By Jim Ellis
Feb. 21, 2020 — While the Democratic presidential debate of a couple nights ago is getting most of the political news coverage, Democrats and Republicans completed their filings to run for office in one of the country’s major political battlegrounds, the Keystone State of Pennsylvania.
While the state will be one of the most important in the presidential race, it also yields a significant political playing field for the House of Representatives. There is no Senate or gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania this year.
From their 18 House districts, we see only three incumbents drawing primary opposition, and only one of the intra-party challengers appears credible. The state primary is April 28.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Levittown) has one primary challenger, investment company executive Andrew Meehan, but he had raised only $35,000 through the end of last year. It is assumed that Meehan has personal wealth, but whether or not he invests in his own long-shot campaign is as yet unknown.
Freshman Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Swarthmore) draws Democratic opposition from businessman Lou Lanni, but he does not appear politically credible. Raising only $8,000 through the end of last year, Lanni is not running a competitive campaign. With little to fear from Republicans in this district, Rep. Scanlon appears to have an easy run for her first re-election.
The most interesting primary likely lies in Pittsburgh. Veteran Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pittsburgh) faces two Democratic opponents, one of whom looks credible. While pastor Janis Brooks does not appear to be a competitive primary contender, attorney Gerald Dickinson, on the other hand, had already raised $173,000 at the end of the year, all from individual contributors. It is still very doubtful that Rep. Doyle will be denied re-nomination, but this is the one primary campaign to watch for a developing challenge.
Post candidate filing deadline, we see nine of the 18 Pennsylvania House districts with their general election pairings already set. Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-Philadelphia), Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia), Madeleine Dean (D-Jenkintown), Chrissy Houlahan (D-Devon), Fred Keller (R-Middleburg), John Joyce (R-Hollidaysburg/Altoona), Guy Reschenthaler (R-Peters Township), G.T. Thompson (R-Howard), and Mike Kelly (R-Butler/Erie) today have single general election opponents and all look to be safe.
Rep. Kelly, who won re-election with only a 52-47 percent victory margin in 2018, has drawn what appears to be insignificant opposition even though he was believed to be a top Democratic conversion target. His previous opponent, attorney and longtime Democratic insider Ron DiNicola, is not returning for a re-match. Educator Kristy Gnibus, also a doctoral student, is the only filed Democrat and raised only $44,000 in what should be a targeted contest. Unless Gnibus generates a major turnaround, Rep. Kelly should return to having an easy road to re-election.
Two Republican members, Reps. Dan Meuser (R-Dallas/Hazelton) and Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster), look to have safe re-election paths, but they will have to wait until primary day to meet their opponent. Multiple candidate Democratic primaries are present in both districts.
The most competitive races, and there are five that will likely draw national attention, are spread throughout the state and feature three Democratic incumbents and two Republican members.
In the 1st District, Rep. Fitzpatrick will oppose one of three Democratic candidates. The favorite appears to be Pennsbury School Board member Debbie Wachspress who had raised over $450,000 at the end of last year.
Freshman Rep. Susan Wild (D-Allentown) will face a competitive general election in a politically marginal district that only tilts Democratic. Former Lehigh County Commissioner and entrepreneur Lisa Scheller appears to the strongest option for Republicans to pair with Rep. Wild, but she first must get past former Lehigh County Commissioner Dean Browning in the GOP primary who will be campaigning to her right.
In the 8th District, directly to the north of Rep. Wild’s seat, Scranton area veteran Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Moosic) will find himself battling a credible Republican in the general election. Six individuals are vying for the party nomination. President Trump will carry this district, possibly in double digits.
Harrisburg/York Congressman Scott Perry (R-Dillsburg), whose district was fundamentally changed in the 2017 court-ordered re-map, will see a tough re-election campaign emerge in his politically marginal district. Rep. Perry’s likely general election opponent will be term-limited state Auditor Eugene DePasquale (D), who will be a strong challenger. He had already raised over $660,000 at the end of 2019.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pittsburgh), who easily defeated fellow Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) in 2018 in the newly drawn 17th District, will likely face a competitive race this year in a CD that President Trump carried in 2016. Two Republicans are vying for the nomination, but the clear favorite is Afghan War veteran Sean Parnell who President Trump publicly urged to enter the race.
Now that we better understand the political playing field, it is obvious that Pennsylvania will again be a critical campaign theater in 2020.