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Redistricting, withdrawals put Pennsylvania at center of battle for House

| Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, 10:00 p.m.

A court ruling that has the potential to redraw Pennsylvania's congressional map for the 2018 primary coupled with the state's unprecedented six vacated congressional seats could put the Keystone State and California at the center of the battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A combination of scandal-fueled exits, one congressman's bid for the U.S. Senate and two Republican retirements created openings as five Republicans and one Democrat leave office. All 18 congressional seats will be on the ballot, but incumbents hope to keep the other 12.

“I can't remember when this many seats were up,” said pollster and political scientist Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “It might have been Watergate, but back then people were voted out of office. They didn't leave on their own.”

Republicans hold a 238-193 majority in the House with four seats open.

But the GOP's large margin could be in jeopardy.

Historic trends during the past 60 years show the president's party losing an average of 50 seats in midterm elections when his approval rating drops below 50 percent, a New York Times report found. President Trump's average approval rating has hovered around 38 percent but has risen in some recent polls.

“It's all very, very fluid, but it's safe to say Pennsylvania and California are going to be ground zero for who controls Congress,” said Larry Ceisler, a Washington County native and Philadelphia public affairs executive who has followed Pennsylvania politics for decades.

California, which has been trending increasingly Democratic, has 53 congressional districts — 39 held by Democrats and 14 by Republicans. The Los Angeles Times said as many as 10 of the 14 GOP seats are considered competitive, with the recently announced retirements of longtime GOP Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce adding to the mix.

The Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics also have pointed to volatile political landscapes in the two states as key to upcoming battles.

Add in promises that the powerful conservative political money machine led by brothers Charles and David Koch is primed to spend $400 million across the country this year to retain control of Congress, and political paint could run over the Pennsylvania map in any number of directions.

An early test

Many view the March 13 special election in the 18th Congressional District, a result of the resignation of Rep. Tim Murphy, as a preview of things to come in the next nine months.

Democrats have a registration edge in the district, which includes portions of Allegheny, Washington, Westmoreland and Greene counties. But Murphy, a seven-term Republican, faced no Democratic opposition in his last two elections, and Trump carried the district by 20 points on his way to the presidency.

But for Murphy's fall from grace amid a scandal created by allegations that the married abortion opponent urged his mistress to end a suspected pregnancy during a scare, no one expected the 18th District to be competitive.

That changed when Republicans tagged Rick Saccone, 60, of Elizabeth — a veteran and five-term conservative state lawmaker who boasted that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump ” — to run against Democrat Conor Lamb, 33, a former federal prosecutor, Marine Corps veteran and scion of an Allegheny County political clan.

When polls showed Lamb, viewed as the underdog, gaining, Saccone picked up $3 million from conservative super PACs and scored recent visits from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in recent days.

Although Saccone to date has far outstripped Lamb in outside support, experts say that could change should the Democrat close the gap by March 13.

Court intervenes

Ceisler speculated that state Republicans, who have until Friday to submit a new congressional map or face the prospect of the state court redrawing districts, might even capitulate and draw a slightly better map for Lamb.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last month that the Republican-drawn congressional map that created a 13-5 GOP congressional delegation majority was unconstitutional in a state where Democrats hold an 814,000 voter registration edge.

“This all really feeds into redistricting. The Republicans get to pick their poison. They can redraw the lines and choose who lives and who dies, or they can let the court do it for them,” Ceisler said.

Lowman Henry, CEO of the Lincoln Institute for Public Polling, takes issue with that. He said the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to stay the state high court's order.

Picking battlegrounds

And at least two of the open seats — one in northeastern Pennsylvania held by Republican Lou Barletta, who is seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and one held by retiring Republican Bill Shuster — should remain iron-clad GOP seats regardless of what happens, Henry said.

Elsewhere, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had targeted two open seats in Eastern Pennsylvania where Republican Reps. Patrick Meehan and Charlie Dent are retiring.

Dent announced his retirement last fall. He told CNN that Trump and a challenging electoral calculus were among his reasons to leave the district where Democrats hold a slight voter registration edge.

Meehan announced his retirement last month after the New York Times reported he had tapped office funds to settle a sexual harassment claim by a former staffer.

Henry conceded the seat in Meehan's district — considered one of the most egregiously gerrymandered in the nation — could be in jeopardy for Republicans. Although the GOP holds a significant registration edge there, it has been trending Democratic in recent years. Hillary Clinton beat Trump there by 2 percentage points.

That leaves Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by more than 4-1 in Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District, scrambling to claim the Center City Philadelphia seat being vacated by the retirement of their own Bob Brady.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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