PoliticsPA’s House Race Rankings: 5/21 Edition
By Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA Contributing Writer
The primary night troubles for House Republicans went beyond their loss in the special election to fill the seat once held by the late Rep. John Murtha (D). In several multi-candidate Republican primaries, the winner emerged battered, short of cash and well short of a mandate – an impediment to national Republicans’ hopes for taking back the House.
Of course, there’s loads of time for the new Republican nominees to regroup, raise money and surf the national wave heading in their direction. But compared to our previous House race rankings, most of the races on this list – with a few exceptions – seem less ripe for turnover than they did before primary results trickled in. Our gut tells us that the first two races are genuinely competitive, while the rest will need to demonstrate their competitiveness to us over the next few months.
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 the rundown:
1. Open seat (held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak). Previous ranking: 2. Nothing changed in this race on May 18 because neither candidate had a competitive primary. But this contest remains as competitive — and contentious — as ever, and with the Murtha seat now settled in the special election, the contest between Democrat Bryan Lentz and Republican Pat Meehan retakes the top spot on our list that it held earlier in the year.
2. Paul Kanjorski, (D-11). Previous ranking: 3. Kanjorski, a 13-term incumbent, staved off a challenge from Lackawanna County commissioner Corey O’Brien, but the victory wasn’t as rosy as he would have liked. Kanjorski won by only a 49 percent-34 percent margin, not even breaking 50 percent. Now he faces Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, who’s considered a star challenger among national Republicans. Kanjorski remains the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in Pennsylvania.
3. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-3). Previous ranking: 4. Though Dahlkemper remains fundamentally vulnerable as a Democratic freshman in a modestly Republican district, the GOP primary results give her a bit of solace. The large GOP field was fractured before the primary, and the results didn’t resolve much beyond choosing a nominee. Butler County Republican Mike Kelly won with just 28 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field, slightly ahead of Crawford County businessman Paul Huber with 26 percent. Kelly’s narrow victory means he’ll have to mend fences after the election and replenish his bank accounts.
4. Charlie Dent, (R-15). Previous ranking: 7. Dent’s rise in vulnerability doesn’t reflect anything that happened to him — or his Democratic opponent, Bethlehem mayor John Callahan — on primary night. Rather, it’s a sign that other races on our list have become less ripe for turnover.
5. Patrick Murphy, (D-8). Previous ranking: 8. This race represents one of two primary-night bright spots for the GOP. Former GOP Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick held off a multi-candidate primary field to win the right to take on Murphy. That’s good for the GOP because Fitzpatrick is just about the strongest candidate the party could have nominated, and he’s also an experienced fundraiser, freeing up national Republican fundraisers to concentrate on helping less-experienced challengers.
6. Jason Altmire (D-4). Previous ranking: 5 (tie). This is the other primary-night bright spot for the GOP: Keith Rothfus defeated Mary Beth Buchanan by a two-to-one margin for the right to challenge Altmire. That staves off a worse fate for the GOP – Buchanan’s early promise as a former U.S. Attorney crumbled amid inadvisable comments and staff turmoil – but it’s only enough to keep the seat hovering in the middle of our rankings. The advantage to having Rothfus as the nominee is that the attorney from Allegheny County is a blank slate. On the other hand, he now has to get himself known to voters — and give them a reason to bounce Altmire, who has, despite some high-profile wavering on the health care bill, carefully kept to district preferences on key issues. In Rothfus’ favor, he has already proven his chops by coming from nowhere to beat Buchanan and also out-fundraise her.
7. Chris Carney (D-10). Previous ranking: 5 (tie). The highest-profile Republican candidate – but also the one with the most baggage – was the winner in the primary to take on Carney in this conservative district. Former U.S. attorney Tom Marino won 42 percent of the vote against businessman Dave Madeira, who got 32 percent, and Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk, who had 27 percent. The problem for the GOP is that Marino has faced continued questions about his ties to controversial local businessman Louis DeNaples, and Carney – who’s taken a careful and moderate approach – is well positioned to come across as the safe choice even in a good election cycle for Republicans.
8. Jim Gerlach, (R-6). Previous ranking: 10. In a victory for the Democratic grassroots, Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran, appears to have narrowly edged Doug Pike, a former editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, for the right to challenge Gerlach. But it was a narrow victory — just 600 votes if it holds up. Though the district leans liberal, Gerlach has continually won reelection against tough Democratic opponents, and he should benefit from the national Republican tide. In the coming weeks, we’ll be watching to see if Trivedi can demonstrate that this contest deserves to be moved up our list.
9. Tim Holden, (D-17). Previous ranking: 9. Holden not only breezed by his primary challenger from the left, Sheila Dow-Ford, but he saw state Sen. Dave Argall post an underwhelming showing in the GOP primary. Argall, despite an advantage in name recognition, won just 32.4 percent of the primary vote, just 1.4 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival. And Argall faces a major money disadvantage against Holden, who’s consistently won in the GOP-leaning district.
10. Open seat (previously held by John Murtha), (D-12). Previous ranking: 1. With Democrat Mark Critz’s stunning victory over Republican Tim Burns in the special election, this contest falls all the way down our list. With Critz and Burns also winning their party primaries last night, the two are set to face each other again in the fall. While anything can happen between now and then, it seems unlikely for now that Burns can pull off a victory in November when he failed to do so under highly favorable circumstances on May 18.
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, a staff writer with PoliticsPA.com, contributed to this report.