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Once Again, Pennsylvania to Be House Battleground

And then there were nine.

In Pennsylvania’s recently vacated 5th district seat, no fewer than nine Republicans and three Democrats filed to run for the seat of Rep. John Peterson (R).

With the passing of the Pennsylvania filing deadline last week, crowded primaries in both parties are beginning to take shape in the battleground state. But it’s going to be a short race for many of the candidates: The April 22 primary is just nine weeks away.

According to one GOP insider, Centre County Republican Party Chairman G.T. Thompson, businessman Derek Walker and hotel developer Matt Shaner are considered frontrunners in the race to replace Peterson. Shaner and Walker have the ability to self-fund their campaigns, though Thompson could have the better organization in Centre County, the most populous part of the district.

“What he lacks in money, he’s probably making up in his ground game,” said the Keystone State GOP insider.

Other Republicans, including former Centre County Commissioner Chris Exarchos, Elk County Coroner Lou Radkowski and businessman Jeff Stroehmann, also filed to run in the large rural district that spans 16 counties.

For the Democrats, Lock Haven Mayor Rick Vilello Jr., Iraq War veteran and former Washington, D.C., newspaper correspondent Bill Cahir and Clearfield County Commissioner Mark McCracken filed for the primary; however, the seat is likely a safe bet for Republicans.

Just like the 5th district primary on both sides of the aisle, the 3rd and 18th district Democratic primaries also show no clear frontrunner — though Democratic prospects for upsets are better in those districts.

Although GOP Reps. Phil English and Tim Murphy have held onto their seats for seven and three terms, respectively, the marginal GOP bend in their districts and the fact that neither has had a tough race in a while gives Democrats hope of mounting a solid challenge.

For the 3rd district, centered in Erie, national Democrats were initially high on City Councilor Kyle Foust, but his meager fundraising has created skeptics. In fact, the candidate who raised the most cash so far, not including self-funding, is church activist Mike Waltner.

Waltner is followed on the financial front by businesswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, a newcomer to the race, and attorney Tom Myers, who both put some of their own funds into their campaigns. Nonetheless, through Dec. 31 no Democrat in the 3rd district had taken in more than $155,000 this cycle — including the self-funders.

That’s peanuts compared with the $238,000 businessman Steve O’Donnell put into his campaign for the 18th district Democratic primary.

Initially, Democrats were pumping consultant Beth Hafer for Murphy’s seat, but lackluster fundraising again dampened their hopes. Hafer’s last name, which she shares with her mother, a former longtime statewide official, could make up for her lack of funds in the primary. Army Veteran Brien Wall also filed for the seat.

The passing of the filing deadline also filled critical holes on the ballot in the Keystone State — and still other districts were left wide open.

Notably, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) might be getting a pass this cycle as Democratic recruitment efforts in the district yielded no top-tier challenger.

Businessman Mike Leibowitz, activist Bob Roggio and former state Sen. Bob Rovner filed for the Democratic primary, but none of them is considered someone who could give Gerlach a run for his money. The three-term Gerlach barely held onto his district in his past two races against attorney Lois Murphy (D).

“I think it’s one of the big Congressional surprises of the year,” Pennsylvania Republican Party spokesman Michael Barley said. “Jim Gerlach had to be one of the top five targeted races and they couldn’t field a good candidate against him.”

But Democrats still insist Gerlach is vulnerable.

“Jim Gerlach has never won 52 percent in any election for Congress and as he ties himself tighter and tighter to George Bush’s sinking ship, 2008 will be a tough re-election for him,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Carrie James.

Similarly, the Democrats have no strong candidates to challenge Rep. Charlie Dent (R) in the 15th district, one of eight districts in the country that still have Republican Congressmen even though they were carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 White House election.

But as some political operatives in the state point out, the recruiting woe for Democrats in the 6th and 15th districts is akin to the problems facing Republicans in the 7th district against freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D).

Sestak’s fundraising has been unstoppable, and he had $1.7 million in his war chest at the end of 2007. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Williams (R) has filed to run against him.

Aside from the 7th district, however, Republicans have found quality recruits against one Democrat who stole a seat away from them in 2006. Republicans recruited retired Marine Col. Tom Manion to run against another 2006 Democratic freshman, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D).

And in a major coup for Republicans, Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta (R) has decided to wage his second bid against Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D). A candidate known for enacting popular anti-immigration policies in his town, if any Republican can give Kanjorski a race, it’s Barletta.

“That’s a style versus substance race,” said Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant Mark Nevins. “If you want a Congressman who wants flashy news headlines and shows up on Fox News all the time, Barletta is your guy. If you want a Congressman who brings home the bacon, it’s Kanjorski.”

In the nearby 10th district, the Republican field once again thinned last week. Small-business owner Paul Swiderski dropped out of the race and endorsed businessman Chris Hackett.

Like Hackett, businessman Dan Meuser is also running and has shown he’s willing to commit his own funds to the race. Optometrist Davis Haire (R) is also running.

Republicans see challengers such as Hackett and Meuser as prime recruits in the effort to win back seats in the state. They’re also high on former Rep. Melissa Hart (R), who is trying to win her seat back from the man who defeated her in 2006, now-Rep. Jason Altmire (D).

“The DCCC’s woeful recruitment efforts have left the door wide open for what promises to be a Republican offensive in the Keystone State,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “Democrats like Chris Carney, Jason Altmire, Paul Kanjorski and Patrick Murphy are now exposed and vulnerable to significant challenges on their records of tax hikes, runaway spending and broken borders. It is going to be an unpleasant fall for them.”

Democrats concede that they are playing defense in Pennsylvania after picking up four seats in 2006.

“It’s protecting the castle,” Nevins said. “Congressional Democrats gained a nice strong foothold in 2006 with Altmire, Carney, Sestak and Murphy. They really built a strong fortress in 2006. … It’s nice to be fighting from the top of the hill rather than battling uphill.”

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