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Pennsylvania Democrats set to win big with new district map

Pennsylvania Democrats set to win big with new district map
© Hill Illustration/Garrett Evans

The Democratic push to retake the House received a major boost from Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which released a new district map Monday that’s poised to improve the party’s chances in about a half-dozen seats.

But the fight over the new districts is just beginning. Republicans are expected to push hard against the implementation of the maps, a fight President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE welcomed in a tweet.

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State and federal Republicans announced plans Tuesday to challenge the map in court. One GOP official told The Hill that the challenge is expected to include Republican members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation.

For now, though, the map marks a big win for Democrats.

The new maps, unveiled by the state Supreme Court after a heated fight between the Democratic governor and the GOP-controlled legislature failed to produce a compromise, are a significant improvement for Democrats’ chances. The biggest changes center on the Democratic-leaning Philadelphia suburbs.

All told, election analysts believe the changes give Democrats a better shot in six new seats from Pennsylvania alone — a quarter of the 24 seats the party needs to net in November to retake the House. 

“Part of our job to get the majority back has been made a tad easier, or it’s at least they can start to see light at the end of the tunnel,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia.

The state Supreme Court struck down the current lines in January, arguing that they’re an unconstitutional creation of partisan gerrymandering. Under the current map, Democrats hold just five of the 18 congressional seats, even though Democrats regularly perform well in statewide elections.

The legislature failed to reach an agreement with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on new lines to comply with the court decision, prompting the court to draw new lines of its own that are expected to go into effect before the May 15 primaries. That leaves candidates scrambling to start circulating petitions in their new districts starting next Tuesday, with less than a month before the March 20 filing deadline.

Democrats already had their eyes on several GOP-leaning districts, and the new map only improves their prospects.

The seat that belongs to retiring GOP Rep. Pat MeehanPatrick (Pat) Leo MeehanBottom line Freshman lawmaker jokes about pace of Washington politics Many authors of GOP tax law will not be returning to Congress MORE — considered one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country — now heavily favors Democrats. Once a swing seat, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE would have won the redrawn district by nearly 30 points in 2016, according to a New York Times analysis. 

It’s a huge win for Democrats who have heavily targeted Meehan’s suburban Philadelphia seat, particularly since sexual harassment allegations prompted him to retire.

The shift now puts the spotlight on the Democratic primary, where more than half a dozen candidates are running. The winner of the primary will become the heavy favorite for the general election.

The new lines also improve Democrats’ chances against GOP Rep. Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloBottom Line Trump struggles to stay on script, frustrating GOP again Bottom line MORE, who saw his district change from one Clinton won by 1 point to one Clinton would have won by 9 points, according to the Times analysis.

Further boosting the party’s hopes, Chrissy Houlahan, a top Democratic recruit who outraised Costello in the last fundraising quarter, wasn’t drawn out of the new district.

Democrats have also seen their chances improve in GOP Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  MORE’s seat, as well as the open seat currently held by retiring GOP Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe magnificent moderation of Susan Collins The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare front and center; transition standoff continues Republicans who could serve in a Biden government MORE. Both of those seats have become Clinton districts under the redrawn map.

The districts represented by GOP Reps. Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryHundreds of Trump supporters protest election results in Pennsylvania The Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots Freedom Caucus member Scott Perry wins fifth term in Pennsylvania MORE and Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyPennsylvania Supreme Court refuses to halt GOP defeat in election lawsuit Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge Lieutenant governor: Trump campaign would get its 'clock cleaned' if it appeals Pennsylvania ruling to Supreme Court MORE also shifted to the left, but are still not considered top Democratic pickup opportunities.

“In the big picture, Republicans could lose five seats. In a year where the balance of Congress is in play, five seats is a lot of seats from one state,” a Pennsylvania Republican strategist told The Hill.

It’s possible that these changes could spark some lawmakers, particularly Costello, to reconsider reelection bids.

But Republicans are hopeful Costello will stay and fight.

“You’re going to take a step back and make sure you are moving forward in the right direction,” said one GOP aide familiar with Pennsylvania races.

“But these guys know how to win their districts and run their own races.”

While the new map is mostly good news for Democrats, there are still a few bright spots for Republicans.

GOP Rep. Lloyd SmuckerLloyd Kenneth SmuckerHouse Republicans ask Amtrak CEO for information on Biden's train trips Rep. Lloyd Smucker added to House GOP leadership Lobbying World MORE, who was more of a reach target for Democrats, is now in a much safer district for Republicans.

That makes campaigning more difficult for Democratic candidates Christina Hartman and Jess King, who have both raised more than $300,000 each. King said on Monday that she will still challenge Smucker in the new district.

And Democratic Rep. Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election The Hill's Campaign Newsletter: Election Day – Part 4 MORE’s district, where Republicans have fielded a formidable challenger in John Chrin, shifts to the right under the new map.

While the new map won’t go into effect until after the closely watched March 13 special election in the 18th District, both nominees have been drawn out of the new district, which has now become even more Republican.

If Democrat Conor Lamb wins, he could instead decide to run in November in the neighboring 17th District — now a friendlier terrain for Democrats — where he’d face GOP Rep. Keith RothfusKeith James RothfusConor Lamb defeats Trump-backed challenger for reelection in Pennsylvania CNN's Tapper tried to talk GOP candidate out of running against Democratic incumbent: report Lobbying world MORE. But he’d only have a week until the filing deadline to circulate petitions in a different district.

Republicans are readying a legal challenge to the maps, a challenge Trump blessed in a Tuesday Twitter post, warning that Democrats are trying to “take elections away from” Republicans.”

The court challenge appears to target, in part, the abbreviated timeline the courts gave the legislature to draw a map.

The courts initially gave the legislature less than three weeks to draw a new map to submit to the governor, but only released the language of the full decision two days before that deadline.

Republicans have been crying foul for weeks, lamenting the timing and framing of the decision as a partisan one made by a Democratic-majority court.

“This map is likely unconstitutional, and it is clearly a corrupt political gerrymander undertaking by a partisan court,” a Costello spokeswoman told The Hill.

“This isn’t an attempt to create a fair district, it is an attempt to put Congressman Costello at an electoral disadvantage.”

Democrats welcoming the map are careful to argue that it’s not about partisan representation, saying it’s instead about keeping communities in the same congressional districts and allowing for better representation of the state as a whole.

“Setting aside all the partisanship conversations, this map is orderly and sensical, it follows all the rules you’d want a map to follow when you are drawing district lines,” said Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist Mark Nevins.

It’s unclear whether the GOP legal challenge will succeed. Election law experts are skeptical that the Republican challenge will succeed, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an earlier challenge a few weeks ago.

“Because this was a case decided under the state constitution by the state Supreme Court, the usual path for review of this case by the U.S. Supreme Court is limited,” Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a blog post Monday.