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Competitive House Races: Some States Shoulder the Burden

But without a doubt, the most interesting example is Pennsylvania. Over the past three cycles, no state has played host to as many competitive contests (eight), and only Texas has offered a bigger portfolio of in-play districts (it had six to Pennsylvania’s five).

Moreover, with GOP incumbents Michael Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach set to face tough races in 2006, Pennsylvania features two districts that have been consistently competitive in recent cycles. Only Colorado has more, with three.

One reason for Pennsylvania’s volatility, analysts say, is the nature of the most recent redistricting map. Since Texas is sufficiently Republican, the GOP-led redistricting managed to create mostly safe districts. Pennsylvania is more of a swing state. So, drawing a map that was able to elect 12 Republicans and only seven Democrats — as is the case now — meant creating a bunch of districts in which the incumbent is not necessarily that safe.

One indication is that among the states, Pennsylvania ranks first in the number of districts in which a different party won the presidential vote and the House race. In the Keystone State, four districts went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) but elected a Republican to the House: the seats occupied by Gerlach and Fitzpatrick, as well as by Reps. Curt Weldon and Charlie Dent. Moreover, the district held by Democrat Tim Holden went for President Bush. In all, Pennsylvania accounts for nearly a quarter of the 17 districts nationwide that backed both Kerry and a Republican for the House.

But there may be an even more significant factor at play in Pennsylvania. The Republican Party, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, was for many years socially moderate, while the Democratic Party, especially in the western part of the state, had a blue-collar, socially conservative cast. In recent years, though, these orientations put members of both parties at odds with their respective national party. As a result, a major realignment has been under way.

Southeastern Pennsylvania, once a Republican stronghold, has turned increasingly Democratic, first in federal races and now increasingly in state and local elections. Southwestern Pennsylvania, for its part, has been heading in the GOP’s direction.

While the Congressional realignment in southwestern Pennsylvania was mostly carried to fruition by the GOP-led redistricting after the 2000 Census, the Philadelphia area remains ripe for further Democratic gains. That accounts for much of Pennsylvania’s No. 1 ranking on our list.

“For Democratic candidates in the southeastern part of the state, their whole strategy is to paint Congressmen like Gerlach and Fitzpatrick as being in the back pocket of Bush,” said David Patti, president of the pro-business group Pennsylvanians for Effective Government. With Bush and the national GOP scoring poorly in metropolitan Philadelphia, Gerlach and Fitzpatrick can expect to be targeted by the Democrats indefinitely, even if they win again in 2006.

Elsewhere, a few smaller states have been making the campaign landscape a little more interesting. Even before Hurricane Katrina scrambled the political calculations for all incumbents, Louisiana was home to two districts that looked competitive in the near term — the ones held by Democrat Charlie Melancon and Republican Charles Boustany. The fluidity of Louisiana politicians’ party affiliation is one factor that has pepped up House races in the Bayou State.

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