By Louis Jacobson and Alex Roarty
This month’s PoliticsPA Congressional vulnerability rankings have a new Number 1 – Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski – but beyond him, the ordering has remained stable.
The biggest new factors in these rankings are the fundraising data released on July 15, covering all money raised from April through June. Republican open-seat contender Pat Meehan, GOP challengers Mike Fitzpatrick and Keith Rothfus and Democratic challengers John Callahan and Manan Trivedi are arguably the fundraising stars of the period. Meanwhile, disappointing showings by several GOP challengers – including Mike Kelly, Tom Marino, Dave Argall and Tim Burns – undeniably hurt Republican chances of ringing up big gains in the Keystone State this fall. As we’ve said before, the GOP’s inability to seriously imperil Democratic incumbents such as Chris Carney, Tim Holden and Mark Critz could not only squander opportunities in the Keystone State but also make it harder for the party to gain enough seats nationally to take over the House.
On the list below, we consider the first two seats highly vulnerable, seats three through six somewhat vulnerable and the final four less so.
As in the past, our rankings include 10 lawmakers. We’re considering the other nine seats in the delegation to be safe, though we reserve the right to add new names to the vulnerability list if circumstances shift.
Here’s our list, in descending order of vulnerability.
1. Paul Kanjorski (D-11). Previous ranking: 2. Kanjorski, a 13-term incumbent, slips into the top spot on our list – ironically, given the July 15 Senate passage of a financial regulatory reform bill that he took a leading role in shaping. Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, considered a star challenger among national Republicans, outraised Kanjorski, $240,000 to $220,000, in the second quarter, though the incumbent remains ahead in cash on hand, $1.05 million to $237,000. Barletta still has to worry about raising taxes 70 percent last year in Hazleton and other conservative bugaboos in the historically Democratic area (privitzing social security, anyone?). But in a Republican wave, Barletta – who’s well known in the district and who has experience at running a grassroots-driven campaign — won’t need to stay even with Kanjorski in money. Meanwhile, the incumbent hasn’t helped himself with gaffes, including the suggestion, during a Congressional hearing, that government aid is not meant for minorities or “defective” people. An internal Barletta poll had the challenger up by nearly 20 points. Even if that’s exaggerated, Kanjorski faces a tough road to reelection.
2. Open seat (held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak). Previous ranking: 1. Were it not for Kanjorski’s growing jeopardy, this contest – the only open seat Congressional race left in the state – would have merited the top spot once again. Republican Pat Meehan outraised Democrat Bryan Lentz for the quarter, $500,000 to $270,000, and Meehan also leads in cash on hand, $1.12 million to $790,000. In addition, Republicans got a boost from an internal poll that showed Meehan better known in the district than Lentz. Despite a somewhat disastrous press conference when Meehan tried to link Lentz to the “Bonusgate” scandal, Meehan should benefit from the cycle’s general Republican lean. If Lentz’s fundraising doesn’t pick up, Meehan could remain the favorite through Election Day.
3. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-3). Previous ranking: 3. This race has seen few new deveolpments recently, but as a Democratic freshman in a moderate district, Dahlkemper remains at risk. What’s keeping her from ranking higher on our list is the weakness of her opponent, Butler County Republican Mike Kelly, who won the primary with just 28 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Moreover, Kelly raised just $80,000 in the second quarter — his candidacy has been kept alive through $415,000 in cumulative personal donations. Dahlkemper easily outpaced Kelly in the money race, raising $320,000 in the second quarter and reporting $1 million cash on hand. Dahlkemper, who backed the Democratic health care bill, has since pivoted to focus on cutting the deficit and government spending, a strategy that could play well in her district.
4 (tie). Charlie Dent (R-15). Previous ranking: 4. John Callahan – the Bethlehem mayor who’s challenging the moderate Dent in this swing district in the Lehigh Valley — continues to impress despite the difficult year for Democratic challengers. Callahan raised $350,000 in the second quarter, not far behind Dent’s $410,000, and the rivals’ cash-on-hand totals are similar. Callahan also came out against the Democratic cap-and-trade proposal, which should help insulate him from one line of attacks in this historically manufacturing-heavy district (although the Dent campaign has alleged he was for it before he was against it). Once again, this remains the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity in the state.
4 (tie). Patrick Murphy (D-8). Previous ranking: 5. Murphy is attempting a challenging straddle in this Bucks County district, zigging left on changing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies while zagging right on immigration policy. The latter was most obvious in an Appropriations Committee vote in which Murphy was the only Democrat to side with the GOP on an amendment that would have prevented the Obama administration from funding a lawsuit against Arizona’s controversial illegal-immigration bill. On the GOP side, former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick showed muscle, raising $415,000 in the second quarter — an impressive total, even though it trailed Murphy’s $585,000. In cash on hand, Murphy leads, $1.78 million to $665,000. This race remains difficult to guage — political observers say they wouldn’t be surprised if Murphy cruises to a comfortable win or faces a nail biter.
6. Jason Altmire (D-4). Previous ranking: 6. Keith Rothfus – a previously unknown attorney from Allegheny County who took advantage of Mary Beth Buchanan’s implosion in the GOP primary – has demonstrated that he’s more than a flash in the pan. He raised $340,000 in the second quarter, almost matching Altmire, a two-term Democratic lawmaker who raised $380,000 over the same period. Not surprisingly, Altmire still leads the late-emerging Rothfus in cash on hand, $1.5 million to $200,000. Despite some high-profile wavering on the health care bill, Altmire has stuck to district preferences on key issues. Don’t expect to see him too visible on the trail anytime soon: His strategy in 2008 was to hold off becoming a full-time candidate until closer to the election, telling voters months before the election that it was too soon to start talking politics. That fits nicely with the district-focused, hard-working persona he’s tried to create. Still, if Rothfus can keep raising money and avoid major gaffes, this race could climb in our list. He might be the sleeper candidate of 2010.
7. Jim Gerlach (R-6). Previous ranking: 8. Democratic challenger Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran, has had some good news recently. He raised $430,000 in the quarter, not far behind Gerlach’s $490,000, and the party seems to have coalesced around him despite a tough primary against Doug Pike, a former editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. On the other hand, Gerlach is battle-hardened after winning cycle after cycle of competitive races in much more challenging environments for Republicans. He also leads Trivedi in cash on hand, $540,000 to $330,000. Unlike some Republicans nationally, Gerlach has also taken some care to hew to his Democratic-leaning district’s preferences, voting to extend unemployment benefits on July 1 (though he voted against the financial regulatory bill).
8. Chris Carney (D-10). Previous ranking: 7. At this point in our list, the odds of a party switch begin to decrease significantly. Carney has continued his careful, moderate approach (although he voted for health care) in this otherwise strongly Republican district in northeastern Pennsylvania. Equally important, he benefits from a GOP challenger with baggage — former U.S. attorney Tom Marino, who has faced continued questions about his ties to controversial local businessman Louis DeNaples. The biggest news in recent weeks about Marino is that he survived a head-on car collision, which may help explain why his fundraising totals were modest — $120,000 raised and just $11,000 on hand following a tough, three-way primary. Carney, by contrast, has raised $250,000 and has banked $800,000. That’s not exceptionally high for a Democratic incumbent, but in this low-price media market, it could be enough to allow him to hold the seat.
9. Mark Critz, (D-12). Previous ranking: 10. Critz — who won the special election to succeed his late boss, Democrat John Murtha – has slipped comfortably into the incumbent’s role, while his once-touted Republican rival, Tim Burns, has all but disappeared. Critz raised $176,000 between June 8 and June 30, compared to Burns’ paltry $10,000 over the same period. The underlying factors at play in this blue-collar, GOP-trending district in southwestern Pennsylvania would seem to make it ripe for a Republican challenger, but the surprisingly crushing 7-point defeat in May’s special election seems to have depressed GOP morale here. Still, Democrats need to watch out if Burns resurfaces in the public’s eye and decides to use his own money (he has plenty) to reinvigorate his campaign’s finances. Many Republican strategists remain convinced the general election’s dynamics, with a higher expected GOP turnout, are far friendlier to Burns than what he faced in May
10. Tim Holden (D-17). Previous ranking: 9. The GOP’s initially touted challenger, state Sen. Dave Argall, followed up his underwhelming performance in the GOP primary (in which he secured 32.4 percent, just 1.4 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival) with an equally underwhelming fundraising report. Argall raised only $77,000 and has an anemic $29,000 in the bank. His candidacy is in danger of being written off by GOP officials. Holden, by contrast, raised $300,000 and has socked away $885,000. This improves an already favorable outlook for Holden, who has consistently won in the GOP-leaning district.
Louis Jacobson, a staff writer with PolitiFact.com, has handicapped state races for the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, Roll Call, stateline.org and Governing.
Alex Roarty is a staff writer with PoliticsPA.com.