Measuring the Blue Wave in Pennsylvania

The size of Democrats' House gains in the Keystone State will be a good indicator of how the party does nationally.

Democratic congressional candidate Susan Wild at a campaign rally in Philadelphia on Sept. 21.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Nov. 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

Even before Pennsylvania’s February redistricting, the state was going to be a midterm hotbed, but a radical shuffle of district lines and a spate of retirements mean that, come January, the Keystone State delegation could be half freshmen and more than half Democrats.

Republicans held 13 of 18 seats in January 2017, a number that has already declined to 12 after Rep. Conor Lamb’s win. It will decline further; how much further will tell us a great deal about Republicans’ national fate Tuesday.

While consultants on both sides and nonpartisan pollsters quibbled over the exact number of further losses for Republicans, most settled on them losing an additional three to five seats.

In the six-seat Philadelphia area, Republicans entered the 115th Congress holding the three heavily gerrymandered suburban seats with Democrats taking the three seats that contained portions of Philadelphia. The new map kept the suburban counties of Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware mostly whole, virtually guaranteeing that Democrats Chrissy Houlahan, Madeleine Dean, and Mary Gay Scanlon will win.

That left the new Bucks County-based 1st District as the one competitive race in the region. The new map makes it slightly more Democratic, but it has tended to favor moderate Republicans like freshman Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

Republicans have hammered Fitzpatrick’s foe, philanthropist Scott Wallace, for months with attacks, and multiple Democrats admitted to National Journal they felt Wallace was a suboptimal candidate.

“He’s the gift that keeps on giving” to Republicans, said one Democrat who felt Wallace could get left out of a Philadelphia-area wave. The same source compared Wallace to Thurston Howell III, the wealthy, out-of-touch castaway from Gilligan’s Island.

But Wallace has given as good as he’s gotten in a campaign whose ads have saturated the Delaware Valley, and all concurred that the race is essentially a coin flip.

The northeast part of the state has two moderately competitive races. In the Allentown-based 7th District, whose predecessor district was vacated by Charlie Dent in May, former Allentown solicitor Susan Wild, a Democrat, faces former Olympic cyclist Marty Nothstein, a Republican. In the Scranton-based 8th, Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright faces Republican attorney John Chrin in a seat that went for Trump by double digits.

Sources on both sides concurred that Wild and Cartwright would win. “The fundamentals and the broader environment remain the same, and in the state overall. Nothing’s changing the underlying factors,” said Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick.

“There’s enough of an intensity gap [between Democrats and Republicans] that it’ll carry Wild,” said one Democrat, noting that many of the seats that Democrats captured in the 2006 wave eventually went back to the GOP.

The Pittsburgh area contains significantly less excitement. Lamb has pulled away against Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus in the only member-on-member race of 2018, and the National Republican Congressional Committee gave up on Rothfus early. In the new 14th District, which is similar to but more Republican than the one Lamb currently holds, GOP state Rep. Guy Reschenthaler is virtually guaranteed to win.

Then there are the two seats that if captured would signal big gains nationwide for Democrats. In the 10th District, based around Harrisburg, Republican Rep. Scott Perry faces Democratic pastor George Scott in a district significantly more Democratic than his current one. Recent public polling has shown Perry with a lead within the margin of error. Vice President Mike Pence appeared for Perry recently, and former Vice President Joe Biden attended a Scott GOTV rally Sunday.

Multiple Republicans who felt Perry still had a slight edge said he was caught off guard by this race, and many described Scott as a candidate with a resume tailor-made for the district as a veteran and Lutheran pastor.

Some observers said Democrats could pick up the 10th at the tail end of a scenario in which they gain 30-35 seats nationally, while others said it was slightly beyond that range.

“If Scott is within the margin of error, voter intensity could make the difference between winning and losing,” said Nevins.

Democratic consultant Aren Platt predicted that Perry, who “went from being very representative of his district to being a Martian on Earth,” will face vigorous challenges every cycle until he loses or is redistricted should he beat Scott.

Democratic strategist Mike Mikus was particularly optimistic about Scott’s chances, saying “I wouldn’t bet my house, but I’d bet my car.”

And in the new 16th District, which includes Erie and counties bordering Ohio, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly faces Democratic attorney Ron DiNicola. Trump appeared in Erie last month, yet the most recent public poll from Susquehanna surprisingly had DiNicola up four after Siena had Kelly up eight early in October.

Democrats are banking on huge turnout in DiNicola’s home base of Erie, which Democratic consultant Mike Butler said was “the million-dollar question” in determining who would win. Some Democrats felt the Susquehanna poll was a positive sign for DiNicola that the seat was more attainable than previously thought, but Republicans were more dismissive; on the whole it still appears to be outside of a 30-35 seat national-pickup scenario.

“Ron has run a great race according to everyone who’s been watching but the reality is that the district is really tough,” said one Democrat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made a late ad buy in the district Thursday, bringing them to $750,000 total

Franklin & Marshall pollster Terry Madonna is significantly more bearish on DiNicola, saying there’s “no basis” to think he can run up the margin enough in the Erie area to win.

What remains to be seen is the exact effect that the top expected poor performance of the GOP ticket will have. Gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner and Senate candidate Rep. Lou Barletta will almost surely lose, but the most recent poll from Franklin & Marshall shows an extinction-level event for Republicans with Wagner down an astounding 26 points and Barletta down 15.

One Democrat said, “the quality of the individual congressional campaigns will decide if it’s going to just be a little good or very, very good.”

Madonna was unsure how big a drag it would be, saying much of it comes down to whether Republicans “come home” and vote for Wagner and Barletta as opposed to splitting their tickets, which the poll indicates they are doing more than Democrats in the state.

So what does all this mean? Republicans have sewn up six seats, all in rural Central and Western Pennsylvania. Democrats have seven locked down, five in the Philadelphia area and two in the Pittsburgh area. The Lancaster-based 11th, where Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker faces Democrat Jess King, has gotten some national attention but is counted among the safe Republican seats.

Republicans can expect Kelly to win unless the blue wave crests higher than what is expected, and barring the unforeseen, Democrats can count on Wild and Cartwright to win.

With the “pure toss-up” 1st and the late-breaking 10th as the remainders, Democrats will capture at worst nine seats for a three-seat gain over their current ranks.

A good night for Democrats will see Scott Wallace win; a great night will result in Rep.-elect George Scott. But if they get to 12, and Ron DiNicola finds himself with a ticket to Washington, then Republicans nationwide will be pointing fingers about where it all went wrong.

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