GOP and Dems search for key to elections in Keystone State

The Senate race may be dominating headlines in Pennsylvania, but the state is, once again, proving fertile ground in the battle for the House of Representatives.

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In the last two cycles, few states have seen turnover like Pennsylvania. Nearly a tenth of all Democratic gains in the House have come from the Keystone State. But party strategists on both sides of the aisle say there is still competitive ground to fight over.

“We’re kind of like a purple state more than a blue or a red state. Either a Republican or a Democrat can win the state, even though registration favors the Democrat,” said Ed Mitchell, a longtime adviser to several Democratic members of Congress.

As the Democratic Party was on its way to scooping up 52 seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the party picked up five wins in Pennsylvania. Reps. Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy, Jason Altmire and Chris Carney all beat out Republican incumbents in 2006, while Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper defeated GOP incumbent Phil English two years later.

Now Democrats have their eyes on two more GOP-held seats, which would give the party pickup opportunities in a year when many see the political terrain favoring Republicans.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R), a perennial Democratic target who has survived three tough-fought elections, is vacating his exurban Philadelphia seat in order to run for governor. Gerlach’s district has voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the last three cycles, and retired newspaper editor Doug Pike (D) is off to a strong fundraising head start.

Republicans face a primary between Chester County Recorder of Deeds Ryan Costello, venture capitalist Steven Welch and state Rep. Curt Schroder, with Schroder the early front-runner. The eventual GOP nominee will be a tough competitor in the general election, but running against a non-incumbent may give Democrats the leg up to finally capture the elusive seat.

Meanwhile, Democrats solicited the aid of Vice President Joe Biden in convincing another top-tier recruit to join a race. Biden called Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) to urge him to run against Rep. Charlie Dent (R), a three-term incumbent who won with 59 percent of the vote in 2008.
But Republicans also have the chance to make headway.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is heading recruitment efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee, pointed to Pat Meehan, a former U.S. attorney running for Sestak’s open seat, as an example of the party’s efforts to attract top-notch candidates.

The GOP is also excited about Iraq war veteran Chris Bain (R), a candidate against Carney in a district that voted Republican for years before a scandal felled former Rep. Don Sherwood.

And Republicans will give Dahlkemper a run for her money; former Erie County Solicitor John Onorato (R) is the front-runner in a Republican primary there, and even Democratic strategists say Dahlkemper will face her steepest climb to reelection this year.

“If she can hold on this time, which of course is a big ‘if’ given the national atmosphere, she can hold that seat as long as she wants it,” Mitchell said.

Republicans hint they will attempt to tie Pennsylvania Democrats to the national party in Washington in an effort to take as much advantage of a post-wave boomerang effect as possible.

And Democratic strategist Mark Nevins explains his party’s recent success has come after Republicans overreached during redistricting earlier this decade, giving the party, at that time, a majority in the state’s congressional delegation instead of solidifying incumbents.

“They sliced the salami a little thin, and they created districts that were unsteadily Republican, so they created some opportunities for some Democrats to move in,” Nevins explained. “There’s a cost and a benefit to being as aggressive as Republicans were at the beginning of the decade with redistricting. The benefit was they have some immediate success in putting some Republicans in the House delegation. The cost was they created unstable districts.”

On a statewide level, Republicans get most of their votes from the middle of the state — commonly referred to as the “T” — while Democrats do best in Philadelphia and Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh.

That leaves the so-called Collar Counties, surrounding Philadelphia, as the true battlegrounds. Sestak’s and Murphy’s seats take up most of Delaware and Bucks counties. Montgomery County is split between those two and Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s (D) district. And Gerlach’s seat, centered in Chester County, has a growing number of Philadelphia fugitives.

In the last three presidential elections, all four Collar Counties have seen an increased Democratic performance. President George W. Bush won Chester County in 2000 and 2004, but President Barack Obama won all four counties — including topping 60 percent in Delaware and Montgomery — in 2008.

Voters in the Philadelphia suburbs are some of the most educated in America. The four counties rank among the top 100 in the country in the percentage of residents who have college diplomas, according to census data.

“It’s more of a thinking state,” explains Elliott Curson, a Republican consultant who cut advertisements for Ronald Reagan and worked for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). Voters in Pennsylvania, he said, are notorious for their split-ticket voting; indeed, even as Al Gore won three of the four Collar Counties in 2000, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) won all four.