After Democrats’ big 2018 gains, more House seats could flip
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — In the shadow of Pennsylvania’s status as a battleground state in the presidential election, Democrats will fight to defend their gains in Congress two years ago and, possibly, add another seat or two as the state’s suburbs continue to turn against President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to defend their survivors in more evenly divided districts, while hoping to knock off some of the Democrats’ freshmen and one veteran congressman who keeps winning a district where Trump is popular.
Elections in 2018 were fruitful for Democrats: Aided by redrawn districts and anti-Trump fervor, they picked up four seats in Pennsylvania, evening the state’s partisan balance in the U.S. House and helping the party recapture the House majority overall.
There may be room for more districts to flip. Two incumbent Republicans won by fewer than 3 percentage points in 2018, while Democrats represent two districts that Trump won in 2016.
Here is a look at key races:
Second-term Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia, is a top target again for Democrats: He is one of just three House Republicans in the entire country running for reelection in a district won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016′s presidential contest.
But Fitzpatrick, a mild-mannered former FBI agent who took over the seat from his late brother, has a potent winning formula and is being challenged by a relative political unknown nominated by Democrats.
Fitzpatrick has his family’s name recognition and inroads into traditional Democratic voting districts. He is endorsed by top-tier labor unions and persistently uses the theme of being independent; a digital ad calls him the “No. 1 most independent congressman.”
He is the only Republican congressman in Pennsylvania who routinely votes against Trump or Republican leadership; he voted with Democrats last summer to condemn Trump for telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the country they came from.
He also said he has not decided whether to vote for Biden or Trump this November.
Even so, Fitzpatrick voted for Trump’s tax-cut legislation and opposed his impeachment. His opponent, Democrat Christina Finello, attacks Fitzpatrick as too weak to stand up to Trump and silent in the face of Trump’s worst transgressions.
Democrats have a 19,000-voter registration advantage in the district, which Clinton won by 2 percentage points.
But, going into July, Fitzpatrick had six times the campaign cash as Finello. And no outside groups have heavily spent to help Finello.
That’s a good sign for Fitzpatrick: He won by 2.5 points in 2018, when he was outspent nearly four-to-one by his wealthy Democratic rival and millions flowed in from outside groups.
Freshman Democrat U.S. Rep. Susan Wild is defending her Allentown-area seat against Republican nominee Lisa Scheller, a former Lehigh County commissioner who started a pigment manufacturer for paints, coatings and inks and touts her background as a recovered addict who advocates for people in recovery.
Wild, a prominent lawyer in Allentown, scored a 10-percentage-point thumping of her Republican opponent in 2018′s campaign for what was an open seat.
The district is daunting for a Republican: Democrats have a 62,000-voter registration advantage, and Wild had a three-to-one campaign cash advantage going into July.
But Trump only lost the district by 1 percentage point in 2016, and Republicans are hoping his top-of-the-ticket strength can lift Scheller, who had Trump’s endorsement in a contested primary.
Four-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright in northeastern Pennsylvania is in his third go-round of seeking reelection in a district where Trump is decidedly popular.
This time Cartwright is being challenged by Jim Bognet, a first-time candidate who won a six-person GOP primary, in part, by promising to be a staunch Trump ally.
The district is anchored by Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, both Democratic bastions. But the party’s voter-registration advantage in the district — still at a considerable 62,000 — is shrinking, and Republican hopes of capturing the district are perennial.
Cartwright, though, had six times the campaign cash as Bognet going into July and phone-banking help from Service Employees International Union.
Bognet said his fundraising is accelerating and that he’s been out door-knocking. Plus, he said, the last time Trump was on the ballot, Cartwright only faced token opposition.
Plus, the district is a regular destination for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, which could give Bognet a boost.
This race is poised to become the state’s most expensive: Four-term Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, possessor of one of the most conservative voting records in the U.S. House, is being challenged by two-term state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
The race has already attracted more than $500,000 in spending by outside groups after a Democratic opponent with little name recognition came within 2.5 percentage points of knocking off Perry in 2018.
The district, which includes the cities of York and Harrisburg, has a Republican registration edge of about 20,000, and Trump won it by 9 points in 2016.
To win, DePasquale may need strong support from independent voters and Republican moderates who reject Perry’s hard-line conservativism.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly is seeking a sixth term in a northwestern Pennsylvania district against a political newcomer, teacher Kristy Gnibus, after Kelly won a race — into which national Democrats poured cash — by 4 percentage points in 2018.
Republicans have a slight registration advantage — under 14,000 — but Democratic parts of the district took the same conservative turn in 2016 as other historically Democratic parts of Pennsylvania where residents are whiter, less affluent and less educated.
That helps explain how Trump won the district by 20 percentage points and flipped its most populous county, Erie County, which had voted for the Democrat in every presidential election since Ronald Reagan ran for a second term in 1984.
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb is seeking a second full term after becoming a Democratic star in 2018 for winning two races in two Trump districts — a special election in a district Trump won by 20 percentage points and a general election in a redrawn district against a three-term incumbent.
Lamb is facing a challenge from Republican Sean Parnell, a decorated Army vet who is a regular guest on Fox News programs — he announced his candidacy during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” — and is known for his memoir on the war in Afghanistan and authoring two action novels.
Parnell is also a Trump darling. He got a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention and campaign stump shoutouts from Trump, with southwestern Pennsylvania a regular destination for Trump.
Parnell, in turn, has adopted Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric.
The district runs from Pittsburgh’s suburbs through Ohio River towns to the Ohio border and has a heavy — albeit shrinking — Democratic registration advantage of 65,000 votes. But it is also home to many conservative Democrats who helped Trump win it by 2.5 percentage points in 2016.
Parnell raised enough cash that the money race was almost even going into July.
And in a district where blue-collar labor unions are influential, Parnell has tried to inoculate himself against a weakness of Lamb’s previous opponents by declaring his support for the right to organize and his opposition to so-called “right to work” legislation.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.