The Pennsylvania Blues

Democratic Prospects Lag in Two Swing Seats

Posted April 15, 2008 at 6:33pm

Looking at the numbers, Republican Reps. Phil English and Tim Murphy’s western Pennsylvania districts should be competitive for Democrats.

English defeated his little-known 2006 Democratic opponent with 54 percent of the vote, despite outspending him sixfold. Murphy got 58 percent in 2006, while spending 18 times as much as his Democratic challenger. And President Bush carried the 3rd and 18th districts with 53 percent and 54 percent, respectively, in 2004.

But looking at some other numbers, like the number of Democratic candidates in each race and their lackluster fundraising, it seems both elections are not as competitive as Democrats might hope. And with the April 22 primary looming, it’s clear

there is not a frontrunner or breakout candidate in either field.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has met with several candidates from both districts and sees the crowded fields as evidence that there’s enough local interest to defeat both incumbents.

“From Congressman Murphy’s ethical baggage to Congressman English’s support of shipping American jobs overseas, it’s clear that Pennsylvania families need new leaders more in line with the district, rather than in line with President Bush,” DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James said.

In the industrial northwestern Pennsylvania 3rd district, four Democrats are running for the nomination: Erie City Councilman Kyle Foust, businesswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, attorney Tom Myers and church worker Mike Waltner.

Foust was national Democrats’ preferred candidate early on in the cycle, but his abhorrent fundraising track record — $115,300 since he filed his candidacy in July 2007 — dampened hopes. But as the only elected official in the race, Foust enjoys a name identification advantage that his opponents don’t have and are spending to get.

Dahlkemper and Myers have put their own money in their campaigns but still come up short compared to what’s expected for challengers in other targeted districts. Through April 2, Dahlkemper raised $212,223, of which $6,300 was her own money, while Myers raised $238,300 — $26,000 from his own pocket. Waltner also put together more cash than Foust, raising $155,700 up until the April 2 pre-primary reporting deadline.

Those numbers, none of which amount to enough to wage a permeable television campaign in a market shared with an intense Democratic presidential contest, are just part of the reason that there is no breakout candidate in the district, according to Bob Holste, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to English.

Holste said that while sometimes a primary can help a challenger break away from the pack and build name identification, that’s not the case in the 3rd district Democratic race.

“You can envision a situation where a primary helps people,” he said. “This isn’t that case because they’re not raising enough money to move enough weight of message to get their names out there.”

What’s more, all four Democrats are focusing on their mutual home of Erie County. And while Erie might be the most populous county in the district, the area sprawls south to the second most populous, Butler County — which is also in the expensive Pittsburgh media market.

Also in the expensive Pittsburgh media market, three Democrats are running for the nomination in the suburban 18th district. Democrats have seen Murphy as vulnerable in part because the three-term Republican has never had a tough race. However, Democrats have been unable to recruit a top-tier candidate, leaving businessman Steve O’Donnell, consultant Beth Hafer and Iraq War veteran Brien Wall in the race.

With less than a week before the primary, local observers see this as a race between O’Donnell, who has put six figures of his own money into his own campaign, and Hafer, who has some name recognition because of her mother, a former statewide official.

“Probably the clearest sign that they didn’t aggressively recruit is how many candidates there are in the primary,” said Republican consultant John Brabender, who works for Murphy.

But Brabender and others see this race coming down to a two-person field, with Hafer and O’Donnell at the front. O’Donnell has the resources, putting in $263,400 of his own money out of a total $294,000 raised. Hafer raised $149,000 since she filed her candidacy in July 2007, while Wall raised $39,400 through April 2.

O’Donnell has also received the Allegheny County Democratic Party endorsement, the second largest of its kind in the state. That endorsement, according to the organization’s chairman Jim Burn, went to O’Donnell because after watching him compete in forums with Wall and Hafer, local Democrats believe he has the best chance of defeating Murphy in November.

“Many people at these forums walked away extremely impressed with how Mr. O’Donnell answered these questions,” Burn said.

But there’s another dynamic in play in the 18th: the highly publicized Democratic presidential contest, which will bring many new voters to the polls Tuesday. These people, Brabender said, are not as familiar with the Congressional candidates and might vote for Hafer because they recognize her mother’s last name.

Regardless of the winner of Tuesday’s primaries, however, national Republicans don’t see Murphy or English at risk for re-election.

“While the Democrats battle it out in the primary, Representative English and Representative Tim Murphy will continue to effectively and independently serve their districts,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley. “Picking up these districts is a Democrat pipe dream. The Democrat candidates have raised little money and are coming out of a bruising primary.”