the party's "majority expander" targets.

While most analysts consider Mr. Rahall a favorite to defend the seat he has held since 1976 -- the Cook Political Report classifies it as "likely Democratic" -- the NRCC has put his challenger, Rick Snuffer, a state legislator, on its "Young Guns" priority list.

electionspa - state

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.


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