Pennsylvania House races are political thermometer

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jan 17, 2010 12:00 AM

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.

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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.

- Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach decision to seek re-election in the 6th district (instead of running for governor) probably keeps this Southeastern PA seat in the GOP column – unless he’s upset in the primary. Democrats Doug Pike, a former editorial writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Manan Trivedi, a primary-care doctor and Iraq War veteran, are raging a nasty primary battle to run against him.

- Democrat Joe Sestak vacated his 7th District seat in the Southeast for a U.S. Senate run, making an open race. It’s also competitive, between Philly’s former U.S. attorney, Republican Pat Meehan, and the Democrats’ primary winner. This has long been a GOP seat with a few exceptions and this year leans strongly Republican.

- Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-District 8, faces a surprisingly competitive race against the guy he unseated in 2006, Mike Fitzpatrick. Poised to make a comeback, Fitzpatrick wisely waited out 2008. Lack of enthusiasm among Democrats puts this race at risk, despite Murphy’s impressive fundraising.

- On the surface, Democrat Chris Carney’s 10th district in Northeast PA should be safe, since the GOP hasn’t recruited well. Yet this race, too, is competitive.

- Democrat Paul Kanjorski in District 11 is in trouble, but only if Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, a Republican, has a real message that moves beyond immigration. This seat is all about jobs and how all of Kanjorski’s pork hasn’t created any.

- Rep. Jack Murtha, a Democrat, isn’t going anywhere in the 12th District in Southwestern PA, unless he decides to retire – which is highly unlikely.

- Republican Charlie Dent in Lehigh Valley’s 15th district always has a competitive race, and this year is no different: He faces a real challenge from Bethlehem’s mayor in the state’s truest battleground.

Keep an eye on the 17th District: Democratic Rep. Tim Holden will get his toughest challenge since the redistricting fight of ’02, with Republican state senator David Argall in the race.

In 2006, a national tide swept ruby-red suburban areas away from Republicans and into the Democrats’ column. Pennsylvania’s competitive seats have been emblematic of the decade’s national political shifts.

What the House races in Pennsylvania show the rest of the country is that freshman and sophomore Democrats are vulnerable. Some of the old bulls’ time has run out, and incumbents of each party should be wary of being tossed, just out of voter frustration.