Pity us poor congressional handicappers. In the good old days – that is, only a couple electoral cycles ago – PoliticsPA’s congressional vulnerability rankings had a lot of raw material to work with. In our inaugural 2010 rankings, for instance, we had no trouble putting together a list that included 10 races that were plausibly competitive.
Then came the redistricting following the 2010 Census, when the Republican Legislature was able to draw a favorable map for the GOP. Almost overnight, Pennsylvania’s competitive U.S. House races all but disappeared. In October 2012, we found one vulnerable seat and two potentially vulnerable seats. In 2014, there were only two seats that were vaguely competitive.
In this article, we kick off our fourth cycle of ranking congressional seats by vulnerability. But the pickings have grown slimmer than ever.
Based on interviews with campaign pros, Pennsylvania has one genuinely competitive U.S. House race, one reasonably competitive race and – well, that’s pretty much it. A few more seats at least have declared candidates, all of them longshots, but others that could in theory be competitive do not.
Here’s our rundown, short though it may be. Contests are listed in descending order of the likelihood of a party switch in the general election.
8th District: Open seat (GOP Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick is retiring)
This district, based in Bucks County and portions of Montgomery County, is home to the marquee U.S. House race in Pennsylvania this year, not to mention one of the few genuinely competitive contests anywhere in the country.
The 8th has a close partisan balance in voting; Mitt Romney barely edged Barack Obama in the district in 2012. Fitzpatrick survived Democratic opposition pretty handily in 2012 and 2014, but now he’s retiring, leaving the seat open. Democrats are hopeful that 2016 – a presidential-election year – will have a more favorable turnout pattern than 2014.
Both parties look headed toward primaries.
The field includes State Rep. Steve Santarsiero and publisher Shaughnessy Naughton, who narrowly lost a primary for the seat in 2014. Santarsiero boasts a number of local Democratic organization endorsements, but Naughton has benefited from a pitch by former Gov. Ed Rendell and can expect support from the Democratic fundraising group EMILY’s List. Second-quarter fundraising filings show that Naughton raised $178,988 in the second quarter, compared to $155,864 for Santarsiero.
6th District: GOP Rep. Ryan Costello
This race ranks below the 8th District contest on our list because it’s not an open seat. The slightly Republican-leaning district – which spans portions of Montgomery, Chester, Berks, and Lebanon counties – was usually a Democratic target when Gerlach was in office, and it still is.
Costello, the former chair of the Chester County Board of Commissioners, is serving his first term in Congress after succeeding former GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach in 2014 with 56 percent of the vote. Republicans believe Costello has not made any major mistakes that could derail his reelection bid, while Democrats are hopeful that presidential-year turnout, as in the 8th District, could make a difference.
Two Democrats are battling for the nomination, both of them Army vets: Mike Parrish, who briefly ran in 2014 and who has not held political office before, and Joe Denham, a member of the West Whiteland Township Board of Supervisors.
Parrish has received the endorsement of Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, but he trails Costello in fundraising by a large margin. Second-quarter data shows that the incumbent raised $641,159, compared to just $45,599 for Parrish.
This concludes the genuinely competitive portion of our list. Here are a few races where there are at least challengers on tap at this point in the cycle.
7th District: GOP Rep. Pat Meehan
Meehan, first elected in 2010, represents a southeastern Pennsylvania district that Mitt Romney won by three points in 2012, and he has settled into a seat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee this year.
Not surprisingly, Meehan has a big war chest – more than $2 million in cash on hand. He has two opponents: Mary Ellen Balchunis, a professor at La Salle University and the unsuccessful 2014 nominee against Meehan, and Lindy Li, a 2012 Princeton graduate.
11th District: GOP Rep. Lou Barletta
Barletta, elected to the House in 2010, was formerly mayor of Hazleton. He is now facing a challenge by Democrat Michael Marsicano, his predecessor as mayor. Not only did the district back Romney by nine points in 2012, but Barletta already beat him in a mayoral challenge in 2007.
12th District: GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus
The 12th District – a southwestern Pennsylvania seat held for years by the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha – has now been won twice by Rothfus, most recently with 59 percent of the vote. Two Democrats are being mentioned – 2014 nominee Erin McClelland and attorney Steve Larchuk.
16th District: GOP Rep. Joe Pitts
Pitts is a well-entrenched lawmaker who doesn’t have to worry about reelection – but he’s 75, and his Lancaster-based district isn’t too heavily Republican. (Romney won it with just 52 percent in 2012.) So in recent cycles, Democrats have been lining up to increase their name identification in advance of a potential Pitts retirement. This year’s Democratic hopeful is Christina Hartman, a former official with two human-rights organizations, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.
2nd District: Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah
There’s zero chance that Republicans will win this district anytime soon – Obama won 90 percent of the vote in 2012 – but the indictment of Fattah does open up the possibility of a heated primary on the Democratic side. It’s too early to tell who may be in the field – Fattah hasn’t said he’s retiring yet.