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Battleground Pennsylvania

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Battleground Pennsylvania

The Keystone State’s hotly contested congressional races could tip the balance next Tuesday—and offer a preview of 2020. November 1, 2018
Politics and law

On Election Night, 2016, Donald Trump’s political prayers were answered by the electoral trinity of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It was Pennsylvania—armed with 20 electoral votes—that delivered the presidency to Trump, marking the first time its mercurial voters had favored the Republican candidate since 1988. Two years have passed since that consequential evening, but our news cycle and social media platforms—chaotic and relentless with breaking news, pithy posts, and “hot takes”—can make 24 months seem like one cruelly long day. As another significant election looms, with Republicans’ nearly decade-long control of Congress hanging in the balance, Pennsylvania will once again play a crucial role. After all, the Keystone State’s 18 congressional districts, controversially redrawn this year, could deliver up to a quarter of the 23 seats necessary for Democrats to recapture the House.  

Pennsylvania’s reconfigured districts are the result of an off-year judicial election, one that not only haunts the state’s GOP but might also affect the national party’s congressional viability next week. In 2015, the state Supreme Court—the nation’s oldest appellate court—had three open seats, the result of a mandated retirement and resignations related to an email scandal and corruption conviction. The vacancies represented the most open seats since the Court’s formation in 1722 and precipitated the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history. The vicious campaign cost nearly $16 million, with Democrats outraising Republicans thanks to support from unions and trial lawyers. Democrats also enjoyed an 800,000-voter advantage, which helped the party secure a 5-2 advantage on the Court. The election eliminated Republicans’ decades-long control of the panel. 

For Democrats, their Court majority is a long-term political investment. It will play a pivotal role in redrawing election maps after the 2020 Census, and it has already delivered an early gift to their party. In January, the Court invalidated Pennsylvania’s existing congressional district map, ruling that it “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state constitution. In 2011, Republicans, with massive majorities in the state legislature, undoubtedly gerrymandered a map favorable to their party. For three consecutive elections, Republicans won the same 13 congressional seats. The Court’s decision triggered a fierce contest between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf to draw a new map. When they couldn’t agree, the judges drew their own map, with the assistance of a Stanford expert—one that indisputably favored Democrats. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Republican lawmakers’ attempt to overturn the state Court’s decision ahead of the May primary. Within days of the federal ruling, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s PAC donated $250,000 to Governor Wolf’s reelection campaign. 

Republicans want to prevent significant losses in Pennsylvania. The GOP confronts an age-old challenge—the party of an incumbent president traditionally loses congressional seats. According to Gallup, the average midterm loss for a president’s party, dating to 1946, is 25 House seats—just a seat over the 24 districts that Democrats initially required this year. But in March, Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, picked up suburban Pittsburgh’s old 18th district in a special election, securing another seat for Democrats. Lamb, from a well-known Democratic family, is now running in the redrawn 17th district. He faces Republican Keith Rothfus in the nation’s only House race involving incumbent opponents. The new Democratic-leaning district, centered northwest of Pittsburgh, favors Lamb. 

Beyond western Pennsylvania, the court-mandated map offers Democrats promising pick-ups and numerous opportunities. The 10th district, for example, transforms south-central counties into competitive territory. Scott Perry, the Republican incumbent, faces Democrat George Scott, a Lutheran minister and former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. The district dilutes the region’s historically Republican influence by including the entirety of Dauphin County and dividing Cumberland and York counties. The court kept Harrisburg’s densely populated West Shore suburbs in Cumberland, while axing the county’s more conservative and rural western half. The district also includes York, a mid-sized city rich with Democratic votes. Dauphin County, meanwhile, has grown reliably Democratic because of the capital city and its transient, growing suburbs like Hershey. Scott, a moderate from Cumberland, departs from his party’s progressive marching orders. His nonpartisan persona resonates with the district’s voters, with polls suggesting a close race with Perry, a York County resident and Brigadier General in Pennsylvania’s Army National Guard. 

The congressional map also reunites eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley as the 7th district. Featuring Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, the district was vacated by Charlie Dent, a throwback to Rockefeller Republicans. The new lines encompass the entirety of Northampton County, one of three Pennsylvania counties that flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. But the current district offers Democrats a 62,000-voter advantage over the GOP. The Democrat, Susan Wild, served as Allentown’s solicitor. Her Republican opponent, Marty Nothstein, is a gold medal-winning Olympic cyclist and current Lehigh County commissioner. Wild’s sizable cash and geographical advantage portends victory in a district long held by Republicans. 

Republicans confront their greatest reckoning in Philadelphia’s suburban counties. New lines individually bind Montgomery County (4th district), Delaware County (5th district), and Chester County (6th district). The Democratic candidates running in these respective districts—Madeleine Dean, Mary Jo Scanlon, and Chrissy Houlahan—are almost assured victory. Scanlon would succeed Pat Meehan, a Republican who resigned following an ethics investigation probing a sexual harassment complaint.

The overall political composition of Philadelphia’s suburbs has markedly changed. Suburbs farther from the city, like West Chester, continue to grow, and their residential neighborhoods commonly feature virtue-signaling lawn signs. Suburban Philadelphia’s affluent voters are fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal, so they are inclined to support Democrats over right-leaning Republicans. Ryan Costello, a two-term moderate Republican, decided to forgo reelection in his Chester-based district. An overall Democratic-leaning trend departs from the region’s past. During the Reagan area, Montgomery County was considered one of America’s most reliably Republican strongholds. Now Montgomery nurtures Democrats for future office, like the state’s popular attorney general, Josh Shapiro, who previously served as county commissioner.

 

An exception to suburban Philadelphia’s electoral direction is the 1st district, which includes Bucks County and part of Montgomery. The district is represented by Brian Fitzpatrick, a freshman Republican and former FBI agent who succeeded his brother in the seat. Fitzpatrick’s challenger is Scott Wallace, a philanthropist and prolific Democratic donor. Wallace comes from progressive royalty—his grandfather, Henry A. Wallace, was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president.

The race remains a tossup—it is also more expensive than Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate contest. Bucks County is an unpredictable battleground, but one that regularly tracks national trends. In 2006, for instance, Bucks’ voters booted Mike Fitzpatrick, electing Democrat Pat Murphy as the first veteran of the Iraq War to serve in Congress. These same voters forgave Fitzpatrick in 2010, returning him to office during a banner GOP year. In 2016, Hillary Clinton barely won the county—itself a microcosm of the state, with blue-collar towns, drab suburbia, charming boroughs, wealthy school districts, and a preserved countryside. While the district ensures a registration advantage for Democrats, Fitzpatrick hopes to prevail as a non-ideological incumbent who dutifully responds to voters’ concerns.

An overlooked race persists north of Bucks County in the 8th district. Matt Cartwright, the Democratic incumbent, faces a vigorous challenge from Republican John Chrin, an investment banker and businessman. Cartwright entered office in 2013, winning an upset primary against Tim Holden, a Blue Dog Democrat who represented the old 17th district. The northeastern Pennsylvania-based district currently includes the Poconos, a split Luzerne County, and Lackawanna County’s Scranton, whose voters maintain a tribal allegiance to the Democratic Party. Trump, nevertheless, almost won Lackawanna in 2016, and his decisive victory in neighboring Luzerne County proved fateful.

In a revealing new book, The Forgotten, journalist Ben Bradlee, Jr. profiles Luzerne County’s pivotal role in 2016. The county possesses scores of disaffected Democrats who flocked to Trump. “Since Luzerne . . . provided Trump with nearly 60 percent of his winning margin in the state,” writes Bradlee, “it is not a stretch to say that this single county won Trump Pennsylvania—and perhaps the presidency, to the extent that the state’s demographics and voting patterns were similar to Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s.” Chrin hopes to tap into the region’s lingering disillusionment with the Democratic Party. Polls signal a clear advantage for Cartwright, but Luzerne’s 2016 results remind pundits that this region remains a bellwether.

The altered district is also home to both U.S. Senate candidates. Bob Casey, up for reelection to his third term, hails from a storied Democratic family in Scranton. His opponent, Lou Barletta, is concluding his fourth term in Congress. As a previous mayor of Hazleton, Barletta prefigured many of the issues driving Trump voters. He was also one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump.

Next Tuesday, Democrats could add up to six seats in Pennsylvania, helping pave their path to a House majority. In congressional races, health care leads as a bipartisan concern among voters, a largely discontented middle class. In the past decade, Pennsylvanians have expressed frustration over the changed medical landscape wrought by Obamacare, but guaranteed, affordable coverage is increasingly a non-negotiable expectation. In campaign ads, Democrats have exploited this issue, especially on the matter of preexisting conditions.

With its continued economic strife, Pennsylvania remains an unpredictable electoral landscape. It leans Democratic, but its voters are flexible in their viewpoints, largely devoid of ideology, and prone to splitting tickets. If Republicans lose the House next Tuesday, they can blame Pennsylvania, and in particular losing a judicial election whose repercussions will have proved national in scope. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Republican legislative leaders’ latest attempt to void the new state map. With Governor Wolf’s projected reelection, and a GOP-led General Assembly, Pennsylvania will continue to define the political battle lines that will shape the 2020 election.

Photo: benkrut/iStock

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