More than half of Pennsylvania’s 19 House seats will be in play next month when voters go to the polls, a reflection of a volatile national electorate, experts say.
"In the 2010 midterm elections for the House, as goes Pennsylvania, so goes the nation," said analyst Isaac Wood of the University of Virginia’s Center for American Politics.
Republicans need to pick up 39 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives from Democrats. The Pennsylvania delegation of 12 Democrats and seven Republicans offers opportunities for the GOP.
"For at least this past decade, Pennsylvania has been a battleground state where the political parties have fought over competitive House seats," said Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University.
Complicating the math for the GOP is the number of incumbents seeking re-election: 18. It’s rare for incumbents to lose.
Only the Delaware County seat held by Democrat Joe Sestak, who is running for the Senate against Republican Pat Toomey, is open.
Experts told the Tribune-Review that at least eight Democrats face significant competition. Republicans face strong challenges in two races.
Since 2002, Pennsylvanians opted for Democrats by voting for Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and, for president, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.
"This year the tables have turned," Brown said.
She pointed to recent opinion polls showing that most Pennsylvanians disapprove of President Obama’s job performance and hold unfavorable views about the stimulus legislation and health care overhaul championed by a Democratic Congress.
"This disapproval of the job the Democrats are doing in Washington has created opportunities across the Keystone State for Republican candidates for the House," Brown said.
Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer agrees that Democratic incumbents, particularly those in centrist and conservative districts, are at risk of losing.
"Voters are poised to hold members of Congress responsible for their lackluster performance with the economy while continuing to create record deficits," he said.
"Much of this danger is actually the price of Democrats’ success," said Wood. "Over the past two election cycles, Democrats have been riding high and picking up seats in traditionally Republican territory."
Two House members who benefited from the Democratic surge in the 2006 elections were Rep. Chris Carney of Dimock in Susquehanna County, who represents northeastern Pennsylvania, and Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless, whose district stretches from Mercer County through the North Hills to Murrysville.
Carney’s seat is a case study of what is happening across the nation, Brauer said.
"He portrayed himself as a centrist and bipartisan; yet he voted for large government solutions like the stimulus package and health care reform, which drives up the national debt," Brauer said.
Altmire broke with Democrats on the health care law.
"Altmire has stayed true to his Blue Dog values, legislating firmly in the center and staying in line with the will of his constituents," said Brauer.
Traditionally, Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Brauer said.
"This even held true through the famous Republican revolution of 1994, when the Republicans made major gains throughout the rest of the nation and were able to win the House for the first time in 40 years," he said.
Recent polls showed voters in traditionally strong Democratic areas might not show up to vote for Democrats, said Villanova’s Brown.
"Pennsylvania also serves as a microcosm for America, since it voted for Obama in 2008, but his luster has faded significantly over the past two years," Wood said.
Here’s how the experts handicap Pennsylvania’s races:
7th District: This Delaware County seat opened when Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak decided to run for Senate. The contest for this traditionally Republican seat features former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan of Philadelphia; state Rep. Bryan Lentz, D-Swarthmore; and Jim Schneller of Wayne, the American Congress Party candidate.
1st District: Rep. Bob Brady won this Philadelphia seat by consistently capturing more than 80 percent of the vote since 1998. He is unopposed.
2nd District: Rep. Chaka Fattah represents this district, which includes poor, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Montgomery County. He faces Republican businessman Rick Hellberg.
13th District: Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Jenkintown has held this seat since 2005. This once-reliable Republican district includes parts of Montgomery County and northern Philadelphia. She faces Republican businessman Dee Adcock of Abington.
14th District: Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills, an ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and President Obama, represents an overwhelmingly Democratic district that includes Pittsburgh and parts of the Mon Valley. Republican Melissa Haluszczak, a Coraopolis paralegal, is seeking office for the first time. On the ballot with them is Green Party candidate Ed Bortz of the North Side.
5th District: Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Howard represents 17 counties across the middle of Pennsylvania, the heart of the GOP base. He faces Democrat Michael Pipe, an assistant manager at a State College restaurant.
9th District: Rep. Bill Shuster of Hollidaysburg has held this central Pennsylvania seat since winning a special election in 2001 to replace his long-serving father. He faces Democrat Tom Connors, a retired television station executive.
16th District: Rep. Joe Pitts has represented this district, which stretches from Lancaster to Chester counties, since 1997. He again faces Democrat Lois Herr of Lancaster County, who lost in 2004 and 2006.
18th District: Carved out of the wealthy southern suburbs of Allegheny and Washington counties, with some Westmoreland County towns, this district has been served by Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair since 2003. Novice Dan Connolly of South Park is the Democratic nominee.
19th District: Rep. Todd Platts has held this seat that represents Adams, York and parts of Cumberland County since 2001. He faces Democrat Ryan Sanders of Red Lion, a small business owner, and independent Josh Monighan of Mechanicsburg.
3rd District: Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper’s alignment with Democratic leaders on health care angered voters in this district, which runs from Butler County to Erie. Republican car dealer Mike Kelly of Butler appears to be a good fit for the district. A successful businessman, he consistently leads in the polls.
6th District: If there is anyone who knows how hard it is to run against wave elections, it’s Rep. Jim Gerlach of Chester Springs. He survived the 2006 and 2008 elections with well-funded challengers; he should have no problem winning against Democrat Manan Trivedi, a Reading physician and Iraq war veteran.
8th District: Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy of Bristol defeated Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick in 2006 to win this Bucks County seat. Fitzpatrick has returned with a smarter campaign than four years ago. A GOP win here might help put Republicans in control of the House.
11th District: Many longtime incumbents lost this year because of the anti-Washington mood. Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Nanticoke has held this seat that includes Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and the Poconos since 1985. He survived a 2008 challenge by Republican Lou Barletta, the Hazleton mayor who championed anti-immigration policies. A more seasoned Barletta is focusing this campaign on jobs and the economy.
15th District: The Democrats recruited Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan to run against Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Allentown, who pounced on Callahan’s record of raising taxes. A recent Muhlenberg College poll confirmed Callahan is not likely to win.
4th District: Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless rode the Democratic midterm wave in 2006 but balked at some big Democratic votes such as the health care overhaul. Republican Keith Rothfus of Edgeworth is conducting a tireless campaign, not unlike the one Altmire ran against Melissa Hart to win the job.
10th District: The fact that this race remains in play says much about the political environment. Democratic Rep. Chris Carney of Dimock has a fairly conservative voting record since being elected to office in 2006. His opponent, former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino of Philadelphia, was slow in catching up to Carney’s huge cash advantage. The district is solidly Republican.
12th District: Democrat Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown easily won a special election to replace the late Jack Murtha, who held the job for almost 40 years, over Republican businessman Tim Burns of Eighty-Four. Critz, a former Murtha aide, proved to be a capable campaigner. Yet Burns remains a strong candidate who cannot be counted out.
17th District: Conservative Democrat Rep. Tim Holden of St. Clair won the job in 2002, but redistricting forced Holden to run in a newly formed, Republican-leaning district against a 10-term Republican incumbent. The GOP initially felt good about gaining this seat, but its nominee, state Sen. David Argall of Rush Township in Schuylkill County, has been a lackluster fundraiser.