Reps. Jason Altmire (above) and Tim Murphy might face off after redistricting.
Pennsylvania Republicans will release the state's new Congressional map within a few weeks, and their intent remains to force Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz to face off in a primary.
But what about beyond that? Republicans are grappling with the details of that redrawn Southwestern Pennsylvania district, including how to make the seat more competitive in the general election.
"I think it's the calm before the storm here," Pennsylvania GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas said. "The talk has always been, 'Let's put Critz and Altmire together.' But then there has to be a general election, too."
The district is one of the map's remaining tension points between state legislators in Harrisburg and the Congressional delegation. Additionally, Republicans are struggling to shore up GOP Members in Southeastern Pennsylvania, while assuaging Rep. Joe Pitts, the dean of the GOP delegation.
"I was there 10 years ago in the state Senate when we went through redistricting," Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) said. "Believe me, state legislators feel very strongly about their authority to make decisions on that legislation, and they really don't want people telling them what to do."
In many ways, the infamous 2002 Pennsylvania redistricting still haunts today's process. In this round of redrawing lines, Republicans have two mantras: Don't get greedy, and don't force another matchup like Rep. George Gekas (R) versus Rep. Tim Holden (D). Republicans drew the pair together, thinking Holden would lose to Gekas in the GOP-leaning district in 2002. But the Democrat didn't, and Holden has easily held on to the seat since.
But some Washington, D.C., Republicans believe that might be exactly what state lawmakers are planning in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The speculation centers around the suburban North Hills, a wealthy GOP-leaning area north of Pittsburgh and near Altmire's home. If North Hills is drawn into the district of Rep. Tim Murphy (R), Republicans fear Altmire could challenge him instead of Critz.
"We are looking at Tim Holden, version two. And that really scares us," one Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative warned. "We have someone locally who may be forcing the map in that direction, by putting the North Hills" in Murphy's district.
Sources said that state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, an influential player in the redraw, is guiding the process in that direction. They accused Turzai of either eyeing a future run himself or paving the way for his ally in the state Legislature, Rep. Jim Christiana (R), to run against Critz or Altmire.
"If you dump the North Hills into Murphy's seat, you're kind of daring Altmire to make a choice," another Pennsylvania Republican said.
Turzai denied all of this in a phone interview Monday, saying he had no ambitions to run for Congress "at this stage in my career." He declined to provide any specifics on how the North Hills or Christiana will fit into the new map, saying only that the area "will have a district."
But he acknowledged Western Pennsylvania will see changes.
"We do recognize that there's been significant population loss out west and that redistricting has to reflect that," Turzai said.
Republicans cautioned that an Altmire-vs.-Murphy contest remains a remote possibility, but the prospect still spooks many Keystone State Republicans. The GOP would rather see two Democrats face off — even if it means drawing a more Democratic-leaning district.
"Altmire versus Critz is what I think will ultimately be the situation," said Rep. Bill Shuster (R), an influential voice in the state's redistricting. "Republicans control everything in the state, so we should have a map that's beneficial to Republicans."
But in another part of the state, what's beneficial to most Republicans is not necessarily helpful to one of them: Pitts. His persistent unwillingness to move makes GOP efforts to shore up their most vulnerable Members more complicated.
Pitts' district is based in conservative Lancaster County, but the eight-term Republican lives in neighboring Chester County. That's a problem for Gerlach and freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan (R), who both represent competitive districts on Pitts' border.
In order to shore up Republican voters in those two seats, their districts will have to move north and west into Pitts' territory. As a result, the new Pennsylvania map will likely include an awkward thin line on the state's southern border to accommodate Pitts' home in his district.
Also in Southeastern Pennsylvania, sources said, Republicans have abandoned efforts to throw Democratic Reps. Allyson Schwartz and Chakah Fattah into the same district. Republicans would like to force Schwartz into a competitive race because they see her as a political threat in future statewide races. But the geographic reality of displacing so many Democrats from those two Philadelphia districts makes it difficult to shore up the surrounding Republicans.
Elsewhere, Republicans expect Holden and freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R) to win big in the redistricting lottery. Both Members will get safer seats — but Holden's new district won't be pretty. It will likely be shaped like a trapezoid or a hockey stick, stretching from Harrisburg, north through his Schuylkill County base and hook in Scranton.
As for timing, Pennsylvania Republicans believe lawmakers will release the new map before the end of the month. There's no mandated deadline for completing the maps, but House hopefuls must file for office by mid-February for the April primary.
"I believe they're starting to work on ours as we speak," Shuster said. "My guess would be we'll start to hear and see what it's looking like in the next couple weeks."