There is no problem in which the Republican Party finds itself that it can’t make worse. Such is the case with GOP efforts to defend an increasingly frail majority in the United States House of Representatives.
All else being equal, Democrats need only flip 24 seats to gain majority control. That is a slim margin given the historic propensity of voters to hand the party of a new president substantial losses in his first mid-term election. Democrats lost 63 seats in President Barack Obama’s first mid-term and Republicans have controlled the chamber ever since.
Republicans, therefore, must buck history to forestall substantial Democratic gains this November. To accomplish that, the GOP must do just about everything right. At the moment, it appears the party is doing nothing right and good ole Penn’s Woods has contributed mightily to their woes.
Let us count the ways:
Tilt the Playing Field: Years ago national Democrats realized they had no chance of regaining control of congress given the redistricting plans implemented in the several states. Rather than wait until 2021 and the next scheduled round of redistricting they set about challenging existing plans in key states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and, yes, Pennsylvania.
To ensure success the Democrats and their labor union allies essentially purchased control of the state Supreme Court. With the unusual opportunity of three open seats on the court labor unions poured millions into the 2015 statewide court races, the GOP was caught napping, Democrats swept the election and claimed control of the high court.
The investment paid off in a highly partisan; and arguably unconstitutional action, when the union-backed justices threw out the district maps developed through the regular order of business and by judicial fiat implemented their own map. The new districts, which visually appear to be compact, are more highly gerrymandered than the old and will likely result in a pick-up of four to five congressional seats for the Democrats.
Special Election Misfire: When a scandal forced the resignation of suburban Pittsburgh Congressman Tim Murphy it looked like a sure bet Republicans would retain the seat. President Trump carried the district by over 20-points in 2016.
State Representative Rick Saccone was selected as the Republican nominee and proved to be a less than stellar campaigner. Rather than shore up his campaign, the GOP blame game began weeks before the March special election. Everyone seemed to forget Democrats held a 60,000 plus voter registration edge in the district. The result was an embarrassing loss to Democrat Conor Lamb.
A House Divided: Congressional Republicans have spent more time fighting each other than engaging the Democrats. On any major vote not a single Democrat will break ranks, but Republicans couldn’t agree on the color of the White House. This triggered a populist uprising that in 2016 resulted in the election of President Donald Trump. The rise of Trump was fueled by so-called moderate Republicans like Congressman Charlie Dent whose Tuesday group frustrated conservative voters.
Trump rode the populist wave to an electoral victory in Pennsylvania, but he lost the populous Philadelphia suburbs by a landslide. Last year the GOP sustained historic losses at the county level in that region. The President remains hugely unpopular in the “collar counties” which means Republican congressmen in that region likely will become an extinct species
The Costello Cop Out: Retirements, including the high profile decision by House Speaker Paul Ryan to end his congressional career further add to the steep hill the GOP must climb. To date 40 Republican congressmen are either retiring or running for higher office. That is far above the historic average of 25 retirements per cycle.
Five Pennsylvania Republican congressmen have announced their retirements, the latest being Congressman Ryan Costello of Chester County. He bailed on the battle after the new district maps were put into place to avoid what would have been a tough re-election contest. The timing of his retirement – which came after other candidates would have had the opportunity to place their names on the ballot – leaves the party with but one unknown candidate.
Thus Pennsylvania has become the Keystone state for Democratic efforts to reclaim control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And they are doing so with significant help from the GOP itself.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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