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Pennsylvania Could Be Key Steppingstone in GOP’s Revival

After losing a total of five House seats in Pennsylvania over the past two cycles, a string of recent recruiting successes has boosted GOP prospects for regaining some of that lost territory in 2010.

According to several sources familiar with their decisions, former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick and former U.S. Attorney Thomas Marino are poised to announce campaigns against Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire, Patrick Murphy and Christopher Carney, respectively.

What’s more, state Sen. Dave Argall (R) said Monday that he will challenge Rep. Tim Holden (D) in his conservative central Pennsylvania district, a move that is expected to give the Congressman his most competitive race in six years.

Republicans were also buoyed last week when Rep. Jim Gerlach announced that he would drop out of the gubernatorial race and run for re-election instead, thereby increasing GOP chances of holding his competitive suburban Philadelphia seat.

“We could have a half a dozen competitive races in Pennsylvania, which is very rare,— Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist Charlie Gerow said. “I don’t think there are too many states who can have the claim.—

In the last few months of 2009, Republicans could only point to strong recruits in two Congressional districts in the Keystone State: former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan’s (R) bid to win the 7th district open seat and Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta’s (R) challenge to longtime Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D).

But within the next few weeks, Republicans could have strong candidates in six Democratic-held seats.

Jack Hanna, the southwest caucus chairman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said he’s not surprised Republicans are jumping into campaigns these days because of the favorable political climate, but he added that he was hopeful the national mood would change by November.

“It is cause for concern,— Hanna said. “If the Democratic Party doesn’t pay attention to these kinds of things, they’re making a mistake.—

Part of the reason that many Pennsylvania Republicans are choosing to take the political plunge now is because the GOP’s statewide ticket has become increasingly competitive over the past few months. Just last year, Republicans were facing competitive primary battles in both the Senate and gubernatorial races.

But by the beginning of this year, those races had cleared and two former gubernatorial candidates — Meehan and Gerlach — were running for Congress. Republicans also skirted a bloodbath when Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties, clearing the way for former Rep. Pat Toomey to be the GOP’s Senate standard-bearer.

Now it is Democrats who are facing the most problematic primaries this year, with Specter being challenged by Rep. Joe Sestak and several candidates running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Republican consultant John Brabender, who works for several GOP candidates running in Pennsylvania, said the strength of the top of the GOP ticket in 2010 was an encouraging factor for many candidates downballot. Attorney General Tom Corbett, now the Republican gubernatorial frontrunner, is ahead of all of his four possible Democratic opponents, according to early public polling.

“There’s been three statewide polls on the governor’s race, and all of them have the Republican beating the Democrat,— Brabender said. “People know there’s something environmentally going on.—

Even the Senate race, where some senior Republicans initially questioned Toomey’s general election viability, has become competitive according to recent polling.

“The Senate race will be tight,— Brabender said. “Early on, a lot of people thought this race was off the table. They were wrong.—

It might also be no coincidence that three of the Republican House candidates either already running or about to announce — Meehan, Marino and Buchanan — are former U.S. attorneys who served together. Several Keystone State Republicans noted that perhaps these three candidates are following in the path of Corbett, who made headlines in Pennsylvania for prosecuting a political corruption scandal that rocked the state capital. But other Republicans hypothesized that perhaps candidates were picking up cues from nearby New Jersey, where Gov.-elect Chris Christie (R) won in 2009 running on his career as a former U.S. attorney.

In fact, Christie hosted a fundraiser for Meehan that brought in about $250,000 for his campaign last year, according to organizers.

But while Republicans might soon be able to boast strong candidates in six House races in the state, there remains at least one gaping hole in their recruiting map: Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) has yet to attract a top-flight candidate.

Businessman Paul Huber (R) is in the race, and former Butler City Councilman Mike Kelly (R) is expected to announce a bid as well — although neither has been touted as a potential top recruit.

Meanwhile, Democrats scored a recruitment coup by getting Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) to run against Rep. Charlie Dent (R). Callahan resisted national Democrats’ overtures to run against Dent in previous cycles and has so far posted impressive fundraising in his campaign for the competitive Lehigh Valley 15th district seat.

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