Congressional Democrats’ Pennsylvania Problem

by Stuart Rothenberg June 29, 2012 · 3:48 PM EDT

As Democrats struggle to net 25 seats and win back the House majority in November, no single state reflects the party’s challenges more than Pennsylvania.

After all, Pennsylvania has gone Democratic in the past five presidential contests, and the apparent movement of the Philadelphia suburbs away from the GOP during the past two decades suggests a fundamental political shift in the state.

But if the southeastern corner of the Keystone State has started to resemble New Jersey and Connecticut, Western Pennsylvania increasingly looks like West Virginia or southeastern Ohio, areas where voters have started to think and behave more like Republicans. This movement of working-class voters toward the GOP has helped offset the partisan trend in the Philadelphia suburbs, keeping Pennsylvania an interesting and competitive state.

Pennsylvania swung wildly between 2006 and 2010, as most of the country did.

Democrats gained a total of five House seats in the Keystone State in the 2006 and 2008 elections — one-tenth of their total haul. After the ’08 elections, Democrats held 12 of the state’s 19 Congressional districts. Two years later, the numbers flipped, with Republicans sitting in 12 seats.

Redistricting after the 2010 census, of course, has further changed the state’s arithmetic because the GOP-controlled state Legislature made it more difficult for House Democrats to make gains by packing Democratic voters together, including throwing two incumbent Democrats into the same district.

So, while Democrats remain hopeful about retaking the House, Pennsylvania is starting to look like a black hole for them this year. And if the party can’t come out of Pennsylvania gaining even a single additional House seat this cycle, there will be extra pressure in states such as Illinois, California and Florida, where redistricting did benefit Democrats, to pick up seats.

Democrats’ best opportunity in the state remains the 8th district, a competitive Bucks County seat that incumbent Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) won in 2004, lost in 2006 and won back in 2010.

According to GOP calculations, after redistricting, that district is less than a point more Republican than it was in 2008, when Sen. John McCain drew less than 46 percent of the vote there. And yet, the Democratic nominee is Kathy Boockvar, a politically untested attorney who had $250,000 in the bank on April 4, compared with $927,000 for Fitzpatrick.

Boockvar had a small legal practice for more than a decade and then worked for a few years for a nonprofit organization “as their Pennsylvania voting rights counsel.” Democratic operatives note that the nature of the district creates a problem for Fitzpatrick. But Boockvar doesn’t have the kind of “story,” credentials or assets automatically associated with a top-tier challenger.

Democrats’ next best opportunity in the state is the 6th district, where Manan Trivedi is making another run at Rep. Jim Gerlach (R). Trivedi, a physician and Iraq War vet, is a credible challenger, and the district is politically competitive. But Gerlach, who survived ’06 and ’08, has proved that he can win just more than 50 percent of the vote in this district no matter how hostile the political environment.

Finally, Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, who is taking on Rep. Tim Murphy (R), might be worth a look. A former Marine, state trooper and county sheriff, Maggi is a county commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002. But although he was the candidate preferred by the Democratic establishment (and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) in that race, he lost the primary.

On April 4, Maggi had $267,000 on hand compared with Murphy’s almost $1.4 million. McCain actually ran better in both the old and redrawn district than President George W. Bush did in 2004, suggesting that President Barack Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket in November won’t help Maggi’s underdog bid.

Elsewhere, Republicans who were top Democratic targets in previous cycles seem barely threatened this time.

Freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan, whose district got more than 4 points better for him under the new lines, is being challenged by attorney George Badey, longtime chairman of the Radnor Democratic Committee. Badey had $193,000 in the bank compared with Meehan’s $1 million on April 4.

Almost every cycle, Democrats come up with someone they say will give politically savvy Rep. Charlie Dent (R) a real run for his money. Not this time. Lehigh County Democratic Chairman Richard Daugherty showed less than $4,500 in the bank as of April 4.

In the northwest corner of the state, freshman Rep. Mike Kelly looks like an obvious Democratic target in a district that legislators made barely more Republican than it was when former Democratic Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper won it in 2008. But the Democratic nominee this time, Missa Eaton, who teaches at Penn State Shenango, had $16,000 in the bank on April 4.

And Democrats can’t take their own Pittsburgh/Johnstown seat for granted. Rep. Mark Critz won a primary against a Democratic colleague, but he now faces a serious challenge from Republican Keith Rothfus, who narrowly lost two years ago to Rep. Jason Altmire (D).

Some might see the weak Pennsylvania class of challengers as a “recruiting failure” by the DCCC and particularly by its recruiting chairwoman, Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.). But you can’t make interesting, credentialed candidates run if they don’t want to, and it looks as if Keystone Democrats have decided this isn’t the year to run against incumbent Republicans in Pennsylvania.

Some of the Democrats’ problems might be because of Obama, who is expected to be weak in Western Pennsylvania. In addition, redistricting insulated supposedly weaker Republican incumbents, including freshman Reps. Tom Marino and Lou Barletta.

Schwartz, who insists her party does have a number of good opportunities in the state, told me this week that the lateness of the new map, which wasn’t finalized until December, and rumors throughout the second half of 2011 suggesting Democrats would have to run in very unfriendly districts made recruiting more difficult than it ordinarily would have been.

Democrats will try to improve their prospects in Pennsylvania during the next few months, but it looks as if the party will need to look elsewhere in its much advertised “Drive to 25.”