PoliticsPA’s House Race Rankings: 4/6 Edition
By Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA Contributing Writer
Last month’s vote on the Democratic health care plan was historic – but it didn’t do too much to shift PoliticsPA’s rankings of most vulnerable U.S. House Members from Pennsylvania.
While we’ve tweaked the rankings slightly, the vulnerable Democrats who cast a high-risk “yes” vote for the health care bill – Reps. Paul Kanjorski, Kathy Dahlkemper and Chris Carney – already ranked high on our original most-vulnerable list. And those who took the arguably safer course of voting “no”— Reps. Tim Holden and Jason Altmire — already ranked toward the bottom of our watch list.
In our second monthly ranking of the most vulnerable U.S. House seats in Pennsylvania we once again numbered lawmakers in descending order by the likelihood of a party switch.
Our rankings include 11 lawmakers; we’re considering the delegation’s other eight seats safe, though that could change if circumstances shift.
We’ll reiterate 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.
1.Open seat (currently held by Joe Sestak), (D-7). Previous ranking: 1. The seat held by outgoing Rep. Joe Sestak remains No. 1 on our list, but that doesn’t mean the race between Democrat Bryan Lentz and Republican Pat Meehan has been quiet. Indeed, the race exploded in March when the Lentz campaign petitioned to have Meehan knocked off the ballot. That might seem a ridiculous attempt against someone considered one of the Republican Party’s strongest candidates nationwide, but the former U.S. attorney himself acknowledged that some of the signatures on his ballot were fraudulent when he notified the district attorney of the problems. (The case has since been referred to the attorney general because of the DA’s ties to Meehan.) The Republican insists that he won’t be knocked off the ballot, and he’s criticized Lentz for focusing on his signatures at the expense of issues like the economy. But the story has still received thorough coverage in the local papers, and it’s given Lentz a chance to highlight what he alleges are deep ties between Meehan and the local GOP machine. Still, this is an open seat, and unless he loses his place on the ballot, Meehan will likely remain a strong candidate. Lentz, a member of the state House Appropriations Committee, also could be pulled into yet another contentious budget debate in the coming months, siphoning time away from the campaign trial while simultaneously forcing him to make difficult votes.
2. Paul Kanjorski, (D-11). Previous ranking: 2. Kanjorski, a 13-term incumbent from northeastern Pennsylvania who ranks second in seniority on the House Financial Services Committee, was already facing a competitive primary from Lackawanna County commissioner Corey O’Brien and a competitive general from two-time rival Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazelton. Kanjorski reportedly acknowledged that his “yes” vote on health care was one of the most difficult he’s ever made, and that it constituted a risk to his political future. Meanwhile, Barletta – who built a populist record on his opposition to illegal immigration – caught a break when Republican Chris Paige dropped out of the GOP primary. Now more than ever, Kanjorski remains the state’s most vulnerable incumbent.
3. Kathy Dahlkemper, (D-3). Previous ranking: 3. Like Kanjorski, the freshman congresswoman from Erie voted for the health care bill, but her decision making process was even more fraught with political peril. She’s an opponent of abortion who was skeptical of the Senate protections against spending federal money on abortion. Still, she ultimately joined Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and six other abortion opponents in backing the bill at the last possible moment, after President Barack Obama agreed to issue an executive order reiterating existing federal policies on abortion funding. Their switch, which essentially enabled the legislation to pass, infuriated many abortion opponents, a development that will only intensify feelings against her within the Republican base. She also earned a spot (with Rep. Chris Carney, below) on the 20-lawmaker target list drawn up by conservative heavyweight Sarah Palin. On the upside, Dahlkemper probably benefits from a provision she helped write that lets children stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26; it could prove to be a popular element of the bill. She also garnered sympathy when a conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, targeted her in a television ad that accused her of being soft on cancer – just weeks after losing both parents to the disease. But the biggest challenge for the GOP is finding the right challenger. 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. Chris Carney, (D-10). Previous ranking: 5. Carney moves up one slot, mostly because of his vote for the health care bill. Carney, like Dahlkemper, is an abortion opponent who joined Stupak in initially opposing the Senate-passed bill’s abortion provision, then switching to a “yes” vote shortly before passage. Like Dahlkemper, his health care vote officially drew him the opposition of Sarah Palin, in a northeastern Pennsylvania district that went for Republican John McCain over Obama in 2008 by nine points. Three Republicans have lined up to challenge Carney. The early primary frontrunner is former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino, though he’s been targeted by Democrats for ties to Louis DeNaples, a controversial local businessman who has become a symbol of the state gambling industry’s ills. Other GOP primary contenders include businessman Dave Madeira and Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk.
5. Open seat (previously held by John Murtha), (D-12). Previous ranking: 4. The May 18 special election to fill the seat vacated due to the sudden death of southwestern Pennsylvania’s legendary appropriator has developed somewhat quietly. But at root it boils down to a fight between those who are eager to rely on Washington’s largesse, as Murtha did, and those who want to see a sharply reduced role for government. Democrat Mark Critz, Murtha’s former district director, benefits from the late Congressman’s local halo and connections, but in a low-turnout election, a growing tea-party sentiment could boost Tim Burns, a self-funding businessman. Critz is a modest favorite, but lots of variables cloud the crystal ball. (For the purposes of this list, we’re rating the special election only and will rate the November general election only after the primary for the full two-year term is settled, also on May 18.)
6. Charlie Dent, (R-15). Previous ranking: 7. It remains to be seen whether Dent’s “no” vote on health care will damage his chances, but what is certainly clear is that Democrats continue to pin their hopes on his challenger, Bethlehem mayor John Callahan. Callahan made the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list, which provides extra assistance to candidates deemed to have a strong chance of flipping a Republican seat. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden has announced that he’ll be campaigning for him in person on April 15. Callahan may take some heat for not stating a position on health care reform until after the measure passed, and Dent has generally played it safe. Still, Dent is likely the most vulnerable Republican in the delegation for 2010.
7 (tie). Tim Holden, (D-17). Previous ranking: 6. Holden, a nine-term incumbent, largely avoided the drama of other Pennsylvania lawmakers who were undecided on the health care bill, calmly and deliberately deciding to vote “no” – seemingly the safe choice in this conservative district. Holden’s camp has challenged the nominating petitions of Sheila Dow-Ford, a primary hopeful running from Holden’s left. Knocking her off the Democratic ballot could allow Holden to conserve resources for the general election, but it could also deprive him of a foil who makes him look particularly moderate – a valuable asset in his central Pennsylvania district. However the primary plays out, Holden will face a tough fall campaign against Republican state Sen. Dave Argall, whose home in Schuylkill County could help him cut deeply into Holden’s base.
7 (tie). Jason Altmire, (D-4). Previous ranking: 10. Altmire, who represents swing Rust Belt territory north of Pittsburgh, makes the biggest upward climb on our list, not so much for where he ended up on health care – he ultimately voted “no,” arguably the safest choice for his district – but for how he got there. Altmire’s long deliberation on the issue attracted national media attention and dueling protests at his district office. It also drew the possibility of a primary or third-party challenge from Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council. That challenge never materialized, but it demonstrates the tightrope Altmire is walking. Meanwhile, the seat – previously held for several terms by Republican Melissa Hart – has attracted a prominent, if baggage-laden, Republican candidate in former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. Altmire remains in better shape than several of his Democratic peers in the delegation, and indeed is probably a favorite at this point, but his prospects look somewhat iffier than they did a month ago.
9. Jim Gerlach, (R-6). Previous ranking: 9. The two Democratic contenders — Doug Pike, a former editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran – are taking the bold and somewhat untested route of challenging a sitting Republican by championing health care reform. In fact, both have publicly suggested that the Democratic bill that was just signed into law doesn’t go far enough. Pike and Trivedi – both campaign novices — are running in a Democratic-leaning district, so the gambit could work. But Gerlach should have the wind from the national environment at his back, and he remains a modest favorite.
10. Patrick Murphy, (D-8). Previous ranking: 8. The Pennsylvania Democratic Congressional delegation has recommended Murphy to fill Murtha’s seat on the House Appropriations Committee. While it isn’t a guarantee, a shift to a more influential committee could help boost Murphy’s chances of surviving the Republican wave of 2010. Another factor that could aid Murphy is the sheer number of Democratic districts in the state being targeted by the GOP and the inevitable limits on the amount of money that can be thrown at each one. 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.
11. Tim Murphy, (R-18). Previous ranking: 11. We’re close to dropping Tim Murphy from our list of vulnerables. The Republican been at risk in recent cycles, but so far there’s no indication that anyone more experienced than former junior U.S. Senate aide Dan Connolly is poised to take him on. For now, we’ll keep him on, but just barely.
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.