By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Republicans pulled off an impressive congressional redistricting map last winter, which should protect most of the GOP’s gains during the 2010 congressional election. But even the most careful map making won’t prevent a few intriguing battles this year.
The Keystone State is home to one major congressional battle this fall, and a few other races that could come down to the wire. Republicans should retain 10 of their 12 current seats, and Democrats have four districts they are all but sure to carry.
With fewer than five weeks before voters go to the polls, PA Independent takes a look at the races getting the most attention — and the most money — this fall.
Incumbent: U.S. Rep. Mark Critz (D)
Challenger: Keith Rothfus, an attorney from Allegheny County(R)
Redistricting Effect: Critz survived an incumbent battle royale in the primary as he defeated fellow U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Allegheny, after the two were placed in the newly redrawn 12th District as part of the Republican redistricting effort. Critz is more liberal than Altmire — whose vote against Obamacare in 2010 may have been the nail in his electoral coffin.
The GOP also carved this district to give Rothfus a slight registration advantage.
Money Bags: This figures to be one of the most expensive congressional races in the country. Outside groups have already spent more than $3.2 million in the district with five weeks remaining before the election. Most of that outside spending — more than $2.7 million of it — has been negative, according to FEC reports.
Union groups — including AFSCME, SEIU and the AFL-CIO — have spent more than $1.5 million in the race, much of it on negative advertising against Rothfus.
The YG Action Fund, a super PAC with ties to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Ohio, and Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has chipped in nearly $600,000 for ads against Critz, and the National Republican Campaign Committee has spent more than $1 million in the district, mostly on advertising.
Through the end of June, Critz had only $428,000 in his campaign account, due to the costly primary battle with Altmire that drained resources. Rothfus had $647,000 in his war chest. New campaign finance reports are due Oct. 15.
Ad Watch: The Rothfus campaign has produced some of the most creative and interesting ads of the campaign season, including one that used a bobblehead doll of Critz with a voice-over that calls the Democrat “Obama’s Yes-Man” on issues such as the environment and Obamacare. Watch ad here.
In a new ad, Critz plays to the district’s moderate and conservative components by pointing out that he is “pro-life, pro-gun and pro-military” before attacking Rothfus over his support for the GOP budget plan, which, Critz says in the ad, would “end the current system of Medicare.” Watch ad here.
Bottom Line: In what will be one of the biggest congressional battlegrounds in the nation, the Republicans have their only real chance to pick up a new Pennsylvania seat in a year when they are mostly playing defense. If the Democrats are going to close the gap in Congress, they cannot afford to give away seats like this one, and they will spend whatever it takes to keep that from happening.
Incumbent: U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R)
Challenger: Kathy Boockvar, an attorney from Bucks County (D)
Redistricting Effect: Democrats won the previously Republican-controlled district in the wave years of 2006 and 2008, before Fitzpatrick (who was defeated in 2006) took it back in the GOP wave of 2010.
Redistricting made one of the most volatile districts in the state a little more Republican-friendly by cutting out a small portion that used to spill into Philadelphia and adding a portion of moderately conservative northern Montgomery County instead.
Money Bags: Democrats see this to be their best chance for a pickup in 2012 – that’s why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dropped $20,000 into the race. Unions are big players here, too – the SEIU’s super PAC spent $55,000 so far, mostly on rallies and registration efforts, and unions have contributed more than $80,000 directly to Boockvar’s campaign.
Compared to the Democratic investment in the race, Republicans have been stingy. The National Republican Congressional Committee has contributed $3,000, but Fitzpatrick’s biggest backer so far has been the National Association of Realtors, which built a website in support of the congressman and has spent more than $37,000 in the race.
Fitzpatrick had the lead in fundraising at the end of June, with more than $1.2 million on hand, compared to $421,000 for Boockvar.
Ad Watch: Boockvar has been on the air since the summer, with a series of ads stressing her differences with Fitzpatrick on things such as funding for Planned Parenthood and Medicaid. In recent ads, she plays up her willingness to compromise while criticizing Fitzpatrick for what she says is a “my way or the highway” approach to governing. Watch ad here.
Like Democrats across the country, Boockvar has slammed Fitzpatrick for his support of the GOP budget, and the supposed affect the budget would have on Medicare.
Fitzpatrick has struck back with one of the strongest attack ads of the cycle, going after Boockvar’s support for Obamacare that the ad says would cut $700 billion from Medicare and cost 800,000 jobs. The ad also ties Boockvar to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, despite the fact that she’s never served in Congress. Watch ad here (h/t PoliticsPA.com)
Bottom Line: National prognosticators agree the race tilts toward Fitzpatrick, but the Philly suburbs can be volatile in the final weeks before any big election. Boockvar is definitely the Democrats’ best chance to chip away at the Republican’s 12-7 edge in the congressional delegation.
Incumbent: U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R)
Challenger: Manan Trivedi, a physician and veteran of the U.S. Navy from Berks County (D)
Redistricting Effect: Gerlach won a fifth term in 2010 by beating Trivedi by 14 points, but this rematch could be closer because the wave effect that favored Republicans two years ago is virtually nonexistent this time.
The district is centered on northern Chester County and western Montgomery County, but it has been gerrymandered to include jagged portions of Berks and Lebanon counties, as well. It was redrawn as part of a Republican effort to make it — and the neighboring, highly gerrymandered 7th District — a safer GOP seat.
Money Bags: There has been little outside spending on the race so far. The only significant splash was made this past week by the American Hospital Association, which is running a television ad in the district supporting Gerlach.
Gerlach has the edge in fundraising, but his lead is smaller than might be expected given his advantage of being a long-time incumbent. He had about $885,000 on hand at the end of June, while Trivedi had about $528,000 in his war chest – more than any other Democratic challenger in the state.
Ad Watch: Gerlach has been on the air since September with an ad attacking Trivedi’s vocal support for the stimulus bill and highlighting his own support for what the ad says are “27 pro-jobs bills” that helped get Gerlach endorsements from the National Federation of Independent Businesses and other pro-business groups. Watch ad here.
Trevedi also hit the airwaves in September, attacking Gerlach for voting to increase his taxpayer-funded pension while contrasting that with Trevedi’s selfless career as a battlefield surgeon in Iraq. In Congress, Trevedi would “fight to make things right for the middle class,” the candidate says. Watch ad here.
Bottom line: Keep an eye on this district when the new campaign finance reports are made public Oct. 15. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added Trivedi to its “Red To Blue” target list, and he picked up an endorsement from national progressive group MoveOn.Org, both of which may boost the challenger’s bottom line and could put this race on the national radar.
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.