By Alex Roarty and Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA

A new contest vaults to the top of PoliticsPA’s third monthly ranking of most vulnerable U.S. House seats: the open seat once held by the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha.

Our switch stems from two factors: The rapid approach of the May 18th special election, which has kicked the contest into high gear, and the release of several polls showing the GOP holding a narrow lead in the high-profile contest.

Several seats moved up or down our list due to the release of first-quarter fundraising reports. Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy’s seat moved up a notch in vulnerability due to an impressive fundraising haul by the man he defeated in 2006, Republican Mike Fitzpatrick. But relatively poor fundraising totals by GOP challengers to Democratic Reps. Chris Carney and Tim Holden led us to lower each of those seats slightly on the vulnerability scale.

As with our past rankings of the most vulnerable U.S. House seats in Pennsylvania, we numbered lawmakers in descending order by the likelihood of a party switch.

Our rankings now include 10 lawmakers – down from 11 after we decided that GOP Rep. Tim Murphy’s seat is safe for now. We’re considering that seat and the other eight in the delegation to be safe, though we reserve the right to add new names to the vulnerability list if circumstances shift.

We’ll reiterate one caveat: The outcomes of the May 18 primary could dramatically alter the contours of each contest listed here.

1. Open seat (previously held by John Murtha), (D-12). Previous ranking: 5. Last month, this race hadn’t quite jelled. No longer: As the May 18 special election approaches in this southwestern Pennsylvania district, both parties have come to see PA-12 as a crucial test in the battle for the House this year, and both Democrat Mark Critz, a former aide to the late Rep. John Murtha (D), and Republican Tim Burns, a self-funding businessman, have turned up the heat. The topline poll numbers show a tight race — one in which Burns leads Critz by a modest margin. But Democrats are much more worried about their chances than they were a month ago, in part because the polling shows the GOP base considerably more energized than the Democratic base. Public Policy Polling – a Democratic firm – found that 57 percent of Republicans in the district were “very excited” about the special election, compared to only 38 percent of Democrats who felt similarly. A subsequent Research 2000 poll – sponsored by the Democratic website Daily Kos – found equally troubling numbers for Democrats, with President Barack Obama’s ratings in the district at 38 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable, and with 21 percent of Democrats saying they would vote for Burns (compared to only 8 percent of Republicans who said they’d vote for Critz). In addition to facing a headwind of local negativity toward Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, Critz has the challenge of simultaneously embracing Murtha and distancing himself from some of his votes. (Murtha voted for the House Democratic bills on health care and cap-and-trade; Critz says he would have opposed them.) One challenge for Burns may be to harness the burgeoning Tea Party movement even though many Tea Partiers actually prefer Bill Russell, a veteran who’s challenging Burns in the primary for the full two-year term. (That primary takes place on the same day as the special.) Local politicos say it’s unlikely, but not out of the question, that Burns could win the special but lose the primary for the full term. Whatever happens, both the Critz camp and the Burns camp have money to spend, and they will do so all the way through to Election Day. So expect a hard-fought contest, and quite possibly a close one. But we have to conclude that the Republicans’ odds of winning the special look brighter now than at any time since we’ve begun assembling these rankings.

2. Open seat (held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak) Previous ranking: 1. This race remains as competitive — and contentious — as ever. In mid-March, a judge dismissed Democrat Bryan Lentz’s attempt to knock Republican Pat Meehan off the ballot, but that hasn’t stopped the Delaware County lawmaker from crying foul over a petition process he and his camp see as rife with abuse. Lentz and his campaign insist the story shouldn’t end with the judge’s decision, and it might not if a prosecutor from the attorney general’s office — which is looking into the matter — decides to press charges. The Meehan campaign, for its part, maintains that the judge’s ruling proves Lentz’s allegations are baseless; it contends that the Democrat’s focus on the petition issue is a smokescreen to avoid substantive policy issues. Both men have continued to flex their fundraising muscles, and they remain darlings of their respective party’s leaders. With neither man facing a serious primary, expect the race to keep a quiet profile until primary day on May 18. After that, the contest will likely heat up again.

3. Paul Kanjorski, (D-11). Previous ranking: 2. Kanjorski has been in the news recently, as a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee who is advocating stiffer regulations for Wall Street. But as a 13-term incumbent in a year of the angry voter, he has his reelection work cut out for him. Kanjorski, who represents a northeastern Pennsylvania district, will have the money to run an aggressive race: His most recent fundraising figures show him with $1.2 million in the bank, though his quarterly haul of $260,000 was a good deal less than, say, either of the two most vulnerable Republicans in the Pennsylvania delegation, Charlie Dent and Jim Gerlach. Kanjorski also has to dispatch with his primary opponent, Lackawanna County commissioner Corey O’Brien, before turning to expected Republican nominee Lou Barletta. Barletta nearly matched Kanjorski in fundraising for the quarter with $211,000, though the Hazelton mayor’s cash on hand is far lower at $202,000. But the reemergence of immigration as a national issue following Arizona’s passage of a strict anti-illegal immigration law gives prominence to Barletta’s signature issue, potentially helping him leverage grass roots support to make up for the money disadvantage. We still believe Kanjorski is the state’s most vulnerable incumbent.

4. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-3). Previous ranking: 3. This is one of many races in Pennsylvania that could move up – or down – depending on what happens on primary day. Butler County Republican Mike Kelly and Crawford County businessman Paul Huber remain the front-runners in the deep GOP primary field. The primary has recently become heated, as both Kelly and Huber have aired aggressive ads in the cheap Erie television market. Each has juiced their own fundraising through personal contributions, and it’s unlikely either — or any of the Republican contenders — will emerge from the primary with much if anything in the bank. And therein lies Kathy Dahlkemper’s main advantage in the fall: money. The freshman congresswoman, who ousted GOP incumbent Phil English in 2008 in the relatively conservative district, took a risk by supporting the Democratic health care bill, but on the plus side, she has more than $850,000 on hand to make her case to voters. Continued disarray in the GOP field gives Democrats cautious optimism about her chances.

5 (tie). Jason Altmire (D-4). Previous ranking: 7. After a high-profile, and somewhat Hamlet-like role, in the scramble for Democratic votes for the health care bill (in which he ultimately voted no), the two-term congressman from this western Pennsylvania district has lowered his burgeoning national profile. It’s probably a smart move: The fight for the Republican nomination has, unexpectedly, attracted more than enough attention, not all of it flattering to the GOP. In February, former U.S. attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, the presumed frontrunner for the GOP nod, inexplicably called in to the Pittsburgh radio talk show “The Real Deal with Marty Griffin” after a segment on her unsuccessful prosecution of former Allegheny County medical examiner Cyril Wecht and proceeded to get into an argument with the host, a clip that Democrats were only too happy to forward around the state. Separately, Buchanan had to replace her campaign manager when he was named in the presentment against indicted state Sen. Jane Orie. Skepticism about Buchanan’s chances only rose when little-known challenger Keith Rothfus, an attorney from Allegheny County who began running in the fall of last year, reported more money on hand than Buchanan when he filed his first quarter fundraising report. Buchanan retains the support and confidence of some Republican officials and can easily tap into an array of influential contacts across Pennsylvania to help jump start her run — but the possibility that Rothfus, a candidate with seemingly less baggage than Buchanan, could win the nomination instead presents Altmire with a new angle to worry about. Expect this race to remain volatile.

5 (tie). Chris Carney (D-10). Previous ranking 4. Carney remains vulnerable because of his support for the Democratic Party’s health care bill in a district that leans to the right, but he received a nice, if modest, bump to his chances in early April when the federal government rejected Pennsylvania’s bid to toll Interstate 80. The plan had been supported by local Democratic lawmakers, including Gov. Ed Rendell, but Carney broke party ranks and opposed the deal (along with Reps. Kanjorski and Dahlkemper) and will likely take credit in the fall for its defeat. For a lawmaker who depends on being perceived as loyal to his district over his party, it’s a feather in his cap. Meanwhile, Carney is also benefiting from the GOP primary. His possible Republican foes — businessman Dave Madeira, former U.S. attorney Tom Marino, and Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk — continue to battle in a close contest. Marino continues to face questions about his ties to controversial local businessman Louis DeNaples.

7. Charlie Dent, (R-15). Previous ranking: 6. Dent, who represents the Lehigh Valley, remains the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the delegation, though the past month has brought him both good and bad news. On the upside, a Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll put Dent up by 12 points. On the downside, Dent, with 43 percent, failed to crack the 50 percent barrier considered crucial to incumbents seeking reelection. In addition, Bethlehem mayor John Callahan, Dent’s Democratic challenger, has matched the incumbent in cash on hand down to the dollar, with $825,000 for each candidate. And unlike many battleground districts for this fall, the playing field is actually somewhat favorable to the Democrat, with the Morning Call poll finding a 55 percent job approval rating for Obama, slightly higher than the approval rate for Dent himself. Continued support for Obama in the district could pose problems for Dent if voters express frustration with his support for the GOP agenda, including his “no” vote on health care. Still, Dent can take some comfort in the historical pattern that wave elections tend to hit only one party and leave the other party unscathed.

8. Patrick Murphy, (D-8). Previous ranking: 10. Both Murphy, a two-termer who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress, and his most prominent GOP rival, former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, have posted impressive fundraising totals. Both raised more than half a million dollars in the first quarter, and actually for Fitzpatrick, that was the fruit of only two months’ effort. (He announced for the seat in late January.) Murphy, who’s known he’d have a challenging race for months, has amassed a warchest of $1.3 million. Fitzpatrick – who lost his seat to Murphy in the Democratic sweep of 2006 – has bolstered his chances of taking the seat with such a strong showing, but he still has to get through a potentially messy four-way GOP primary. The Bucks County district is historically competitive, though in recent years it has trended in the Democrats’ direction.

9. Tim Holden, (D-17). Previous ranking: 7 (tie). While Holden always has to watch his back in his conservative, central Pennsylvania district, he has opened up a big money lead over his main rival, Republican state Sen. Dave Argall. Holden raised $283,000 in the first quarter, giving him $836,000 in the bank. Argall, by contrast, raised just $125,000 in the quarter – less than most of the other top-tier House challengers in either party in the Keystone State – and he has roughly $100,000 on hand. Argall will have to spend some of that a primary. Holden will have a primary, too, after his efforts to knock liberal Democrat Sheila Dow-Ford off the ballot failed. But the upside for Holden is that Dow-Ford can serve as foil who makes the incumbent look moderate – a valuable asset in his central Pennsylvania district.

10. Jim Gerlach, (R-6). Previous ranking: 9. Doug Pike, a former editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran, are duking it out for the right to face Rep. Jim Gerlach in a liberal-leaning district in southeastern Pennsylvania. Pike has a huge money lead over Trivedi – and over Gerlach – with $1.17 million on hand, but much of that is his own money. Gerlach led in fundraising in the first quarter with $500,000, compared to Pike’s $225,000 and Trivedi’s $170,000. Pike and Trivedi, both campaign novices, aren’t running away from the Democratic health care bill. But Gerlach should benefit from the national environment, and he remains the favorite.

Off the list: Tim Murphy, (R-18). Previous ranking: 11. After two months on our list of vulnerables, we’re dropping Tim Murphy. While the Republican been at risk in recent cycles, he’ll have the wind at his back in 2010, and the Democrats have not managed to find a top-tier challenger. Our list shrinks to 10.

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.

Alex Roarty is a staff writer with PoliticsPA.com.

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