John McCain has doubled down on the Keystone State, betting that he can convince the "most patriotic part of America," as he called western Pennsylvania at a Moon Township rally last Tuesday, that he's best qualified to be president. Nobody could be happier about this than Rep. Phil English and other Pennsylvania House Republicans who are fighting against the prevailing political winds to keep their seats.
Long before this election looked so favorable to Democrats, Pennsylvania had not been kind of late to the GOP. Two years ago they lost four House seats, the largest mid-term swing of any state in the nation. Though the Dems must now defend those vulnerable seats, the Party is flush with cash and more than willing to challenge three vulnerable Pennsylvania Republicans. If the Democrats were to successfully defend their own seats and win those three others they will have achieved a complete reversal in the state's delegation, going from 12 Republican out of 19 state seats in Washington, to 14 Democrats.
But even this year that may be wishful thinking. Only one of the GOP seats is too close to call seven-term English, who hails from the Erie area. Two others Jim Gerlach, outside of Philadelphia, and Tim Murphy from Pittsburgh are vulnerable but look likely to keep their seats, according to the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter that tracks congressional races. Democrats, on the other hand, have to worry about two toss up seats, freshman Chris Carney and 12-termer Paul Kanjorski, both in the Scranton area. "We see a lot of yards with signs for Carney and signs for McCain," Carney says. "But having Joe Biden [who was born in Scranton] on the ticket, that really helps around here."
While Obama who lost the Scranton area to Hillary Clinton in the primaries by double digits may not have very long coattails for these vulnerable moderate Democrats, Biden is indeed a help. And so is all the cash, momentum and voter registration pushes that the Obama campaign has brought with it Dems have gained more than 320,000 new voters since the beginning of the year in Pennsylvania and Republicans have lost more than 60,000 voters from their rolls. Kanjorski outraised his opponent, Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, three to one as of August 11, according to Federal Election Commission reports. And Carney has raised nearly $2 million, helping him to keep pace with business owner Chris Hackett, who is pouring a lot of his own money into the race.
McCain, for his part, is giving a boost to the prospects of Republicans like English. Even though the Republican nominee is trailing Obama 11% in an average of Pennsylvania polls by the website RealClearPolitics, McCain is making a renewed final push, hanging his remaining hopes of winning the presidency by stealing a crucial blue state: he returns to Pottsville Monday, his sixth stop in the Keystone State in two weeks, his running mate Sarah Palin is expected back for her second visit in a week on Tuesday and his wife, Cindy McCain, made four stops in Philadelphia and Yardley last Monday. "McCain is more competitive than (President) Bush was in last the last two cycles and Bush came very, very close," English says. "In western Pennsylvania we have a lot of traditional Democrats who have been willing to vote Republican in the last two elections." (Though Obama, who is making two stops in Pennsylvania Monday and Tuesday, is hardly ceding the state.)
What scares English is a tidal wave a bigger wave than even two years ago, when the war and Washington corruption combined to give Democrats control of Congress. Given the economic crisis, rust belt states like Pennsylvania are particularly vulnerable to the Democrats' working class appeals this year. "Considering the economic turmoil and people's unhappiness with the war, it would not surprise me at all if there was indeed a significant wave for the Democrats, nor indeed if there was a true realignment in this election," says Frank R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at Penn State University. English blames his vulnerability this cycle to redistricting done by over-confident Republicans in 2004 that added blue areas into his once solidly red district.
Democrats that succeeded in Pennsylvania in 2006 tended to be very conservative part of the party's growing bloc of so-called Blue Dog moderates. English's opponent, Kathleen Dahlkemper, a small business owner and first time candidate, is no exception: she's pro-gun and pro-life though she's against the war in Iraq and supports tightening free-trade policies.
But some of those conservative Dems who made it in two years ago are now getting it from both sides. Carney, for example, has been victim to attack ads from the right and the left progressives angry at his moderate votes, particularly on a bill to authorize Bush's warrantless wiretapping, and Republicans who accuse him of being in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pocket. When asked about this, Carney shrugs. "If I'm getting attacked by the extremes on both sides I'm probably where I ought to be," he says. "My concern [is] primarily about getting things done ending partisan paralysis."
Whatever impacts the presidential race may be having, all politics is still local as evidenced by Kanjorski's close race. "Kanjorski can lose to Barletta who achieved some statewide fame for his high profile anti-immigration measures in Hazelton," says Michael Berkman, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University. "That district is expected to go for McCain, which could help Barletta." It is ironic that Barletta and McCain stood on opposite sides of the immigration issue, though that doesn't seem to be hurting Barletta, who gained national attention when he moved to tighten city ordinances making it more difficult for landlords to knowingly rent or businesses to hire illegal immigrants. The issue became a hot button in a community suffering from lost manufacturing jobs, and it may just be enough to make Barletta that rarest of things this year, a Republican challenger able to upset a moderate Democrat in the blue state of Pennsylania.