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Pennsylvania redistricting: Democrats' Next Great Hope

February 19, 2018

 

In the aftermath of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl championship, one could be forgiven for letting another major story from Pennsylvania fly under the radar. In a decision with great ramifications for the 2018 U.S. House of Representatives elections, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s Republican-drawn congressional districts violated the state constitution. The court also called for the districts to be redrawn over the course of the next few weeks, making the new maps the law of the land for the 2018 midterms. The Supreme Court of the United States refused to overturn the state Court’s decision despite the requests of the state GOP.

 

Despite a liberal Democratic governor in Tom Wolf, a popular incumbent Democratic senator in Bob Casey, and the fact that the traditional swing state of Pennsylvania as a whole cast its 20 electoral votes for President Trump by a margin of less than 1%, the GOP currently controls 12 of the state’s 17 occupied seats in the House of Representatives (The other seat is currently vacant after the resignation of Republican Tim Murphy, with a special election set for March. Current polling puts Democrat Conor Lamb within striking range of Republican Rick Saccone despite the fact that Murphy ran unopposed in 2016 in the deep-red district won by Trump by 19 points.). While Democrats carried the Keystone State in every presidential election between 1992 and 2012, there were only two Censuses-and thus just three congressional district maps drawn since then. Since Republicans controlled the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature when the most recent map was drawn, they were able to gerrymander the lines to favor their party.

 

To be clear, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision was not the first sign of trouble for the state’s Republican incumbents and challengers to Democratic-held seats. Charlie Dent, the state’s representative from the 15th district since 2004, has already stated that he will not seek reelection in November. The Allentown congressman and co-chair of the Tuesday Group, a coalition of center-right Republican representatives, was a thorn in President Trump’s side during the debate over the failed Republican healthcare proposal.

 

Holding Dent’s seat would have been a demanding task even before new maps come into play. Trump won Dent’s district in 2016 with just 51% of the vote and the district traditionally has leaned Democratic (although Allentown Democrats tend to be more socially conservative than other Pennsylvania Democrats). In fact, the district actually has more registered Democrats than Republicans. As Trump’s popularity continues to tank in the state, more of these swing voters may vote along party lines.

 

Due to Dent’s sudden retirement, the race is still evolving, but an early poll has a generic Democratic candidate defeating a generic Republican candidate 44-43. There are already seven declared Democratic candidates in the DCCC targeted race while it appears that rising star state representative Ryan Mackenzie is the presumptive Republican nominee.

 

Whichever of the seven Democratic candidates ends up getting the nomination will be riding a surge of momentum in a district that is becoming more and more blue. In an outcome reminiscent of early 1900s New York or Atlantic City, Allentown’s Democratic mayor was recently elected to a fourth term even after being indicted on 54 counts of corruption. This was due in large part to two trends that could bode well for the Democrats in November: a surge in Democratic turnout overall and support from the rapidly growing Latinx community that makes up almost half of the city’s residents and is among the main reasons why Allentown is the fastest growing city in Pennsylvania. With the current presidential administration taking a hardline stance on legal and illegal immigration, one could expect a fired up Latinx base propelling a Democrat to victory in the 15th. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, if working-class whites stick with the GOP and Allentown’s Democratic base does not turn out at as high of a rate (less likely since they turned out exceptionally well even in a non-federal election last year), the GOP could hold the seat.

The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman estimates that a likely compromise map would expand the 15th district more north and eliminate its more southwestern locations near Reading. Given a map that would incorporate more reliable blue voters into the district and the district’s recent trend of becoming more favorable to Democrats, the 15th may well be the most likely Republican-held seat in the state to flip in November.

 

Pennsylvania Republicans will also be on the defensive in another district in the region following an unexpected retirement. The 7th district’s Pat Meehan announced that he would be leaving the House at the end of his term and would not run for re-election after it was revealed that he used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment suit (a bit ironic given that he built his career largely on investigating corruption in Philadelphia municipal politics). Meehan was among the few GOP representatives who broke with his party and voted against the American Health Care Act of 2017. His seat is currently rated “Lean Democrat” by the Cook Political Report before redistricting, and Hillary Clinton carried it in 2016. However, the district is considered one of the most egregious gerrymanders, perhaps best described as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.” The map proposed by Pennsylvania Senate Democrats more closely resembles a geographically linked district and swaps out the eastern part of conservative stronghold Lancaster County (which has voted for a Democrat only once since James Buchanan was elected) for more of Montgomery and central and southern Berks counties. Montgomery County has gone blue in every presidential election since 1992 and Berks, while remaining GOP territory, has experienced gains by Democrats in recent years.

 

However, in the 7th, the chances of a Democratic flip suffered a hit when presumptive nominee State Sen. Daylin Leach suspended his campaign after allegations of sexual harassment. The most recent candidate to enter the fray may well be the most interesting. Ex-CIA officer Shelly Chauncey has made single-payer healthcare a major issue of her recently announced campaign and may have the support of major donors. She joins a crowded field seeking the nomination, but if she can emerge victorious, she (or really whoever wins the nomination) will have a very good shot at claiming the seat.

 

I was less optimistic than most predictors about the chances of a Democratic pickup in the 7th district prior to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision due to the lack of a standout candidate and the fact that the conservative stronghold of Lancaster would be too much to overcome for Democrats needing to win over swing voters in a district that voted for a Republican presidential candidate as recently as 2012. Now, however, I would consider the race a toss-up. Southeastern Pennsylvanians held huge rallies and flooded Meehan’s office with calls opposing the failed GOP healthcare proposal, and if Democrats can ride the wave of discontent among their prospective constituents and offer a much more popular alternative like Chauncey’s, they can win and own the region for years to come.

The rest of the state offers even more optimism for Democrats. Senator Bob Casey seems to be in the arguably the best shape of any incumbent Democrat up for re-election in a state Trump won.

 

Governor Wolf will be and should be favored to win re-election, although he may have a fight on his hands. His campaign also happens to have at least $11 million in his war chest, raising more money in the year preceding his re-election than any other incumbent in modern history, according to his campaign. His popularity has surged lately, as he now boasts a 44-38 approval/disapproval rating.

 

As for the U.S. House, Democrats occupied the 3rd district’s seat as recently as 2011. However, due to gerrymandering, the seat’s Cook PVI is now R+11. Redistricting should make the district more competitive for Democrats, but incumbent Mike Kelly should probably keep his seat in November. If he does not, it will be a sure sign of a blue wave. PA-11 was once a Democratic stronghold, but Democrats face an uphill climb to regain the seat in the wake of Republican Lou Barletta’s resignation (to run for the Senate), as Trump won the current (gerrymandered) district by 24 points. They should, at the very least, be competitive if given a favorable map. And pretty much anything would be considered favorable to the current dragon looking map whose PVI is R+10 (the prior map was D+4, and President Obama won the district with 57% of the vote).

 

The DCCC is targeting PA-16, which contains suburban Philly and rural southeastern Pennsylvania. While historically red, the district has been growing more competitive in recent years and could drift to either side of the spectrum depending on what happens in the 6th district.

 

As can be observed, Democrats will be most benefited by districts they already had a great chance to win. However, redistricting will build them into districts the party could hold for decades. As a whole, the party has been trending upward while Trump has been trending downward in the state, which will bode well not only for 2018 but even beyond that. Indeed, Pennsylvania is the future of the Democratic Party.

 

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