Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Chester) was a top Democratic target last decade, but redistricting made his seat significantly more Republican.
While Gerlach is safe, could a Dem win an open race for the 6th district?
It’s tough. Republicans took 50.66% of the vote in PA-6 even in the wave year of 2008, when Dems had the advantage of the Barack Obama wave plus two incumbents in territory that’s now part of the 6th district.
PoliticsPA took a look back at past election results using the newly-drawn lines to understand what Democrats face there.
Also read: Maps: What Democrats Are Up Against in PA-8
From the 2002 until the 2010 election, Gerlach’s 6th congressional district was one of the nation’s most competitive. In his first four elections, Gerlach never won with more than 52.10%* of the vote.
However, Gerlach’s Democratic-leaning district was redrawn to Gerlach’s favor in 2012. The 6th district shed heavily Democratic territory in Lower Merion Township, Coatesville, Norristown, and its portion of Reading; at the same time, it gained heavily Republican portions of Berks and Lebanon Counties.
Despite the fact that current PA-6 boundaries were drawn by Republicans, Democrats hoped Dr. Manan Trivedi would have a chance to win because a slight majority of the district was new to Gerlach.
However Gerlach was re-elected easily last year, winning a decisive 57.19% of the vote. At the same time, Mitt Romney carried the 6th district with 51.32% of the vote; Romney’s performance in the 6th district placed it three points more Republican than his national performance.
Below are maps that show how Gerlach performed in the 6th district in 2012. The first map is a breakdown by county, and the second map shows how Gerlach performed in each of the district’s municipalities.
Below are maps that show how Mitt Romney performed in the 6th district in 2012. The first is a breakdown by county, and the second map shows how Romney performed in each of the district’s municipalities.
Gerlach ran 4.76% ahead of Romney in Lebanon County, 5.12% ahead in Montgomery County, 5.76% ahead in Berks County, and 6.50% ahead in Chester County. His total overperformance was 5.87%.
Showing his strength as a candidate, Gerlach performed strongly in both his old and new territory. Considering how strongly both Romney and Gerlach ran in the 6th district in 2012, Gerlach’s hold on the district looks secure.
But what if Gerlach were to depart the seat, say for a future gubernatorial bid? That would leave Democrats an opening to win the district.
PoliticsPA compiled presidential and congressional election results from the 2004 and 2008 elections, and calculated Republican and Democratic performances under the 6th district’s current lines.
Of the current 6th district’s territory, 48.5% came from Gerlach’s old 6th district, 20% came from the old 7th district, 18% came from the old 17th district. The remainder of the district came from parts of the old 13th, 15th, and 16th congressional districts.
42% of the district’s population lives in Chester County, 25% each in Berks and Montgomery Counties, and 8% in Lebanon County.
Therefore, the congressional election data compiled is an aggregation of results from various 2004 and 2008 congressional elections under the current 6th district lines.
Analyzing the 6th district’s 2004 and 2008 congressional and presidential results helps provide insight into whether or not Democrats could win the district when open because Dem turnout is at its best in PA-6 during presidential years.
The 2004 Presidential vote under the current 6th district’s lines went 53.03% for George W. Bush, placing it roughly 2% to the right of the national average. At the same time, the district voted 54.79% for Republicans running for Congress within its boundaries.
Below is a map that shows how each county in the 6th district voted for Congress in 2004.
Below is a map that shows how each county in the 6th district voted for President in 2004.
What makes the 2004 congressional election results for the 6th district so unusual is that Republicans lost Lebanon and Berks Counties while handily winning Montgomery and Chester counties. This is largely due to then-Congressman Tim Holden’s strong, 14% overperformance over Senator John Kerry in Lebanon and Berks counties.
At the same time, Gerlach overperformed President George W. Bush by a few percentage points in his portion of the district. Then-Rep. Curt Weldon and Rep. Charlie Dent also ran well. Still, even with Democrats running very strongly in the usually reliably Republican Berks and Lebanon portions of the 6th district, Republicans running for Congress won it handily.
2008 was one of the strongest Democratic years ever in Pennsylvania. The 6th district voted 53.58% for Barack Obama that year, placing it only slightly to the right of the President’s 53.69% national average vote-share. The district therefore trended two points to the left from its 2004 performance.
Still, even as the President won the district handily, the 6th district voted 50.66% for Republicans running for Congress.
Below is a map that shows how each county in the 6th district voted for Congress in 2008.
Below is a map that shows how each county in the 6th district voted for President in 2008.
Gerlach narrowly survived another stiff challenge in 2008 by strongly over-performing Senator John McCain. At the same time, Holden and Sestak were strongly re-elected in their districts. Holden ran 11% ahead of President Obama in Lebanon County. Still, the fact that Congressional Democrats lost the 6th district in 2008 is a testament to its natural Republican lean.
Additionally, that congressional Republicans won the district while only winning its Chester County portion also highlights that Chester County’s dominance of the district’s politics.
No Democrat has thus far indicated an interest in challenging Gerlach in 2014. But what about a hypothetical scenario where he is not on the ballot in PA-6?
The 6th district is culturally and politically divided between the Delaware Valley and Greater Reading. Populist, rural Democrats tend to over-perform in Berks and Lebanon counties, while suburban, white collar moderate Democrats are better fits for winning traditionally Republican votes in Chester and Montgomery counties.
One of Democrats’ best options for the 6th district would be State Senator Judy Schwank of Berks County. She represents much of the 6th district’s Berks County territory and would give Democrats an opportunity to win traditionally Republican votes in Berks and Lebanon Counties.
Another strong candidate for Democrats would be Andy Dinniman, the first Democrat to represent Chester County in the State Senate since the 1920s. He would give the party an opportunity to overperform in Chester County, the district’s largest population base.
Still, even with a potential Dinniman or Schwank candidacy, the 6th district’s slight Republican lean has repeatedly proven to be durable over the past decade. A strong GOP candidate should be favored to retain the district when Gerlach retires from Congress. At the same time, Republicans should not take the closely divided 6th district for granted.
*All figures cited in this piece refer to two-way vote shares, which exclude third party votes.
Note: Congressional results in the new PA-6 in 2006 and 2008 were very similar. PoliticsPA looked at 2008 as the Democrats’ high water mark rather than 2006 because the 2006 results were driven by an unpopular second-term GOP president, a scenario that is impossible to repeat before the next redistricting in 2020.