Court ruling could upend Pa. House races

Court ruling could upend Pa. House races
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A looming deadline to draw new congressional maps has left Pennsylvania House campaigns in the dark just months before 2018’s first races. 

The state Supreme Court struck down Pennsylvania’s current congressional lines last month, giving state lawmakers until Friday to submit their map. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will have until the end of next week to approve any deal. If the Republican-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor don’t reach an agreement on new lines, the court will step in. 

As the redistricting process grinds on, House candidates are forced to wait on the sidelines until a decision is reached.

“We don't know what the districts will look like. We don’t even know if members of Congress will be in the district. We don’t know if members of Congress will be pitted against each other,” said Terry Madonna, the polling director at Franklin & Marshall College. 

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“And we don’t know if the 60-plus people who are running right now will be in the district they say they’re running in.” 

The state Supreme Court issued its ruling on Jan. 22, arguing that the current map violates the state constitution. Republicans requested a stay on its decision, which gave the legislature until Feb. 9 to come up with a new map, but the U.S. Supreme Court denied that request on Monday.

While Republican lawmakers scrambled to draw new maps within that tight window, the state Supreme Court released its full opinion on the January ruling on Wednesday, giving those lawmakers just a few days to consider the court’s thinking.

That opinion, written by Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, argued that the current congressional maps violate constitutional protections on elections by diluting Democratic votes. While Pennsylvania is a swing state in statewide elections, Democrats hold just five of the state’s 18 congressional districts.

Now incumbent House members and challengers are in a holding pattern as they wait to see what the new districts could look like.

“You can't do any research or polling, you can't spend money on any digital advertising or mail because you don't want to waste spending on someone who won't be in your district,” said one Pennsylvania GOP strategist who requested anonymity to discuss the situation. 

The changes to the congressional lines will likely have the biggest impact on Democrats, who are already targeting half a dozen Pennsylvania seats in their quest to take back the House. The party needs to flip 24 seats in order to regain control of the majority.

Political observers in the state predict that the most significant changes are likely to happen in the southeastern part of the state, particularly around the Philadelphia suburbs — a potential to be a boon for Democrats.

“Districts that look like they could produce the most change ... are down in the Philly ‘burbs,” Madonna said. “Democrats generally are optimistic about picking up three to five seats.”

One of those districts is the seat held by GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan, who announced in late January that he wouldn’t seek reelection after allegations of sexual harassment against him surfaced. 

Meehan’s district, which currently encompasses parts of Philadelphia’s suburbs, includes parts of five different counties. His seat was already high on national Democrats’ target list after Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Heller embraces Trump in risky attempt to survive in November Live coverage: Cruz, O'Rourke clash in Texas debate MORE narrowly carried the district in 2016.

Democratic candidates keep launching bids for the seat, while Republicans are still searching for challengers after Meehan’s departure. But some candidates have opted to wait for now, with the district lines still in flux. 

Candidates are only required to live in the state where they’re running, rather than in the district they’re running to represent. Still, candidates prefer to run in the districts where they live, to avoid charges of carpetbagging. 

Strategists highlighted several other key districts that could see changes after a new map, including the seats held by GOP Reps. Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority House GOP starts summer break on a note of friction Overnight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax MORE, Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickSinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act Dems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests Congress prepares to punt biggest political battles until after midterms MORE and Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentGOP House candidate placed on leave from longtime position after sexual misconduct allegation Election handicapper moves GOP leader's race to 'toss-up' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, who is retiring.

But even small changes could have big implications on the composition of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation.

“Pennsylvania is a diverse enough state that if you move just one or two counties over you can move from a wealthy, suburban country to a rural agricultural county … the makeup of your district can change dramatically just by moving a line an inch on a map,” the state GOP strategist said. 

“You can’t redraw a district in a box. You mess with one district, you have to change all 18.” 

The new lines also threaten to complicate Pennsylvania’s 18th district. The upcoming special election there to replace ex-Rep. Tim MurphyTim MurphyJordan weathering political storm, but headwinds remain Saccone loses GOP primary comeback bid in Pa. Nearly half of voters hope for Dems to win majority in 2018: poll MORE, who resigned over an alleged affair, has seized national attention. 

Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb will face off on March 13 to fill the seat under the old lines. But the new lines will go into effect after that special election — just in time for candidates to compete in the May primary for the 2018 midterm race for the seat. 

That could create an odd situation, where either Saccone or Lamb has to run for reelection in a primary just months after winning the seat, but with a different pool of voters than those who elected him two months earlier.

With so much up in the air, it’s even possible that the victor could get drawn out of his own district before the election — another hypothetical that underscores how the court ruling could upend Pennsylvania’s House races.

“Both Saccone and Lamb live kind of close to the border of Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleTwitter chief faces GOP anger over bias at hearing Live coverage: Social media execs face grilling on Capitol Hill House Dems press FCC chairman for answers on false cyberattack claim MORE’s district,” said Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, referring to the Democratic lawmaker whose Pittsburgh-area district abuts the district where Lamb and Saccone are running.

“It’s possible that both of them, regardless of who wins, ends up in Mike Doyle’s district.”

Pennsylvania’s secretary of State already pushed back the window for candidates to circulate nominating petitions. But right now, there are no plans to delay the mid-May primary.

Assuming the maps are decided on by either Feb. 15 — the deadline for the governor to approve maps — or Feb. 19 — the deadline for the court to draw maps if necessary — candidates will have just days to decide whether to start circulating petitions.

Established state lawmakers or incumbents likely won’t have a problem organizing campaigns in such a short window. But some Pennsylvanians shared concerns that some less-established candidates won’t have the time to react to map changes.

“The one thing that concerns me as a Democrat is: Is there a situation where there’s not a strong candidate in a certain area, and the map creates an opportunity,” Mikus said, “But the timeframe is too short and a strong candidate can’t take an advantage?”