By Alex Roarty and Louis Jacobson
There’s no doubt: It’s been a rough August for Congressional Democrats.
Nationally, Democrats are worrying about historically grim numbers from “generic ballot” tests, which pollsters use to gauge overall voter sentiment about Congressional races. In turn, national handicappers have been bumping up the number of seats that the Democrats could end up losing in November.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republicans are reacting giddily to the results of polls commissioned by the American Action Forum, a pro-Republican group, showing GOP candidates doing well against four Democratic incumbents in the Keystone State.
Because these polls were taken by a Republican firm, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. But in combination with the broader trends benefiting Republicans, we can’t help but conclude that the GOP has regained significant momentum in Pennsylvania after the disappointments of the May 18 primary — in which several nominees emerged battered and the GOP failed to seize the seat left vacant after the death of Democratic Rep. John Murtha — and the July 15 fundraising deadline, which included some disappointing hauls for key GOP challengers.
As in the past, our rankings include 10 lawmakers, listed in descending order of vulnerability.
In the rankings, we’ve tweaked the order of the candidates a bit, but not greatly. The bigger story, we think, is that all eight Democrats on the list are now more vulnerable than they were when we did our previous rankings on July 18.
On the list below, we consider the first three seats highly vulnerable, the next five seats vulnerable and the final two less so. 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.
While a month or two ago we would have been skeptical of widespread Democratic losses in the Pennsylvania delegation, due largely to micro-scale factors in each race, there is a growing feeling that the national wave aiding Republicans may drag down even Democratic incumbents in Pennsylvania who have taken great pains to insulate themselves from their party’s unpopular leadership through their voting records and their constituent service.
At this point, only Democrats in overwhelmingly favorable districts – mainly ones in and adjoining Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – have good reason to feel much job security.
Of course, the momentum could shift again before Election Day, so we’ll continue to update our rankings as Nov. 2 approaches.
Here’s our list:
1. Paul Kanjorski (D-11). Previous ranking: 1. The 13-term incumbent Kanjorski retains the No. 1 spot in our rankings as he tries to fend off a stiff challenge from Republican Lou Barletta in northeastern Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District. The two candidates’ daily media skirmishes are a clear sign that this has become a highly competitive contest. A proposed security officer training center in the area has become the subject of intense local media coverage. Kanjorski contends that it could bring 1,000 jobs to the area, but Barletta counters that the claim is more rhetoric than reality and voices concern over the center’s possible noise from gunfire and even bomb explosions. Kanjorski took to the airwaves in late August with a hard-hitting spot attacking Barletta’s tenure as Hazleton’s mayor. As it happened, a federal appeals court in early September voided a landmark Hazleton law cracking down on businesses and landlords that employ or rent to illegal aliens. The law has been a cornerstone of Barletta’s mayoral tenure, and the decision is both a short-term setback and an opportunity for Barletta to fire up anti-immigration voters as he pursues a Supreme Court appeal. No longtime incumbent like Kanjorski goes down without a fight, particularly when continues to hold a significant financial advantage over an opponent he’s defeated twice before. But the 11th District, full of older conservative Democrats, appears as poised as any to ride an impending GOP wave.
2. Open seat (held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak). Previous ranking: 2. If there’s going to be a savior for Democratic nominee Bryan Lentz, his name is Jim Schneller. The pseudo-conservative third-party candidate, with an apparently pivotal boost from Lentz allies, unexpectedly earned a place on the ballot and survived a court challenge by Republican Pat Meehan. If Schneller siphons even a few points from Meehan, it could help put Lentz over the top in southeastern Pennsylvania’s 7th District. The two candidates have also begun a series of debates, which offer a leg-up to the lesser-known Lentz, who seems to enjoy sharing a stage with his GOP opponent. Still, the fundamentals for this open-seat battle still tilt toward the well-known ex-U.S. Attorney Meehan, who will surely benefit from the GOP wave. He also retains a financial edge over Lentz.
3. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-3). Previous ranking: 3. The American Action Forum poll had Kelly up 52 to 38 percent, but most experts see this as a closer race. The National Republican Congressional Committee is keeping the pressure on Dahlkemper, a freshman Democrat who ousted GOP Rep. Phil English during the 2008 wave election for her party. The district is one of the three in the state where the NRCC said in mid-August that it would be reserving advertising time for the fall, alongside Kanjorski’s and the Sestak open seat (see above). The NRCC also boosted GOP nominee Mike Kelly to the top tier of its “Young Guns” program. Both actions demonstrate GOP confidence in Kelly, who won his primary with just 28 percent of the vote, who raised just $80,000 in the second quarter and who hails from Butler County — far from Erie, the district’s population hub and Dahlkemper’s home base. Given these drawbacks, Kelly — who’s dug into his own pockets to the tune of $415,000 so far — will need all the outside Republican help he can get, since Dahlkemper raised $320,000 in the second quarter and reported a healthy $1 million on hand through July. She has begun trying to leverage her financial edge by releasing her first ad in August, a positive 60-second spot that highlights her opposition to “cap and trade” legislation. That bill, which was pushed by her party in Congress, was strongly opposed by many of her constituents. But Kelly is sure to bring up her vote in favor of the Democratic health care reform bill. To survive in this tough environment, she’ll need to hope the narrative of political independence sells with voters.
4. Patrick Murphy (D-8). Previous ranking: 4 (tie). Is Republican challenger Mike Fitzpatrick up 7 points, as his internal polling suggests? Probably not. But it’s increasingly clear that the Democratic incumbent Murphy faces a severe test against the man he unseated in 2006. In a district that some national analysts consider a bellwether for the 2010 midterms, Murphy has emerged as a rising Democratic star, leading the repeal movement for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and claiming a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee. But he could suffer from his connection to President Barack Obama, even in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Murphy’s warchest will be substantial, but Fitzpatrick has proven to be an expert fundraiser. This seat could go either way.
5. Mark Critz (D-12). Previous ranking: 9. There’s now little doubt that Republican Tim Burns remains a viable threat to unseat Critz, who beat him in a May special election. A series of polls have reported the Washington County businessman holds a small lead against the incumbent, with one internal poll saying he’s up as many as 5 points. In the conservative, blue-collar 12th District in southwestern Pennsylvania, it should be no surprise that a Republican leads a Democrat in a year so favorable to the GOP. Republican insiders vow that Burns remains committed to running his campaign, even though other analysts can’t quite forget May’s special election, which Critz won by a stunning seven points despite polling that favored Burns. Since then he’s distanced himself from his party’s leadership, which should help his cause. Ultimately, it boils down to a basic question: Will November’s pattern follow May’s, or was May’s victory simply a by-product of competitive Democratic primaries in the gubernatorial and Senate elections that drove up turn out?
6 (tie). Chris Carney (D-10). Previous ranking: 8. In such a difficult political climate, the two-term incumbent Carney should be a prime target for Republicans in his right-leaning 10th District. And according to some polls, GOP challenger Tom Marino is already up by double-digits. But the former U.S. Attorney Marino has repeatedly stumbled on the campaign trail, no more so than when he explicitly told a local radio host in late August that future generations might need to eliminate Social Security benefits for themselves to keep the program financially solvent. The candidate’s campaign quickly walked back the comments, but the damage was done in a district full of older residents. Still, this race rises in our vulnerability rankings due to the political climate, which has made it possible that the national political fundamentals will overpower local factors.
6 (tie). Charlie Dent (R-15). Previous ranking: 4 (tie). Despite the Democrats’ inexorably expanding list of threatened incumbents nationwide, the party seems committed to helping John Callahan, the Bethlehem mayor who’s challenging the moderate Dent in this swing district in the Lehigh Valley. Callahan remains a strong recruit, and if he could actually pull off the win, it would give the Democratic majority a bit of breathing room to absorb losses elsewhere. Still, the across-the-board momentum for Republicans over the past month has convinced us to drop this district down our vulnerability list. While it remains the most vulnerable GOP-held seat in the state, we’re dropping it several notches in this month’s ranking.
8. Jason Altmire (D-4). Previous ranking: 6. Altmire, like Dahlkemper, struck in August with a television ad that seeks to distance himself from the House Democratic leadership, citing his votes against the health care reform bill and against the TARP bailout for Wall Street. And like Dahlkemper, Altmire has the werewithal to mount a significant ad campaign: He reported a big fundraising advantage over his GOP opponent in July, leading attorney and political novice Keith Rothfus in cash on hand, $1.5 million to $200,000. The NRCC’s decision not to reserve time here yet suggests that Republicans consider this contest to be in the second tier of Pennsylvania House races. That view may have gained some credence when Altmire released an internal poll showing him up, 51 percent-24 percent. We don’t buy that he’s that far up, though he probably has an edge at this point. Still, this blue-collar seat is well positioned to flip during a GOP wave – especially if the NRCC jumps in or if Rothfus begins to raise serious money on his own.
9. Tim Holden (D-17). Previous ranking: 10. Holden remains the Democratic House Member in the state whose position is as strong as it was a month ago. This is partly a tribute to Holden’s ability to hold his GOP-tilting district through a savvy voting record and a personal connection to his constituents. It’s also a reflection of the lagging campaign of state Sen. Dave Argall. Argall barely won a primary against non-descript opponents and reported just $29,000 in the bank in July – far behind Holden’s $885,000. We’ve seen no sign that he’s upped the metabolism enough to break Holden’s grip on the district. A big GOP wave could still carry Argall to victory, but the way things look now, he’d be the last of the GOP challengers to reach shore.
10. Jim Gerlach (R-6). Previous ranking: 7. Gerlach drops down our vulnerability list primarily because of the recent GOP surge. Democratic challenger Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq veteran, remains an intriguing candidate, but a wave election benefiting the opposite party is an awful time to be an intriguing candidate. Of the two vulnerable GOP-held seats, the big differences between Gerlach’s and Dent’s is that Dent faces a top-drawer Democratic recruit (Trivedi won a sharply divided primary) and the Lehigh Valley media market is considerably cheaper than Gerlach’s Philadelphia media market. Barring a major, unexpected problem for Gerlach, Trivedi seems to have a steep climb to victory this fall.
Alex Roarty is a staff writer with PoliticsPA.com.
Louis Jacobson, a staff writer with PolitiFact.com, has handicapped state races for the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, Roll Call, stateline.org and Governing.