Voters Set Pennsylvania Battlegrounds

Posted April 23, 2008 at 6:01pm

The race is on in one of the most competitive Congressional districts in the country.

Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional district Tuesday picked a victor — or a victim — to face freshman Rep. Christopher Carney (D) this fall. Wealthy businessman Chris Hackett (R) edged out fellow businessman Dan Meuser (R) by about 4 points.

Additionally, primary contests around the state sorted out the fields in a few more potentially competitive districts.

Carney was the first Democrat in three decades to win the seat when he defeated a longtime Member embroiled in a scandal. The 10th district, however, has a decisive GOP lean, giving President Bush 60 percent of the vote in 2004.

“I remember when Chris was first running two years ago,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania. “I was told that his re-election was going to be tougher than his first election.”

What’s more, Carney might have the top of the ticket to worry about this time. Presumed Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is popular in that section of state, in part because of his longtime support from former Gov. Tom Ridge (R), who still has some of the highest approval ratings in the state.

“That is really going to be [Carney’s] challenge,” Ceisler said. “Whereas two years ago he won in a Democratic year, I think November might be a different story. I think McCain is going to be very competitive in Pennsylvania, especially in that Carney district.”

Turnout numbers in the 10th district show that Carney might have an increasingly difficult task if Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is the Democratic presidential nominee. According to county vote totals tabulated by Roll Call, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) won the counties in the 10th district in Tuesday’s Democratic primary with about 70 percent of the vote.

Although he did not have a primary challenge, Carney bought 60-second television and radio advertisements encouraging voters to the polls just before the primary. The feel-good spot did not identify his party affiliation, but it was released in the final days of the GOP primary and struck a contrast with the bitterness in the ads between Hackett and Meuser and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Obama and Clinton.

It’s also unclear just how much money Hackett might be willing to put into his general election campaign. Hackett spent $792,300 of his own funds on the primary, though he was still outspent by Meuser, w ho put in $1.8 million of his own money. Carney had $966,000 in his campaign coffers as of April 2.

Hackett spokesman Mark Harris said the campaign was not yet sure whether the Republican nominee would throw in more of his personal funds.

“That conversation hasn’t been had yet,” Harris said. “I think the plan at the moment is to raise it all, but no firm decision has been made one way or the other.”

That said, television advertising might not be that important in the district, which boasts an inexpensive media market that can reach the point of saturation fairly quickly.

But speaking of saturating television markets, Republicans might have saved themselves from a potentially vulnerable candidate by nominating Centre County Republican Party Chairman G.T. Thompson in the 5th district. He defeated two self-funders with both personal and legal problems who together spent $2.4 million of their own money on their campaigns.

In yet another very negative Republican primary, Thompson was buoyed by the late endorsement of retiring Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.). The endorsement pushed Thompson, who had raised barely any money, to the finish line over the two wealthy businessmen, who placed second and third in the nine-way GOP contest.

Democrats might also have their work cut out for them in other parts of the state as they play defense in southeastern Pennsylvania and attempt to mount challenges in the western part of the state.

In the 3rd district Democratic primary, businesswoman Kathy Dahlkemper won her four-person Democratic primary and will face an uphill battle against Rep. Phil English (R) this fall. In the 18th district, Democrats picked businessman Steve O’Donnell to challenge Rep. Tim Murphy (R), who is sometimes seen as vulnerable in his Pittsburgh-area seat.

But compared with 2006, Ceisler said, Pennsylvania won’t be integral to the battle for control of Congress.

“We’re not going to be what we were two years ago,” Ceisler said. “The center of the Congressional flip universe is not going to be Pennsylvania.”