By Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA Contributing Writer
In the battle for the U.S. House in 2010, there may be no state as decisive as Pennsylvania.
According to the House race ratings by handicapper Charlie Cook, 10 out of Pennsylvania’s 19 House districts are in play this fall. That’s more seats than any other state, and more than any other big state on a percentage basis.
In addition, of those 10 seats, Cook considers seven “toss-up,” “lean Democratic” or “lean Republican” – the most competitive categories. That’s also the most of any single state, both on an absolute and a percentage basis.
This is why we’re starting a new feature at PoliticsPA: a monthly ranking of the most vulnerable U.S. House seats in Pennsylvania.
In our rankings, the seats are numbered in descending order by the likelihood of a party switch.
We’re kicking off the rankings this month with 11 lawmakers; we’re considering the other eight seats safe, though that could change if circumstances shift.
The Democrats have the most at risk. Of the 11 seats we’re focusing on, seven are currently held by Democrats and another one is the vacant seat previously occupied by the late Rep. John Murtha (D). And with the national climate leaning against the Democrats, at least for now, the Keystone State could prove pivotal, as it has in several recent election cycles.
“Once again, Pennsylvania is one of the hot spots for congressional races,” said Nathan Gonzales, who handicaps races for the Rothenberg Political Report. “It’s very difficult to see Republicans getting back to the majority without doing very well in Pennsylvania.”
One caveat: It’s still early for Congressional races, and the outcomes of the May 18 primary could dramatically alter the contours of each contest listed here. These rankings give a general idea of where each race stands, but they are subject to significant change through the year.
1. Open seat (currently held by Joe Sestak), (D-7). In 2006, Sestak ended a long Republican run in this Philadelphia-area district, which includes most of Delaware County and parts of Montgomery and Chester counties. Now that Sestak is leaving the House to challenge Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in the primary, Republicans smell victory. The frontrunners are former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan (R) and state Rep. Bryan Lentz (D) – two strong contenders who will likely make this a highly competitive race. Barack Obama won the district in 2008 by a 56 percent – 43 percent margin, but as one of only two open seats on this list (so far) it ranks number one.
2. Paul Kanjorski, (D-11). Kanjorski, who represents Scranton and portions of northeastern Pennsylvania, is an influential lawmaker in Washington – a 13-term incumbent who ranks second in seniority on the House Financial Services Committee. However, running as a longtime Washington politician who helped oversee Wall Street before the 2008 collapse isn’t the best resume these days. It doesn’t help that Kanjorski has attracted unflattering headlines over past earmarks. Now, he’s facing both a competitive primary, from Lackawanna County commissioner Corey O’Brien, and a competitive general from two-time rival Lou Barletta. Kanjorski is favored to win the primary, and the district favored Obama by 15 points in 2008, but Barletta – a Hazelton mayor who became famous nationally as a critic of illegal immigration – may have the right populist vibe for year with an angry electorate. Barletta, however, must first defeat Republican Chris Paige in the primary, with the former pollster seemingly hell-bent on reminding voters the mayor supported a tax hike in Hazleton late last year.
3. Kathy Dahlkemper, (D-3). The freshman congresswoman from Erie is a natural target for Republicans. She ousted longtime incumbent Phil English in 2008 by just 7,000 votes amid a national political climate favorable to Democrats. She also voted for the Democratic health care bill year, even standing behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in one photo op. The district tilts Democratic in registration, but many voters are culturally conservative; Republican John McCain edged Barack Obama in 2008 by just 17 votes in the district. But questions remain about whether the GOP has found the right candidate. Both of the two tentative frontrunners, businessman Paul Huber and car dealer Mike Kelly, have flaws. Huber switched from the Democratic Party only this election cycle, making him a tough sell to GOP primary voters seeking a strong conservative. Kelly, meanwhile, has a geography problem: He’s from Butler County, on the outskirts of a district dominated by Erie. As many as seven other Republicans have declared their interest in running, creating a hard-to-predict free-for-all in the primary.
4. Open seat (previously held by John Murtha), (D-12). The sudden death of Murtha, a legendary lawmaker from southwestern Pennsylvania, has thrown the ownership of this seat into deep uncertainty. Will the deep reservoir of local goodwill for Murtha – who as an appropriator delivered mightily for his constituents – boost the campaign of his district director, Mark Critz? Or will it give the Republicans their best chance in decades of winning this marginal seat? (Republican John McCain bested Obama in the district by fewer than 1,000 votes.) Critz will battle fellow Democrat Barbara Hafer, the former state treasurer (and a former Republican), and Cambria County Controller Ed Cernic Jr. for the state party nod for the special election. The special will be held on the same day, May 18, as the primary for the full two-year term. The Republican field so far consists of the 2008 nominee, retired Army officer Bill Russell, and wealthy businessman Tim Burns. Either Democrat would have an edge in an ordinary year, but it remains to be seen whether a national tide will carry either Republican to victory. For the purposes of this list, we’re rating the special election only and will rate the November general election only after the primary is set.
5. Chris Carney, (D-10). Carney won his northeastern Pennsylvania district seat in 2006 by ousting scandal-tarred incumbent Don Sherwood (R). The district went for McCain over Obama by nine points, and three Republicans have lined up to challenge Carney — former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino (an early primary frontrunner), businessman Dave Madeira and Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk. But Carney has helped himself – he’s cultivated a middle-of-the-House voting record, including bucking his party on a key cap-and-trade vote earlier this year, and his continuing service as a commander in the Naval Reserve bolsters his bona fides in the district. He apparently was even bipartisan enough that House GOP leaders, with McCain’s help, courted him to switch parties late last year. The key question is whether voters will look past his party affiliation in what’s looking ever more like a wave election.
6. Tim Holden, (D-17). Holden, a nine-term incumbent, has held on to his central Pennsylvania district with relative ease since winning it narrowly in 2002, when he won a two-incumbent “fair fight” matchup after the last round of redistricting. This year, he can expect his toughest fight in a decade, against state Sen. Dave Argall (R), whose home in Schuylkill County could help him cut deeply into Holden’s base. The incumbent can count on years of goodwill and a moderate-to-conservative profile that’s in tune with his district. In fact, his “no” vote on health care has drawn him a primary challenge from the left by consultant Sheila Dow-Ford. Argall must fend off criticism over his prominent role in the now-infamous 2005 legislative pay-raise in Harrisburg, but if he can secure enough money, Holden will find himself in a tough reelection campaign this fall.
7. Charlie Dent, (R-15). Dent hasn’t faced a serious challenge ever since winning his marginal Lehigh Valley seat in 2004 – until this year’s Democratic bid by Bethlehem mayor John Callahan. Callahan, one of the Democrats’ best recruits nationwide in this tough election cycle for the party, is well known in the district and can run on his record. He’ll likely have the help of the national party, which is desperate to go on offense somewhere, and his fundraising has been excellent thus far. But Dent hasn’t made any missteps and will likely enjoy a favorable political climate.
8. Patrick Murphy, (D-8). In this Philadelphia-area district, Murphy — a two-termer who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress — has drawn a large field of Republicans, including the lawmaker Murphy ousted in the Democratic sweep of 2006, then-Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R). The Bucks County district is historically competitive, though in recent years it has trended in the Democrats’ direction: Obama and Murphy both won 57 percent of the vote in the district in 2008. But in an off-year election with an anti-Democratic mood, someone with decent name recognition, such as Fitzpatrick, could get traction. Murphy has also taken a leading role on a hot issue these days — overturning the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule on gays and lesbians serving in the military – which could help nationalize this race with activists on both sides of the issue.
9. Jim Gerlach, (R-6). Gerlach – who has regularly faced tough Democratic opponents in this suburban Philadelphia district that has trended increasingly Democratic — initially planned to run for governor until backing out earlier this year. He quickly returned to his reelection bid, and his efforts to squeeze out a wealthy Republican, Steve Welch, from the primary have finally borne fruit. Welch could have been a major distraction by running from the right against the moderate Gerlach, and he also would have forced the incumbent to spend money he doesn’t have after spending his coffers on the run for governor. Now, Gerlach faces and unsettled Democratic field that includes Doug Pike, a former editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran. This race’s ranking could change if either Trivedi or Pike emerge as a strong candidate after the primary, but Gerlach should have a solid shot of holding the seat in a Republican year.
10. Jason Altmire, (D-4). Altmire represents Rust Belt territory north of Pittsburgh – ancestrally Democratic but more competitive in national elections. His seat was held by Republican Melissa Hart until Altmire ousted her in 2006, and in 2008, McCain won the district by an 11-point margin. Former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan (R) is running, and although she has name recognition, she also has baggage. Her prosecution, which ultimately failed, of Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht led to widespread criticism, and the episode resurfaced last month during a contentious interview with local popular conservative radio host Marty Griffin. Meanwhile, Altmire has shored up his defenses well for an anti-Democratic year: He voted against two of the Democrats’ major initiatives, on cap-and-trade bill and health care, and he’s raised nearly $1 million already. For now, he’s in less electoral trouble than several of his fellow Democrats in the delegation, but that could change depending on how bad the environment gets for his party.
11. Tim Murphy, (R-18). We’re monitoring Tim Murphy because he’s been a Democratic target in recent election cycles, but he’s easily the least vulnerable lawmaker on this list – and he might well drop off it before the cycle is out. To become truly competitive, this seat will require a top-tier Democratic recruit – something that the party won’t find easy to secure this year, given the overall election environment. So far, former junior U.S. Senate aide Dan Connolly is the only Democratic contender.
Alex Roarty contributed to this report.
Louis Jacobson, a staff writer with PolitiFact.com, has handicapped state races for the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, Roll Call and stateline.org.