By Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA Contributing Writer
We’re almost at Election Day, which makes it an opportune time to look back at how Pennsylvania’s House race landscape looked when we first launched the PoliticsPA House Race Rankings feature in early March.
A few of the highly vulnerable members then – Democrats Paul Kanjorski and Kathy Dahlkemper – continue to be highly endangered today. But other lawmakers have seen their fortunes wax or wane.
In March, Democrat Tim Holden ranked 6th on our list, on the verge of what we called “his toughest fight in a decade.” Today, through smart positioning in his conservative district, Holden seems to have little to worry about in his race against GOP state Sen. Dave Argall.
By contrast, Democrat Patrick Murphy ranked 8th then – a far cry from today, when he stands on the verge of being ousted by former GOP Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick.
Unless major developments break between now and Election Day, this will be our final pre-election ranking of the most vulnerable House seats in Pennsylvania. We’ll aim to do a post-mortem after the votes are counted.
As in the past, our rankings include 10 lawmakers, listed in descending order of vulnerability.
Here’s the list:
1. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-3). Previous ranking: 1. Though Dahlkemper has put on a brave face, pushing back against suggestions that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gave up on her Erie-based district, most observers agree that she’s still the most likely Democratic House incumbent in the state to be defeated this year. She’s consistently trailed Republican car dealer Mike Kelly, often by double digits. At this point, the die seems cast.
2 (tie). Paul Kanjorski (D-11). Previous ranking: 2. While the 13-term incumbent is probably still an underdog at this point, Democrats haven’t given up hope on Kanjorski the way they have with Dahlkemper. Recent polls have shown Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta’s lead decreasing, to a mere two points in one Times Leader poll. Kanjorski has benefited from hard-hitting ads that have exposed weaknesses of his opponent.
2 (tie). Patrick Murphy (D-8). Previous ranking: 4. Murphy has steadily risen on our vulnerability list. A key reason has been the effectiveness of his opponent, former Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, who has avoided the stigma of his past Congressional service while leveraging its benefits in fundraising and campaign experience. Murphy’s main hope of survival is a revival of energy among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents his Philadelphia area district.
4. Open seat (held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak). Previous ranking: 3. Perhaps the biggest surprise we’ve seen recently is that this open seat – which was once our most vulnerable seat in the state – has remained within the Democrats’ grasp. For whatever reason, the resilience of local support for President Barack Obama and outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell has buoyed Democrat Bryan Lentz, keeping him within a few points of Republican Pat Meehan in recent polls. If Sestak, the Democratic Senate nominee, can draw his old constituents to the polls on Election Day, that could be an extra boost for Lentz.
5. Chris Carney (D-10). Previous ranking: 5 (tie). Most observers would agree that GOP challenger Tom Marino has been an unimpressive candidate, turning what could have been a clean Republican pickup into a nailbiter. But in this Republican-leaning district – and in a strongly Republican year – Marino may have just enough juice to knock off Carney, even though the incumbent has run a solid campaign.
6 (tie). Jason Altmire (D-4). Previous ranking: 7. This far down the list, Democratic incumbents can breathe a little bit easier. There’s little sign that Altmire’s peril has increased in recent weeks; in fact, a mid-October poll by GOP-leaning Susquehanna Polling & Research had the incumbent up by a comfortable 12 points against political novice Keith Rothfus, who hasn’t been getting much help from his national party. But Altmire represents the kind of blue-collar district where Republicans could do well on Election Day, so it’s too soon to write Rothfus’ obituary.
6 (tie). Mark Critz (D-12). Previous ranking: 5 (tie). A mid-October Susquehanna poll had Critz up by seven points, reinforcing the impression that Republican Tim Burns had not sufficiently improved his game to make Critz a top-tier target for the GOP. Burns suffered a surprisingly large seven-point loss to Critz in a May special election to succeed the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha. While the district’s blue-collar demographics will never make it a safe seat for Critz, the Democrat appears to have a modest edge.
8. Charlie Dent (R-15). Previous ranking: 6 (tie). The most recent poll by the hometown Morning Call newspaper shows Dent up by 17 points – a gut punch for Democrats who had talked up John Callahan, the Bethlehem mayor, as a possible victor in a rough political year for the party. At this point, it’s hard to see how Callahan pulls out a victory.
9. Jim Gerlach (R-6). Previous ranking: 10. Gerlach’s Democratic leaning seat is fundamentally vulnerable, but not this year. The incumbent has run a low-key, surefooted campaign against Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran. Gerlach should have no problem holding his seat – at least for another two years.
10. Tim Holden (D-17). Previous ranking: 9. A Susquehanna poll had Holden up by a ridiculously large margin of 30 points, a testament to Holden’s fine-tuned ability to hold onto this conservative district even in a Republican wave election.