Exorcising the Spectre of Specter: the Pennsylvania Races

For all the hoopla about Democratic gains in the northeast of late, a real look at Pennsylvania reveals that is is basically a conservative state.  If you color in the southeastern corner and southwestern corners of the state blue- the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas- the remainder of the state looks like a giant “T.”  And although Democrats have pushed into that “T” in recent years, this year Republicans are pushing back and reclaiming familiar territory.  And as bad as Ohio is, Pennsylvania will be as bad or worse for the Democrats.

Start with the Governor.  Ed Rendell is term-limited.  As Philadelphia Mayor, I had great respect for him.  He cleaned up and beautified the city, attracted businesses, and also attracted a middle class.  But he changed in Harrisburg.  As Governor and chief Obama cheerleader in the state, he resorted to partisan politics.  The Republican State Attorney General, Tom Corbett, is taking on John Onorato, an Allegheny County politician.  Corbett has very little to do to win this race.  Onorato’s commercials have been silly as he talks about his job plan then holds up a bumber sticker and tells voters how to pronounce his name.  This makes for a big WTF moment to the viewer.  You could stick a fork in this race.  With Christie stumping for Corbett, this one is over.

There is no use rehashing the fall of political opportunist Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.  At least, the Democratic Party is good for one thing in the state.  The match up between Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey is classic liberal versus conservative.  Sestak can give Pennsylvanians a Senator who would fall hook, line and sinker for the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda…and then some.  Toomey should put out an ad showing Sestak on puppet strings with Obama and Pelosi controlling the strings.  Besides his voting record, there is that little problem of how he treats his staff in DC- 14 hour mandatory work days?

On the other side, Toomey’s conservative credentials cannot be questioned.  While a three-term Congressman from 1999-2005, he consistently voted the conservative line on all issues- fiscal and social.  The American Conservative Union gave him a 97% rating; conversely, the ACLU a 13% rating.  Recently, Stestak has begun the scare tactic ads such as the one where Toomey, in an obviously edited interview, mentions his support of uber-conservative Rick Santorum.  These ads are designed to scare women into believing Toomey would turn back the clock on women’s rights.  Which means the obligatory Social Security privatization commercial is also playing.  Yawn!

Despite this, Toomey is still up by 5 points in the most recent poll and an average of 7.4 points overall in October with two weeks to go.  Since Sestak won his primary battle, Toomey has maintained and improved upon his 3.9 point average lead.  In fact, Sestak has not been remotely close since May.  Toomey became the early favorite and has only improved on that standing.  Dispatching Biden when Obama isn’t flying into the state, the Democrats view this seat as essential and the ads will only intensify as Election Day nears.  As long as Toomey can portray Sestak as Pelosi’s puppet, he will prevail.

Besides worry about their deer-in-headlights gubernatorial candidate and their Pelosi puppet, the Democrats will not fare much better in the House races.  The current make up is 12-7 democratic.  Six seats, possibly seven, are in trouble.  The safe seats are the 1st, 2nd, 13th, and 14th Districts.  A fifth seat, that of Jason Altmire in the 4th district was a potential target of the Republicans early in the cycle, but polling puts Altmire up by double digits.  This is a Republican rated district (+6 Republican Cook PVI) that supported McCain over Obama by 11 points in 2008.  However, Altmire has a decent moderate voting record and voted against Obamacare.  These credentials will get him elected and, actually, this is a Democratic victory the Republicans can live with.  Before looking at the endangered seats, all Republican seats are safe although Charlie Dent was targeted in the 15th District (the Allentown area).  Obama won the district by 13 points, but Dent comfortably won his election in 2008 and recent polling puts Dent up by 14 points.  So, the Democratic strategy in Pennsylvania is all defense all the time.

In the 3rd District, Kathy Dahlkemper represents the northwestern corner of the state centered around Erie.  Running against Mike Kelly, she trails by 7 points in the most recent poll and an average of 6 points overall.  The main problem is that she supported Obamacare absent the Stupak-Pitts anti-abortion amendment.  This is a strange stance for a Roman Catholic who fancies herself pro-life representing a district with a heavy Catholic population.  Considering her money advantage, yet still trailing in the polls, it would appear she is headed for certain defeat.  In 2008, she won a close race, essentially swept in on Obama’s coattails.  To prevail, she would almost have to double her victory margin in Erie, but that is not going to happen.

In the seat being vacated by Sestak- the Seventh District- Republican Patrick Meehan leads Bryan Lentz by three points in the most recent poll and an average of 9 points overall.  Normally, this would indicate momentum for Meehan, but the margin in the most recent poll was 34-31% meaning that one-third of the voters were undecided at this late date?  The district’s demographics slightly favor Lentz and this may be a close race to watch on Election Day.

In the 8th District- which is basically Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia- incumbent Patrick Murphy trails Mike Fitzpatrick by 5 points in recent polling and by five points overall on average.  Most troubling for Murphy is the fact that Fitzpatrick has outraised Murphy- usually a sign of trouble for an incumbent.  Did I mention that Murphy unseated Fitzpatrick in 2006?

Up in the northwest corner of the state in the 10th district, Chris Carney represents a heavy Republican district which supported McCain over Obama in 2008.  Running against Tom Marino, Carney has trailed by a fairly consistent 6-9 points in this race despite having the advantage in a serious funding gap.  Hence, this seat will revert to Republican control as it did from 1961 until Carney’s victory in 2006.

Paul Kanjorski represents the 11th District around the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area.  He has held this seat since 1985.  In overall polling, his opponent, Lou Barletta, leads by 9 points although the most recent poll puts him up by only two points.  Having spent part of practically summer of my childhood in this area (my mother is from this region), I can say three things about this district: it is ethnic (as in Eastern European), it is Democratic, and it is conservative.  Kanjorski, in order to win, needs to be at least moderate but his early and vocal support for Obamacare hurt that persona.  In Barletta, the Republicans have a well-known entity.  As Mayor of Hazleton, he led a high profile campaign against illegal immigrants in his hometown making him a national figure.  Still, given everything, along with the 7th District to the south, this district may the best chance at Democratic triage in Pennsylvania.  If Barletta prevails, the most recent polling is more likely the margin of voctory as this race will come down to the wire.  Another important factor in this district is the influennce of unions.  If they can motivate increased turnout, then the dynamic shifts to the staunchly pro-union Kanjorski.

Moving out west, John Murtha’s old seat is again in play in the 12th District.  Paul Critz, who won the special election to replace Murtha, faces off against Tim Burns.  In 2008, despite Murtha’s 28-point victory margin, John McCain performed very well here basically tying Obama.  The special election was supposed to be a bellweather for the general election to gauge Democratic chances.  After Critz won the election, there was a sigh of relief in Pelosi’s office and she had her “I told you so” moment.  Maybe this was a good rope-a-dope because Critz trails Burns by about 7 points, on average, overall, but by only two points in the most recent poll.  By this stage in the special election campaign, Critz had surged into a lead.  More troubling for Critz is that he and Burns are tied in the money race because he expended so much to win the special election.

Finally, one race that appears off the radar of most pundits is the that in the 17th District in central Pennsylvania surrounding Harrisburg.    Although in 2008, incumbent Tim Holden won by 28 points, McCain was carrying the district over Obama.  It is also rated +6 Republican on the Cook PVI.  It lies smack dab in the middle of that red “T” in the state.  This is conservative territory.  In his favor, Holden is rated among the top 15 conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill.  Plus, he voted against Obamacare.  With a 40-1 money advantage and an 8 point lead in the polls, Holden should retain the seat.  Still, I look at that 8-point lead and wonder why it is not higher, all things considered.  Perhaps, this race bears closer watching come November 2nd.

All-in-all, despite the pie in the sky predictions of windbags like Nancy Pelosi, Robert Gibbs and Joe Biden, Republicans will do well in Pennsylvania.  Their performance should rival that of neighboring Ohio.  The effect will be more gratifying because of the Senate seat pick up here.  Democratic troubles nationwide have forced them to play defense and Pennsylvania is no different.  The DNC and DSCC are throwing resources into the state as is traditional Democratic supporters like Planned Parenthood and SEIU beginning to advertise against Toomey.  In the Philadelphia television market, the ads are coming fast and furious and often.  for the Democrats to succeed, Sestak can count on Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  But, he also needs to pull large victory margins in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Those areas are nominally Democratic to begin with (average +3.2 Democratic on Cook PVI) and average 6.1% black population and 3.8% Hispanic population.  Motivating these blocks with no Obama on the ticket will be difficult.  It also explains Obama’s recent remarks in Philadelphia.  The veiled racial references were not geared to the residents of Philadelphia proper, but to the minorities in the suburbs- the Hispanics of the southwestern suburbs around Chester and the blacks of Bucks County.  Still, a Governorship, a Senator, and 5-7 House seats are within Republican reach in the Keystone State.