Rep. Christopher Carney (D) started this election cycle with a big red GOP target on his back.
And with good reason, too. The northeastern Pennsylvania district he represents voted Republicans to Congress for decades until Carney defeated a Member with a personal scandal by a 6-point margin in 2006. This fall, Carney faces wealthy businessman Chris Hackett (R), whose willingness to put his own funds into the race is a critical help as paltry fundraising plagues the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But with three months until the general election, it appears the 10th district might not even be the GOPs No. 1 target in the state anymore. While the race is still considered to be highly competitive, changing demographics in the district and other emerging competitive races in the region might be stealing the spotlight from the northeastern Pennsylvania hot seat.
I can tell you that Carney is in better shape than in the beginning of the year, said a Republican operative in the Keystone State.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committees independent expenditure arm ran its first advertisements in the country this month in the 11th district directly south of Carneys seat though the committee has reserved airtime this fall in Carneys district.
Matthew Brann, the Northeast Caucus chairman for the state Republicans, said he viewed both Carney and Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D), who faces Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta (R) in the 11th district, as equally beatable.
I think theyre probably equally vulnerable in different ways, Brann said.
Brann said both Democrats have very different challenges and represent different districts: Whereas Kanjorskis biggest challenge this cycle might be convincing voters of his integrity, Carneys biggest challenge remains the demographics of his GOP-leaning district.
On Monday, Carneys campaign went up with its own first advertisement of the general election a positive spot that does not mention the Congressmans party affiliation. Carneys campaign aides said they would stay on the air until Election Day.
Hackett spokesman Mark Harris said Carneys first ad was proof that the Republicans campaign was effective.
Thats part of the reason Carney felt he needed to go up early to try to change the frame of how the campaign was going so far, Harris said.
National Republicans maintain that the 10th district remains one of the strongest pickup opportunities in the country and see Carney as one the top five most vulnerable Democratic House Members of the cycle. Republicans also point out that the district has some of the worst partisan numbers for Democrats in the country, second only to Rep. Nick Lampsons (D-Texas) district that voted for President Bush with 64 percent in 2004. Carneys district gave Bush 60 percent.
However, many Democrats and even some Republicans argue that the district has changed significantly over the past four years. According to a tally by Carneys campaign from after the April 22 primary, Democrats now make up 40.5 percent of district voters, compared with 48.8 percent registered as Republicans and 10.7 percent who are unaffiliated.
Carney campaign manager Vincent Rongione said the campaign would not ask the DCCC or other third parties to stay out of the district a request that other top vulnerable Democrats such as freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (Kan.) have made.
We really do not have any position on it, Rongione said. Third parties are free to do what they will and play in the race.
But Rongione also said that Carney would not attend the Democratic National Convention this August because he will most likely be completing his annual two weeks of active duty in the Navy Reserve. Harris said the Republican did not have plans to attend the Republican National Convention either, but maintained Carney was absolutely still the most vulnerable Democrat in the state.
Look, I certainly hope that Barletta is successful, and theyve run a good campaign so far, Harris said. But youre looking at some pretty bad party demographics [for Republicans] in that district. … But I think our district, our voters and our candidate are perfectly matched for victory come Nov. 4.
Another perfect match, Republicans said, for the district is the presumptive GOP nominee for president, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). McCains ability to seal the deal with independent voters is such an advantage for the district, one Republican questioned why Hackett was not running a campaign similar to that of the Arizona Senator.
I would expect whoever won [the GOP primary], whether it was Dan Meuser or Chris Hackett, to run as John McCain Jr., and that doesnt seem to be happening, said the Pennsylvania Republican operative, who did not want to be named. Hackett is more like the Cato Institute policy book with two feet.
Hackett, however, was the master of ceremonies at a town hall for McCain last week in Wilkes-Barre, which is in Kanjorskis 11th district, but just across the river from the 10th district. Barletta did not attend the event, citing a scheduling conflict.
Meanwhile, Democrats charged that the venue for the McCain town hall, the 1,800-seat Kirby Center, was more than half-empty, with about 800 filled seats.
There were folks up there on a Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., Harris said. I was pleased with the turnout, to be honest.