A Look at Pennsylvania

Posted September 29, 2003 at 6:09pm

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on the Keystone State.

While Pennsylvania will once again be a presidential battleground in 2004, its status as a battleground in Congressional elections hinges largely on the outcome of a Supreme Court case that will likely be decided next year. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Keystone State lost two seats during last cycle’s reapportionment — it now has 19 districts, the fewest since 1811 when it had 18 — and the state’s GOP-controlled state Legislature (with input from some Members of the Congressional delegation) went to great pains to ensure party gains while penning the new lines.

It worked. Redistricting was a boon to Republicans, as the makeup of the state’s Congressional delegation moved from 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the 107th Congress to its current makeup of 12 Republicans and seven Democrats.

But the new map that resulted is now what could change the face of redistricting around the country. The map is exhibit A in a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court, probably in January, the first such redistricting case the court has agreed to hear since 1986. The court’s ruling could set new parameters for state legislatures seeking to carve lines for political gain and answer the timely question of how far is too far when it comes to political gerrymandering.

If the court rules in favor of Democrats and decides that Republicans unfairly drew the 2002 map to their advantage,

it would force new Congressional boundaries to be drawn in Pennsylvania and likely in other states as well.

While there is little room for Democrats to be competitive under the current map, the steel country of western Pennsylvania has grown less and less fertile for the party.

Much of the Republican gains in recent years have come in the western part of the state, where the Democratic Party is badly in need of renewal and a way of reconnecting with voters.

“These are Reagan Democrats,” said Larry Ceisler, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic political consultant, referring to the aging population in the once-booming industrial areas west of the state capital. “I think they feel a disconnect from the national Democratic Party.”

Geography also adds to the disconnect, Ceisler said, because the party’s base is firmly planted in Philadelphia and the southeastern corner of the state. In the past, conventional wisdom in Pennsylvania has held that Democrats had to nominate a candidate with a western base to win statewide. That notion was turned upside down in 2002, when the state overwhelming elected former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell (D) as governor.

“They have nothing in common with the city of Philadelphia,” Ceisler said of the more socially conservative Democrats in western Pennsylvania. “It’s a problem.”

In addition to redistricting, Democrats have faced trouble getting their desired candidates out of primaries in competitive districts, another factor that has bolstered Republican gains in the previous two cycles.

In the 4th district in 2000 and in the 18th district in 2002, both in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-backed candidates failed to win the primary and the party’s nominee went on to general election defeat.

In 2000, now-Rep. Melissa Hart (R) won a less competitive than expected open-seat contest in the swing 4th district over a flawed Democratic nominee, state Rep. Terry Van Horne. The district, which had a long Democratic heritage and had previously been represented by Rep. Ron Klink (D) for eight years, was made only slightly better for Republicans during redistricting but was improved greatly for Hart. While the district still has only a 39 percent Republican registration, the population center of the district was shifted to the North Pittsburgh suburbs, an area that Hart represented for a decade in the state Senate.

President Bush won 52 percent there in 2000.

Hart has compiled a conservative voting record in the House, and she is considered a rising star among Republicans. Her name is often mentioned as a potential gubernatorial or Senate candidate, whenever a seat becomes vacant.

Lawrence County District Attorney Matthew Mangino (D), who lost the 2000 primary to Van Horne despite being backed by the DCCC, is still mentioned as an attractive candidate in this district.

Mangino’s pro-gun and anti-abortion profile, in the same mold as the more socially conservative Klink, would play well in this steel country district.

State House Democratic Whip Mike Veon is also mentioned as someone who could run in an open-seat race.

On the Republican side, state Rep. Mike Turzai (R) is frequently mentioned as an open-seat candidate. Turzai challenged Klink in 1998, drawing just 36 percent of the vote.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R) won the reconfigured 18th district in a cakewalk last year, 60 percent to 40 percent, against Norwin school district tax office administrator Jack Machek (D), who spent just $126,000. Machek beat DCCC favorite Larry Maggi, the Washington County sheriff, in the primary.

Maggi, who was recently elected Washington County commissioner, still has political life and could run again. State Sen. Alan Kukovich (D) has said he will not run against Murphy in 2004, although he is popular in the district and a future Congressional run could be in the cards. Still, Kukovich is described even by some Democrats as too liberal for the district.

State Revenue Secretary Greg Fajt (D), a former state Representative, is from the 18th and could also run there in the future. State Sen. Sean Logan (D), a former mayor of Monroeville, is also mentioned as a potential candidate.

Other than the 4th and the 18th, there’s been little competition in the area west of Harrisburg, aside from a lopsided primary victory in the Johnstown-based 12th district in 2002. Rep. John Murtha (D), currently in his 15th term and considered the dean of the delegation, defeated fellow Rep. Frank Mascara (D) in a primary forced by redistricting.

When the seat becomes open, Republicans could contest it with the right candidate.

State Rep. Jeff Coleman (R), a young conservative who is supporting Rep. Pat Toomey’s (R) primary bid against Sen. Arlen Specter (R), could be a candidate there, though he does not live in the district now.

While the Pittsburgh suburbs favor Republicans, the city remains a Democratic stronghold, represented since 1994 by Rep. Mike Doyle (D).

Among the rising stars representing Steeltown in the state Legislature are state Sen. Jake Costa (D) and state Rep. Dan Frankel (D). Attorney Steve Irwin, an active Democratic Party fundraiser, is also mentioned as someone who might like to run for office in the future.

While western Pennsylvania Democrats have fewer prospects warming the bench in the state Legislature, there are a number of Republican up and comers recently elected to the statehouse.

State Sen. Joseph Scarnati (R), currently in his first term, resides in Rep. John Peterson’s (R) expansive 5th district. Farther east, State Rep. Pat Vance (R) is seen as a rising star in Rep. Don Sherwood’s (R) 10th district.

While the steel industry anchors the western part of the state, the coal industry helps to put food on the table for many of the residents in the 11th district, which combined with the 10th constitutes the northeast corner of the state.

Talk of ethics charges and a possible FBI probe clouded Rep. Paul Kanjorski’s (D) re-election campaign last year, but he seemed to have little trouble winning 56 percent of the vote and a 10th term anyway in November 2002.

Joe Peters, who recently left a position in the Bush administration and returned to the state to run for state attorney general in 2004, could be well positioned to run in the 11th district down the line. State Rep. Todd Eachus (D) recently passed up running for state Senate and is considered a potential candidate when the 11th district becomes open.

NEXT WEEK: Eastern Pennsylvania