By Jim Ellis
Jan. 23, 2018 — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, on a vote of 4-3, Monday invalidated the state’s congressional map due to political gerrymandering. The high court further ordered the legislature and governor to create a new map, enact it, and return it to the court all by Feb. 15.
The new lines will be in effect for the 2018 elections, unless the Republican defendants can devise a way to flip the measure into the federal system. Since this lawsuit was filed against the map for violating the Constitution of Pennsylvania rather than the US Constitution, such a move is considered a long shot.
Chances are high that the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will not be able to agree. If that in fact occurs, the state Supreme Court will subsequently appoint a special master to draw the new map.
With a 13R-5D margin in the delegation, Democrats stand to gain a significant number of seats. The fact that three Republican seats will be open (PA-9, Rep. Bill Shuster; PA-11, Rep. Lou Barletta; and, PA-15, Rep. Charlie Dent), the map drawers have plenty of leeway to turn seats Democratic in the regions that these districts now occupy all without even displacing an incumbent.
Depending upon how aggressive this 5-2 Democratic court wants to be, a swing of 5-6 seats from Republican to Democratic is conceivable.
Also, a rare public poll was released Monday for the PA-18 special election scheduled for March 13. The Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation union (SMART) commissioned a DFM Research poll (Jan. 18-19; 384 registered PA-18 voters) because the organization leaders wanted to determine how the region’s residents view crew requirements pertaining to freight cars. While testing, the surveyors asked political questions including a ballot test for the upcoming special election in resigned Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-Pittsburgh) former district.
According to the poll results, Republican nominee Rick Saccone (R-Canonsburg), a retired Air Force foreign service officer serving his fourth term in the state House of Representatives, leads attorney Conor Lamb, by only a 41-38 percent margin. This result is inconsistent with recent internal Republican surveys that post Saccone to leads of nine and 10 points.
Though Saccone has proven himself a poor fundraiser, the Republican apparatus and outside allies are spending heavily. The Ending Spending Super PAC has committed to expend over $1 million to back Saccone, for example. Both President Trump and Vice President Pence are making campaign visits, understanding that the current political climate makes no seat safely Republican.
The Pennsylvania political situation was further complicated when another story broke saying Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Chadds Ford) was forced to settle a sexual harassment claim with a former staff member. The revelation spurred Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) into removing Meehan from his position on the House Ethics Committee.
It is unclear whether this will mushroom into forcing the congressman out of office, but it further weakens him in the coming redistricting battle. His craggily-shaped Philadelphia suburban seat, anchored in Delaware County, is always at the center of the political gerrymandering claims, and if he is perceived as being politically weakened, there is a good chance the court – assuming they will draw the map after the legislature and governor reach an impasse – will significantly reconfigure the 7th District.
With all of these separate Pennsylvania-related political stories breaking in the same time frame, it is clear that much more will transpire before we begin to understand what final ramifications will occur. We do know, however, that Pennsylvania will be one of the most important states in the 2018 election cycle.