Salena Zito

Wise strategists on both sides of the political aisle know they need look no further than U.S. House races in Pennsylvania to gauge the country’s political temperature.

During presidential elections Pennsylvania is considered a Democratic-leaning battleground. In the past decade it went for Gore (51-46), Kerry (51-48), and Obama (55-44).

“Putting these numbers in perspective, the state tends to vote about four percentage points more for the Democratic nominee than the nation as a whole does,” say Professor Lara Brown of Villanova University.

Democrats increasingly have felt confident that Pennsylvania will continue trending toward their party, given their wins in the 2006 midterm and the 2008 general elections.

Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution

But change can come quickly in politics.

As Democrats look at 2010’s landscape, Brown says, a few Keystone State congressional races they felt hopeful of winning (the 6th and 15th districts) or confident of keeping (7th, 10th and 11th ) are beginning to trend against them.

RealClearPolitics has the average for the generic ballot favoring Republicans by 3 percentage points.

If that number is accurate, Brown explains, “Then in Pennsylvania what you can infer is that among likely voters, Democrats are only running ahead of Republicans by about 1 percentage point.”

In other words, the state is extremely competitive and may – depending on how the primaries shake out – once more seem like a political ground-zero come October.

Nine of Pennsylvania’s 19 House districts are stone-cold safe for incumbents. A breakdown of the ten House seats completely up for grabs:

- Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-District 3, defeated seven-term incumbent Phil English in 2008, but she won because of the anti-GOP year and a great effort by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She’ll have to run a better campaign this time to hold the seat.

- Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Dist. 4, has raised more than $1.2 million and voted in line with his moderate constituency. Yet those votes have led progressive Democrats to search for a primary challenger. That leaves former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, a Republican, to knock on doors and make friends in a district that has trended Republican in two consecutive cycles.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.