Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pennsylvania Downballot, II: U.S. House

            Despite the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the general anti-establishment mood of the voters, no incumbent member of Congress has lost his or her primary so far this year.  That may change once Pennsylvania’s votes are counted; two incumbent Congressmen are facing serious challenges, in addition to two open seats with competitive primaries.

2nd Congressional District (D)

            Philadelphia can often seem like Chicago: the weather’s lousy but the Italian food is great, it might be 100 years before the Phillies win another World Series, and it seems like Democratic politicians can get away with anything.  However, Rep. Chaka Fattah (tied with Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Allegheny County, as the most senior Pennsylvanian in Congress) is in serious trouble after being indicted in a money laundering scandal related to his unsuccessful run for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007.  Fattah has landed three challengers: State Rep. Dwight Evans, Lower Merion Township commissioner Brian Gordon, and attorney Dan Muroff.  Evans leads the only public poll conducted of the race and has the endorsement of Gov. Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and former Gov. Ed Rendell; he has to be considered the frontrunner.  Fattah still has the support of Rep. Bob Brady of the neighboring First District (Brady also chairs the Philadelphia Democratic Party) and most unions that have endorsed.  Muroff has shown some life, getting the endorsement of Daylin Leach, an influential liberal state senator, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
            The district is diverse, in the sense that it contains many different types of Democrat.  It takes in predominantly black areas of North and West Philadelphia (about 60% of the district’s residents, as well as Evans and Fattah, are black), many of the city’s universities (including Temple and the University of Pennsylvania), and Lower Merion Township, an affluent liberal suburb.  Whoever wins the Democratic primary is almost certain to win the general election.

8th Congressional District (R/D)

            U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick is one of the rarest breed among American politicians: the kind who take a term limit pledge and actually mean it.  He was first elected in 2004, lost his seat in the Democratic wave of 2006, and regained it in the Republican wave of 2010, pledging to serve only three terms.  Those three terms are up, leading to a scramble in both parties to replace him.  On the Republican side, state Rep. Scott Petri seemed to be the frontrunner until Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent and the current Congressman’s brother, threw his hat into the ring.  Petri dropped out, leaving Fitzpatrick 2.0 to face Andy Warren, a former Republican Bucks County commissioner who ran for the seat in 2006 as a Democrat and switched back to the GOP, and Marc Duome, a businessman and psychiatrist.
            The two Democratic candidates are Shaughnessy Naughton, a businesswoman who unsuccessfully ran for the nomination in 2014, and state Rep. Steve Santarsiero.  The primary has become heated, with Naughton accusing Santarsiero of exaggerating his record in the General Assembly and Santarsiero accusing Naughton of illegally coordinating with a super PAC.
            This district covers all of Bucks County and a slice of neighboring Montgomery County, in the Philadelphia suburbs. Mitt Romney carried it by a 49.4-49.3% margin in 2012, making it the most evenly split district in an otherwise heavily gerrymandered state (Pennsylvania has Congressional districts resembling a dog with its head tilted backward barking at an angel, a bodybuilder’s arm reaching down to pinch the city of Harrisburg, an anorexic hammerhead shark, and a decapitated French maid.)  The Republicans have a slight advantage here, unless their Presidential candidate becomes too much of a drag on the rest of the ticket.

9th Congressional District (R)

            Rep. Bill Shuster is following in the footsteps of his father Bud, both as congressman from this area and as chairman of the House Transportation Committee.  Bud’s pork barreling ways were legendary; to pick one example, he not only had an expressway built linking his hometown of Altoona to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, State College, and Interstate 80, but he also designated it a major interstate highway.  Despite (because of?) this legacy, the younger Shuster has never been terribly popular here.  He barely beat Democrat Scott Conklin in the 2001 special election to replace his father (in a heavily Republican district), he almost lost the primary in 2004, and he received barely more than half the vote in the 2014 primary against two candidates.  One of them, former Coast Guard officer Art Halvorson, is running again this year.
            Shuster has survived difficult primaries before, but this time he’s under the cloud of a romantic relationship with Shelly Rubino, the vice president of government affairs for the airline industry’s lobbying organization, a relationship Halvorson has brought up in the only debate of the primary campaign.  The district, which runs from the Monongahela Valley south of Pittsburgh to Franklin County in the south central part of the state and heads north to include Altoona and Indiana (home of Jimmy Stewart and the confusingly named Indiana University of Pennsylvania), is the most Republican in the state.  Despite the rancorous primary, whoever wins this month will almost certainly prevail in November.

16th Congressional District (R)

            In 1976, Bob Walker was elected from this Lancaster-area seat and rose to become one of Newt Gingrich’s key allies before retiring in 1996.  Joe Pitts, who is retiring this year, replaced him.  In other words, this district’s Republicans should choose well, because they may be stuck with their nominee for the next twenty years.  The two Republicans running to replace Pitts are Lloyd Smucker, who represents the southern half of Lancaster County, including the city of Lancaster, in the state Senate, and Chet Beiler, a businessman seeking to claim the mantle of the Tea Party.  The race has already gotten negative, with Beiler criticizing Smucker’s support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants  (a sop to Lancaster City’s large Hispanic population) and Smucker pointing out Beiler’s past conviction for illegally paying bonuses to election workers.  The distinction between career politician and businessman may not be as clear as the Beiler campaign portrays it; Smucker owned a construction company before being elected to the state Senate in 2008 and Beiler unsuccessfully ran for state Senate, auditor general, and lieutenant governor before this year.

            Whoever wins the primary will face Democrat Christina Hartman, a consultant, in the fall.  The district contains most of heavily Republican Lancaster County, the city of Reading, and a swath of southern Chester County, in a shape that resembles Mary Poppins and a bird fleeing a nuclear explosion.  Although Democrats have a base in the cities of Lancaster and Reading and are doing better in the suburban areas of Lancaster County, this seat probably will not be in play in the general election unless there’s a complete Republican meltdown.

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