By Jim Ellis
Sep. 12, 2017 — A day after Pennsylvania conservative state Rep. Justin Simmons (R-Coopersburg) officially declared his Republican primary challenge to Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Allentown), the congressman announced that he would not seek an eighth term in the House.
It is unlikely the Simmons challenge forced Dent from Congress, but the overall political climate certainly contributes to his retiring. Dent has been one of President Trump’s top Republican critics. The congressman, age 57, reminded his supporters, however, that he originally planned to only serve five or six terms and will be in elective office for 28 consecutive years once his final term in the House comes to a close at the beginning of 2019. He was originally elected to the state House of Representatives in 1990, serving until his election to the state Senate in 1998, and then to Congress in 2004.
Democrats will now be looking to target the open 15th District, which stretches from the Allentown-Bethlehem area all the way west on Interstate 78 to the outer reaches of Harrisburg. The 15th District was more of a swing district before 2011 redistricting, however. Now, it performs as a reliably Republican seat.
The Allentown-Bethlehem district was solidly in Democratic hands from 1952 through 1978, when Republican Don Ritter upset eight-term Democratic Congressman Fred Rooney (D-Bethlehem) in that latter year. Ritter would represent the Lehigh Valley until 1992 when he lost to Democrat Paul McHale. McHale (D-Bethlehem) then retired after serving three terms. In 1998, businessman Pat Toomey (R-Allentown) converted the seat for the GOP and held it for three terms until he unsuccessfully challenged then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 GOP primary.
Toomey, as we know, successfully won a subsequent election to the Senate in 2010 and was re-elected last November. Dent claimed six congressional re-elections with an average victory percentage of 63.5 percent, but that includes his unopposed year in 2014. Discounting that election, his mean win percentage drops to 56.2 percent.
The 2011 redistricting plan changed this district in that it removed the most Democratic precincts from Bethlehem and the city of Easton and placed them in the safely Democratic 17th District (Rep. Matt Cartwright-D-Moosic/Scranton). This makes the 15th considerably more Republican as evidenced by President Trump’s 52-44 percent victory here last November and Mitt Romney carrying the seat 52-48 percent in 2012. The only Democrat to carry the district in any recent election is Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D), during his 2012 re-election. But, even when winning 54-45 percent statewide, Sen. Casey prevailed in the 15th by only a 50-48 percent margin.
Though we can expect the Democrats to heavily target the 15th District once a credible nominee emerges, the eventual Republican standard bearer should be favored to win a competitive campaign.
The wild card in the situation, however, is the pending redistricting lawsuit, which also affects eastern Pennsylvania’s two other open seats: PA-10 (Rep. Tom Marino-R being appointed Director of the National Drug Control Policy office) and PA-11 (Rep. Lou Barletta-R running for Senate).
Democrats have filed suit in state court claiming the current congressional map is a political gerrymander under the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s constitution. The suit is still awaiting a hearing at the district court level, and then must move through the appellate arm before going to the state Supreme Court. Democrats want the suit to be heard and ruled upon before the 2018 election so a re-draw can occur, but Republicans will be attempting to at least delay a final ruling until the 2020 cycle. Democrats assumed control of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the 2016 election, thus providing the plaintiffs with a realistic chance of winning their lawsuit claims.
Should the Democrats prevail before the 2018 election, these open seats will throw a new mapping process into chaos for the Republicans and could easily produce several Democratic victories under different district configurations. Therefore, recent political developments involving Reps. Dent, Marino, and Barletta drastically heighten the redistricting lawsuit’s importance.
At this point, state Rep. Simmons and his colleague Ryan Mackenzie (R-Macungie) are the only two announced Republican candidates. Previously declared Democratic candidates are Coplay City Councilman Bill Leiner, energy consultant Laura Quick, and minister Greg Edwards. We can expect more individuals from both parties to soon emerge.