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Pennsylvania primaries to set matchups in House battlegrounds

Both parties eye opportunities to pick up House seats in the Keystone State

Six Republicans are running in the Pennsylvania primary for the nomination to face Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright in November.
Six Republicans are running in the Pennsylvania primary for the nomination to face Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Pennsylvania will be a crucial battleground in the presidential race, and it will also host a handful of competitive House races this year, including some Republicans consider critical to them winning back the House. 

Republicans need a net gain of 17 seats to retake the chamber and they’re hoping to get some of them in the Keystone State, where Democrats are defending two districts that President Donald Trump won and one that he narrowly lost in 2016. But Republicans are also on defense, with Democrats targeting three GOP seats.

Since the primaries were postponed from April 28 to Tuesday due to the coronavirus pandemic, the contests have been fairly quiet. The House primaries haven’t attracted much outside spending or involvement, aside from Trump endorsing two candidates over the weekend. 

But the races could pick up once the matchups are set. Outside groups involved in House races have already reserved more than $18 million in airtime for the fall in Pennsylvania’s media markets, with the bulk of those reservations in the Philadelphia market, which also covers competitive races in New Jersey. 

Trump’s picks

Over the weekend, Trump tweeted support for two Pennsylvania Republicans taking on Democratic incumbents: Army veteran Sean Parnell, who is challenging Rep. Conor Lamb in the 17th District; and former Lehigh County Commissioner Lisa Scheller, who is challenging Rep. Susan Wild in the 7th.

Parnell does not face a primary in the 17th District, which includes the Pittsburgh suburbs. Trump would have carried the seat by 2 points had the current congressional map been in place in 2016. The state’s congressional lines were redrawn in 2018 due to a redistricting lawsuit.

After winning a high-profile special election in March 2018, Lamb, a Marine veteran, easily defeated GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus by 13 points in the new 17th District that November. Lamb has a sizable financial advantage this cycle with more than $1 million in his campaign account as of May 13, while Parnell had $384,000. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Democratic.

In the 7th District, which is based in the Lehigh Valley, Scheller is running against Dean Browning, also a former county commissioner, for the GOP nomination. Trump’s endorsement is expected to boost Scheller. She has raised more than $1 million for her campaign, but spent much of it leading up to the primary. Her campaign had $274,000 on hand as of May 13.

Republicans have touted Scheller as a top recruit. She revealed in 2018 that she had previously battled drug and alcohol addiction and opened a coffee shop to help recovering addicts. She has endorsements from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP women’s groups, including VIEW PAC, Winning for Women and E-PAC, which is led by New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Scheller could face a tough race against Wild, who easily won an open-seat race in 2018. Trump would have lost the district by 2 points under the current lines. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Democratic.

No Trump pick in 8th

With his backing likely to boost Parnell and Scheller, Trump notably did not take sides in another race on the GOP battlefield, the six-candidate primary in the 8th District to take on Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright.

Republicans believe Cartwright is vulnerable in the Scranton-based district, which Trump would have won by 10 points in 2016. Cartwright defeated a well-funded challenger in 2018 by 9 points, although Republicans believe having the president at the top of the ticket this year will make the race competitive. But Trump may not carry the area so easily in November, since his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has roots in Scranton.

A Fox News poll of registered Pennsylvania voters in mid-April found Biden leading Trump 50 percent to 42 percent statewide, and 55 percent to 39 percent among suburban voters.

Of the candidates are vying to take on Cartwright, four raised more than $100,000. McCarthy has endorsed Earl Granville, a veteran of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard who lost a leg serving in Afghanistan.

One of the other top candidates, political consultant Jim Bognet, previously worked for the Export-Import Bank as a Trump appointee. The other top fundraisers in the primary include former Hazleton Mayor Mike Marsicano and Army veteran Teddy Daniels.

Inside Elections rates the 8th District race Likely Democratic.

Democratic targets

Democrats are eyeing three opportunities to flip House seats in Pennsylvania, although one may prove more elusive due to recruitment issues.

At first glance, their best opportunity should be the 1st District in suburban Philadelphia, where the incumbent, Brian Fitzpatrick, is one of two Republicans running for reelection in seats Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. But Democrats have struggled with recruitment here.

The top Democratic fundraiser, school board member Debbie Wachspress, dropped out of the race shortly after the filing deadline, amid allegations she used racist and homophobic slurs at a school board meeting. Wachspress denied the allegations but ended her campaign, citing the toll on her family. She endorsed Ivyland Borough councilwoman Christina Finello, who has also been endorsed by the Bucks County Democrats. Finello faces businessman Skylar Hurwitz in the primary.

Fitzpatrick could still face a competitive race given the suburban nature of the district, which Clinton would have won by 2 points. But he has a financial advantage in the pricey Philadelphia media market. As of May 13, his campaign had nearly $1.7 million on hand, compared with $82,000 for Finello and $1,700 for Hurwitz. Inside Elections rates the general election Tilt Republican.

Democrats may have a better shot at GOP Rep. Scott Perry in the 10th District, which includes Harrisburg. Perry is among the most vulnerable House members due to a combination of a bluer redrawn district and a strong Democratic recruit.

State Auditor Eugene DePasquale is running to take on Perry, and Democrats point out that he would have narrowly carried the district in his statewide race in 2016. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added DePasquale to its Red to Blue program for strong challengers.

DePasquale has nearly matched Perry’s fundraising, with $703,000 in the bank to Perry’s $723,000 as of May 13. But to take on Perry, DePasquale first has to defeat lawyer Tom Brier in the primary. Both candidates have launched TV ads. Inside Elections rates the 10th District race Tilt Republican.

The DCCC also listed GOP Rep. Mike Kelly on its initial 2020 target list after he faced a closer-than-expected 2018 contest. Kelly won reelection by 4 points in the new 16th District district, which Trump would have won by 20 points.

Teacher Kristy Gnibus, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. She had just $19,000 in her campaign account as of May 13, while Kelly had $966,000. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.

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