The Reversal of Pennsylvania's GOP Gerrymander Is a Big Democratic Win
Let's break down how the races are shaping up in the 18 brand new congressional districts.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.
In a hugely positive development for American democracy, on Monday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court implemented new congressional lines with the goal of keeping communities of interest together and reflecting the state politically. The old map’s goal was maintaining a 13-5 Republican edge in the congressional delegation, so this new one is far superior.
Before we get to the effect on each district, let’s go over some preliminary questions:
Q: Will this new map be in place for the 2018 election?
A: I’m like 99 percent sure, yes. The old map was thrown out because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that it violated Pennsylvania state law. That’s important because a federal court can’t overrule a decision based on state law. Federal judges could rule that the state court somehow breached federal law in drawing the new map— but considering the US Supreme Court has already declined to stay the state court’s decision, I think it's unlikely litigation would prevent these lines from being used in November. Election law expert Rick Hasen agrees.
Q: What about that guy who said he would impeach the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices over this?
A: Representative Cris Dush (that’s his real name, he’s not a Pynchon character) is widely regarded in Harrisburg as a loon so don’t take anything he says too seriously. But for now Republican legislative leadership is looking at ethics complaints against the Supreme Court
with an eye on getting some of the Democrats out of office before the 2021 round of redistricting, when the Supreme Court decides who will draw state legislative seats. Impeachment, however, seems unlikely. Even if they were to impeach a member of the court I don’t see how it would get in the way of these lines being in place in 2018.
Q: So is this a Democratic gerrymander replacing the Republican gerrymander?
A: Far from it, as a majority of these districts voted for Donald Trump. The court’s mandate was to keep communities of interest and political boundaries as intact as possible. That gave the professor who drew the districts a framework he had to work within, and he did so. Now Pennsylvania has a map where Trump won ten of the 18 districts in 2016 and where Barack Obama and Mitt Romney split them evenly in 2012. Considering Obama won the state relatively comfortably while Trump won by less than a percentage point I’d argue that the map has a slight Republican lean to it.
Q: What’s the impact on congressional races?
A: One caveat is that we don’t have definitive lists of precincts in these districts so we only have preliminary numbers to go off of (the 2012 and 2016 were crunched by the New York Times’s Nate Cohn, the 2008 ones were done by me, all are subject to change by a percentage point or so). Using preliminary numbers, the New York Times has a really good feature on how the partisan composition of these seats has changed under the new map. And as Dave Wasserman so astutely noted, don’t think of this map as causing the Democrats to gain however many seats. Rather, think of it as improving Democratic chances in about six swing seats.
But those comments don’t really get into the individual dynamics of the races, and that’s where this column comes in. Here’s the breakdown of the new Pennsylvania races (note that the numbers of districts have been shuffled, you can see how old districts correspond to new ones here):
First District (Bucks County)
2016: Clinton 49–Trump 47
2012: Obama 50–Romney 48
2008: Obama 53–McCain 46
Representative Brian Fitzpatrick’s seat shifts slightly to the left, going from a seat Trump won by only 1,000 votes to one that backed Clinton by 2 percent. Fitzpatrick was already going to face a flawed Democratic nominee, but now that he’s in a Clinton seat those flaws will matter a little less. The map doesn’t change his race that much, but it does make his re-election campaign a little harder.
Second District (North Philadelphia)
2016: Clinton 73–Trump 25
2012: Obama 77–Romney 22
2008: Obama 73–McCain 26
Representative Brendan Boyle may be a Democrat but he was sweating out this process—there was a chance that his North Philly base would’ve been drawn into a Bucks-based district while the remainder of his seat was drawn into Montgomery County. Well, the retirement of Representative Bob Brady left Philadelphia with only two incumbent congressmen and Boyle’s home stayed in an otherwise vacant Philadelphia-only seat. So he can probably breathe a lot easier, though an intraparty challenge is not out of the question in a district that’s now plurality minority. But his two likeliest potential Democratic rivals—Nina Ahmad and Lindy Li—both live outside the district.
Third District (West Philadelphia)
2016: Clinton 91–Trump 7
2012: Obama 92–Romney 8
2008: Obama 92–McCain 7
A nearly 60 percent African-American seat, this is one of the most Democratic districts in the country and should return Dwight Evans to Congress with ease.
Fourth District (Montgomery County)
2016: Clinton 58–Trump 39
2012: Obama 56–Romney 42
2008: Obama 60–McCain 40
The old map left the state’s third biggest county, Montgomery, without a congressman even though it was so big it could fit a district entirely within its borders. That shouldn’t be an issue any more as the Fourth now entirely in that county except for a tiny sliver of Berks. The field for this seat is still developing, which is pretty surprising considering Montgomery County was virtually guaranteed its own seat once the court ruled the current map was unconstitutional. Current Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh is apparently leaning against a run, but her predecessor Leslie Richards may run in her stead, as may state representatives Matt Bradford and Madeleine Dean. Attorney General Josh Shapiro might be interested as well, but it’s unclear whether going from a statewide position to Congress would be seen as a demotion, especially as he’ll want as big a base as possible for his rumored 2022 run against Senator Pat Toomey.
Fifth Congressional District (DelCo and South Philly)
2016: Clinton 63–Trump 34
2012: Obama 65–Romney 35
2008: Obama 63–McCain 36
The successor to a seat that looked Goofy kicking Donald Duck, this congressional district looks like… a congressional district. It’s also safely Democratic. After State Senator Daylin Leach’s candidacy imploded thanks to sexual misconduct allegations, Democrats lacked a big-name candidate, but then Republican Representative Pat Meehan’s own sex scandal sank his political career. That leaves State Representative Greg Vitali, former prosecutor Ashley Lunkenheimer, local school board member Mary Gay Scanlon, ex-CIA officer Shelly Chauncey, scientist Molly Sheehan, and activist Dan Muroff (who carpetbagged to the old Seventh District only to have his new home drawn into the Fourth) in the primary.
Sixth Congressional District (Chester County and Reading)
2016: Clinton 53–Trump 43
2012: Obama 51–Romney 48
2008: Obama 56–McCain 43
Republican Representative Ryan Costello goes from a district that backed Romney in 2012 and Clinton by half a percent in 2016 to a district that is more reliably Democratic. Only two other Republicans nationwide are running for re-election in seats that gave a higher share of the vote to Clinton. The Ninth to the north will be safely Republican and 23 percent of its population lives in his current district. Ryan, if you want to move the fam to Amity Gardens it’s only an hour drive for Jr.’s friends to come see him. Oh, and Democratic candidate Chrissy Houlahan had a GREAT Presidents' Day, thanks for asking.
Seventh Congressional District (Lehigh Valley)
2016: Clinton 49–Trump 48
2012: Obama 53–Romney 46
2008: Obama 57–McCain 42
The Seventh goes from backing Trump 52–44 to going 49–48 for Clinton. Yet the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is still Northampton County DA John Morganelli, who’s an immigration hardliner with a fondness for Donald Trump. Democrats can do better in a district that voted for Clinton. Former state party chair TJ Rooney and Bethlehem Councilman Willie Reynolds could still announce a run here, but time is running out and local pastor Greg Edwards has been endorsed by a bevy of progressive organizations. He or former Allentown Solicitor Susan Wild may be the best non-Morganelli candidate by default.
Eighth District (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton)
2016: Clinton 44–Trump 53
2012: Obama 55–Romney 44
2008: Obama 57–McCain 42
Clinton’s utter collapse in this area and others like it is what cost her the presidency. Could it also cost Democrat Matt Cartwright his seat? The map does him few favors; both the new and old iterations of this district had near-identical 2012 and 2016 toplines. The problem for Republicans is that the home of their top recruit, John Chrin, was drawn out of the seat. Well, technically the royal charter for Pennsylvania back in 1681 drew Chrin out of the seat because he lives in New Jersey but he was claiming residency in Easton, which is now in the Seventh. Most prognosticators didn’t consider Chrin a serious threat, but there’s a scenario in which Cartwright faces a truly difficult challenge for this site.
You see, this district also includes the home of Representative Lou Barletta, who is running for Senate but he isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. Perhaps Republicans could persuade him to drop his Senate bid and run here instead; he won a similar iteration of this district for his upset win in 2010. If not him, current PA-11 candidate John Peters was thrown into the 12th with a Republican incumbent but has indicated he may run against Cartwright instead.
Ninth District (Coal Country)
2016: Clinton 31–Trump 65
2012: Obama 41–Romney 57
2008: Obama 46–McCain 53
The Ninth is the successor district to the 11th and while Democrat Denny Wolff (who’s the right type of candidate for this seat even though now it’s even more unlikely to flip) lives here, none of the top Republicans running do. The top fundraiser for the current 11th, Dan Meuser, lives in the Eighth but in a statement he hinted he’d rather run in the Ninth while Andrew Lewis is in Tom Marino’s 12th and State Representative Stephen Bloom appears to be in the 13th. Again, this seat is ripe for Representative Ryan Costello to move to.
Tenth District (Harrisburg)
2016: Clinton 43–Trump 52
2012: Obama 46–Romney 53
2008: Obama 49–McCain 50
Former Democratic Representative Tim Holden has been mentioned as a potential candidate in the new Ninth District, but why not the Tenth instead? He represented about half this district before, he’s working in Harrisburg now as chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (whatever you do, don’t crack down on the Citywide Special, Tim) and he has a lot more Democrats to work with here than next door. Democratic State Auditor Eugene DePasquale also lives here, but it’s unclear he could be coaxed away from a statewide perch to run in a Republican-leaning congressional district. Meanwhile, Representative Scott Perry is a conspiracy nut who may not be the best Republican for a narrowly divided district. Democratic recruitment here bears watching.
11th District (Lancaster)
2016: Clinton 35–Trump 61
2012: Obama 38–Romney 61
2008: Obama 42–McCain 57
Let’s see what I wrote about this seat a month ago:
Pennsylvania’s 15th District, along with the Sixth and Seventh, would likely be better for Democrats under a fairer map—that’s because under that map, they’d all take chunks out of what’s now the 16th District. Lancaster County (most of which is in the 16th) is heavily Republican and belongs with other parts of Pennsylvania on the periphery of greater Philadelphia in Berks County. So if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court comes to its senses, you can take this seat off the board.
Well, Lancaster was put in with York instead of Berks but other than that I nailed it—the seats comprising the bulk of the old 15th, Sixth, and Seventh all got more Democratic at the expense of the Lancaster-based seat, which is now virtually unwinnable for Democrats. You’re free to continue supporting challengers Christina Hartman and Jess King, but all you’re getting out of that is a serotonin rush instead of actually helping a candidate who can win someplace else.
12th District (Rural Northern Pennsylvania)
2016: Clinton 30–Trump 66
2012: Obama 37–Romney 61
2008: Obama 42–McCain 57
Representative Tom Marino is a garbage person, but he’d be nigh-impossible to dislodge even in a spectacular year for Democrats.
13th District (South Central Pennsylvania)
2016: Clinton 26–Trump 71
2012: Obama 32–Romney 67
2008: Obama 37–McCain 62
All the action in this open seat will come in the Republican primary. And State Senator John Eichelberger became a big favorite in that primary as his biggest rival, State House Majority Leader Dave Reed, had his home drawn out of the seat. As noted above State Representative Stephen Bloom could run here, but Eichelberger would still be the favorite to be the next congressman from this area.
14th District (Mon Valley)
2016: Clinton 34–Trump 63
2012: Obama 40–Romney 58
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54
OK, get ready for some House of Cards shit. As you’re probably aware, Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb are competing in a special election two weeks from now for the unfinished term of Representative Tim Murphy under the old lines. Saccone has a slim lead even though it’s a heavily GOP district and his campaign has left many Republicans uninspired.
So, say Saccone wins. Does he become the favorite for the new 14th District, which is even more Republican than the current 18th? Not really. For starters, he lives outside its borders in the heavily Democratic Pittsburgh-based seat. And he’s only the Republican nominee because he won an insider-dominated convention where State Senator Kim Ward threw her delegates to him over her rival Guy Reschenthaler, who would’ve been a stronger general election candidate. Anyway, guess whose home is inside the new 14th while Saccone’s and Reschenthaler’s isn’t? That’s right, State Senator Kim Ward! I suspect she’d be the favorite for the GOP nomination here regardless of who wins the special election.
And if Lamb wins? His home was drawn into the new 17th so he wouldn’t run here again. But you know who might actually make this seat competitive for Democrats? Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli, a pro-life, pro-gun former Miss Pennsylvania who lost to Lamb in the Democrats’ convention. The party still routinely wins downballot in this area so she has a chance. Think of the area as an extension of nearby West Virginia—Democrats won’t win it when running for president but the people here still vote for Joe Manchin types.
15th District (Central Pennsylvania)
2016: Clinton 27–Trump 70
2012: Obama 36–Romney 63
2008: Obama 43–McCain 56
Republican Glenn Thompson represented a safe seat before and will represent a safe seat again. The only thing that changes is the district number.
16th District (Northwest Pennsylvania)
2016: Clinton 38–Trump 58
2012: Obama 47–Romney 52
2008: Obama 50–McCain 49
Democrats shouldn’t be writing off any districts that Obama won. And the 16th is remarkably similar to the previous iteration of the Third, which Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper represented for one term. Dahlkemper would need to run up big margins in Erie to win here, but she only barely won re-election in 2017. So Democrats may cast about elsewhere for a candidate.
17th District (Pittsburgh Suburbs)
2016: Clinton 47–Trump 49
2012: Obama 47–Romney 52
2008: Obama 49–McCain 51
The toplines in this district appear stable but that’s because this district is a mix of Democratic-trending white-collar suburbs and Republican-trending blue collar suburbs. So this is a volatile seat that really would be up for grabs. It takes in the home of Representative Keith Rothfus, who was never a highly regarded candidate but was aided by gerrymandering in his surprising 2012 win over Democratic Representative Mark Critz and hasn’t had to run a competitive race since. Perhaps Democrats can make issue of the fact that he worked for FEMA under George W. Bush (how did he ever get any job after that, let alone one as congressman?). Win or lose in two weeks, Conor Lamb would start out as the favorite for the Democratic nomination but he could be vulnerable to a challenge from his left because he’s afraid of the NRA (which no Democrat should be).
18th District (Pittsburgh)
2016: Clinton 62–Trump 35
2012: Obama 64–Romney 35
2008: Obama 63–McCain 36
This consistently Democratic district shouldn’t be any trouble for Representative Mike Doyle to hang onto.
And that’s where the races are. But considering the map was handed down yesterday afternoon a lot of these races are still developing. Stay tuned to House Party as every week we monitor developments across the country, which includes the now more democratic (and more Democratic) Keystone State.
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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here, and his DMs are open.