Given the current toxic political climate the 2018 congressional elections are likely going to be among the most divisive, hardest fought mid-term elections in U.S. history. Penn’s Woods will be a significant, possibly decisive battlefield as the GOP fights to maintain its majorities in both chambers.
The first hurdle for Republicans is to overcome history. Going back to the start of the modern two-party era in 1862, the party of the incumbent president has lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 34 of 38 election cycles. The U.S. Senate, with only a third of its seats on the ballot each cycle, has been a bit more stable with the party of the incumbent president losing seats in 24 of 38 elections.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact Pennsylvania voters have been notoriously fickle in recent years. In 2014 Democrat Tom Wolf ousted incumbent Republican governor Tom Corbett while the GOP surged into a veto proof majority in the state Senate and a lopsided majority in the state House. In 2016 Donald Trump narrowly carried the state on his way to the White House and incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey won re-election, but Democrats swept the statewide constitutional or “row” offices.
Against this backdrop the 2018 congressional elections are now underway and voters will be voting early and often. The resignation of suburban Pittsburgh congressman Tim Murphy in the wake of an extra-marital affair scandal has set up a special election in March. The winner will serve the balance of Murphy’s term which runs until the end of 2018 while simultaneously seeking a full term in the upcoming May primary.
Special congressional elections tend to get over-heated, and that has been particularly true in the Age of Trump. Both parties, especially the one out of power, inevitably will try to turn a special election into a referendum on the incumbent president. Enormous amounts of special interest money and national media attention will be focused on the contest.
To fill the 18th congressional district seat Republicans have chosen State Representative Rick Saccone as their nominee and Democrats have turned to Conor Lamb, scion of a prominent Democratic family. Saccone is one of the most conservative lawmakers in the Pennsylvania legislature, while Lamb is largely a political unknown.
Although the 18th district contains more Democrats that Republicans, voters there swung heavily behind Donald Trump, a trend that was seen throughout the western third of Pennsylvania. Murphy was unopposed in his 2016 re-election bid.
In addition to the 18th district there will be two other open congressional seats in 2018, both currently held by Republicans.
In the 11th district, which is a shoestring running from Hazleton in Luzerne County to Shippensburg in Cumberland County, Lou Barletta will be giving up his congressional seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Robert P. Casey, Jr. Voters in that district will see a hotly contested primary election. The November general election is likely to be more competitive than usual, but the GOP is favored to retain the seat.
In the Lehigh Valley-based 15th congressional district incumbent Charlie Dent is retiring. Primaries for both party nominations are expected to be hard fought. This district, Represented by Pat Toomey before he retired then ran for the U.S. Senate, is on balance Republican, but could be a bellwether district in 2018.
And then there are the Philadelphia suburbs. Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick, Pat Meehan and Ryan Costello currently hold seats in a region where Donald Trump is not popular. It is true all three won re-election in 2016 while the president lost in their districts. But the 2017 “off year” elections were a bloodbath for Republicans who sustained unprecedented losses at the county level.
Conversely, look for Republicans to make a run in northeastern Pennsylvania where the President ran well and incumbent Democratic Congressman Matthew Cartwright could face a serious challenge for his seat.
As if all of this wasn’t enough of a boiling cauldron, the possibility that the redistricting plan currently in effect could be tossed out by the courts looms large over the entire process. Unable to win at the polls, Democrats have turned to the friendly confines of the judiciary in an effort to change the playing field.
If the courts rule the current district configuration to be unconstitutional and order a redrawing of district lines, then Pennsylvania will once again be a battleground state ��" except nobody will know over what ground they must battle.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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