Harrison’s Erin McClelland running for Congress against Rothfus — and maybe Conor Lamb

March 24, 2018 GMT

A new congressional district map inspired Erin McClelland to challenge U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus again — but she may be mounting a campaign for a district that won’t exist next year.

McClelland, 42, a Democrat from Harrison, has twice run unsuccessfully against Rothfus, 55, a Republican from Sewickley, to represent the 12th Congressional District — in 2014 and 2016.

But after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January struck down the state’s congressional boundaries as unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, the court put out a new map after the Legislature failed to do so by the court’s deadline.

That created the new 17th Congressional District in which McClelland and Rothfus would face off.

Republicans — two state senators and eight GOP congressmen representing Pennsylvania — have filed a federal lawsuit to get the map thrown out. They say the court’s map is unconstitutional because the U.S. Constitution gives the Legislature the responsibility of setting district boundaries.

A panel of three federal judges is expected to hear arguments Friday on the Republicans’ request for a preliminary injunction, which would stop Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, from implementing the state court’s new map.

A ‘blue-collar girl’

McClelland said she wasn’t planning on challenging Rothfus for a third time.

That changed when she saw the new 17th Congressional District. It’s much more compact than the former 12th District, now consisting of Beaver County, a small part of Butler County and much of northern Allegheny County.

And rather than favoring one party or the other, pundits and political analysts are saying the new district is a toss-up.

“It was almost impossible to win,” McClelland said of the old 12th District. “It’s a whole different race now.”

McClelland hopes to appeal to the new district’s blue-collar, working class voters as a relatable “blue-collar girl from a blue-collar steel town” who “finally has a winnable working-class district to fight for.

“For years, the working-class communities in the Rust Belt have been sliced and diced by lawmakers so elected officials could pick their voters instead of the voters picking their officials,” McClelland said. “The Alle-Kiski Valley was shredded into pieces, and no matter how strongly we aligned, our votes were divided, and we just didn’t matter.

“Now, my vote and the votes of my friends, family and closest political allies will finally matter.”

A spokesman for Rothfus did not respond to requests for comment.

But in other reports, Rothfus has spoken against the new map, calling it a political power grab by the court.

Three other Democrats are eying the district — Beth Tarasi, a Sewickley attorney; Aaron Anthony, a University of Pittsburgh doctoral student and former Shaler Area teacher; and Ray Linsenmayer of McCandless, an energy consultant and local Democratic activist.

New districts ‘wacky’

While McClelland is collecting petition signatures to get on the May 15 primary ballot, it’s entirely possible the district map created by the state Supreme Court could be thrown out, said Philip Harold, a professor of political science at Robert Morris University in Moon.

“I’m not convinced it’s going to stand,” Harold said. “It’s just so wacky.”

As a matter of process, Harold said it’s clear in the U.S. Constitution that it’s not state Supreme Courts that are supposed to be drawing district maps.

“That’s why I just would not be surprised if the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and then rendered a decision in favor of the Republicans in favor of overturning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” he said. “It seems relatively clear-cut who is supposed to draw these districts, and it’s not the state Supreme Court. It’s the state legislatures.”

Conor Lamb

If the new district stands, McClelland has not only the three Democratic challengers to overcome, but also, possibly, Conor Lamb. Lamb is in a pitched battle with Republican Rick Saccone, a state representative, for the former 18th Congressional District.

Lamb of Mt. Lebanon would find himself in the new 17th District. Saccone of Elizabeth Township would be in the new 18th District.

“As I’ve said from the beginning of this campaign, I will be running for a full term in Congress in 2018,” Lamb said in a statement.

In a race for the new 17th District, Harold said Lamb is helped by his campaign against Saccone.

“Lamb is just a fabulously exciting candidate and has done very well in this district that Trump won by 20 percent,” he said.

A lot of money is being spent on the race. While Lamb has out-raised Saccone 5-to-1, advertising from outside groups has helped Saccone keep even, Harold said.

For Lamb, Harold said it might have been smart “to not have such a high burn rate and save some of that money for the next time around.”

Lamb said he is “entirely focused” on the March 13 special election.

“I am running for this seat now, and I will be running later no matter where they draw the lines,” Lamb’s statement said.

A recent poll found Lamb with a slight lead over Saccone a week before the election.

McClelland said Lamb should focus on his race against Saccone.

“He is in a nail-biter of a race,” she said. “I think he needs to focus on winning that one.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4701, brittmeyer@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.