POLITICS
01/12/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2014

Local Races Could Swing Congress

Tom Williams via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- In the Philadelphia suburbs, where congressional incumbents swept to victory in 2012, change is coming.

Three of the area's members of Congress have decided not to seek reelection, setting off furious maneuvering as rising politicians vie to become the region's new faces in Washington.

While change is assured, the big question is whether the movement will alter the balance of power in Congress, where Democrats need to gain 17 seats to take control of the House.

Allyson Schwartz's Montgomery County-based seat is likely to stay Democratic as she runs for governor. Her district is deep blue.

But the exits of Republican incumbents Jim Gerlach of Chester County, who announced Monday that he won't run again, and Jon Runyan, of South Jersey, have opened the door to Democrats hoping to gain ground after they were stymied two years ago in the region's swing districts.

"You've just taken the single biggest predictor of a candidate's success off the board, and that's their incumbency," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

Runyan's seat, in a district President Obama won in 2012, was sure to be a Democratic target. But Gerlach's, which runs from the suburbs to rural Berks County and was considered safely Republican, has opened a new front and invited a swarm of politicians hoping to seize the chance.

In two other closely divided districts, Democrats are targeting Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks County and Frank LoBiondo, the 10-term incumbent from the Atlantic City area, setting the stage for four potentially contentious races this fall -- not to mention lively primaries.

With only 45 to 50 House seats seen as even slightly competitive (depending on who does the analysis), the local races could become some of the most closely watched around.

Democrats and Republicans alike say the fights for the open seats, in particular, bear watching.

"This is Politics 101," said T.J. Rooney, Pennsylvania Democrats' former chairman. "Once you remove a sitting incumbent, assuming the seat is remotely competitive . . . it creates great prospects for the out party."

Gerlach had been heavily favored, given his long history of wins and the 2010 redistricting that made the terrain friendlier to the GOP -- Mitt Romney won 51 percent of the vote there, compared with 47 percent statewide.

But with Gerlach off the ballot in a district where partisan identity narrowly favors Republicans, independent analysts now consider it much more competitive.

The challenge for both parties will be settling on candidates without going through a draining primary. Yet, that's what looms on Gerlach's turf, where two high-profile GOP names are mulling a run. The Democrats' field, too, is muddled.

In Runyan's South Jersey district, his fellow Republicans are still favored, given a history of dominance -- along with redistricting.

"You have a district that has clearly moved to be more Republican," said Bill Layton, Burlington County GOP chairman.

But that race, too, is more open without Runyan, and his party may face an internal fight. Conservative firebrand Steve Lonegan, who has built his name running for governor (twice) and U.S. Senate last fall, is planning to move to Runyan's district and has said he will run, even though South Jersey Republican leaders have tried to discourage him.

Democrats are thrilled.

Lonegan, with his conservative credentials and national contact list that includes Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, must be taken seriously in a primary. But mainstream leaders in both parties rate him far too conservative for a moderate district that Obama won twice.

In Bucks, Fitzpatrick represents one of the nation's most narrowly divided districts -- Romney won it by decimal points -- but dispatched his last challenger with ease. In Atlantic County, LoBiondo is trying to hold a district Obama won twice, but he has a long history there.

In Schwartz's district, four Democrats will compete in a primary, with the nominee heavily favored to win in the fall.

Between the various contests and Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race, local airwaves could be saturated, making it harder for new candidates to break through and introduce themselves -- adding to the edge of incumbents.

Operatives in both parties say the confluence of races will amplify the messages that candidate are sure to parrot.

Republicans are already hammering Democrats for Obamacare -- it will "continue to devastate middle-class families," said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the national GOP congressional campaign arm -- while Democrats paint their foes as heartless.Voters will ask, "Who's going to have the back of the middle class?" said Marc Brumer, a spokesman for the Democrats' congressional campaign. "The answer is not the out-of-touch Republicans in Washington."

Still, independent analysts say neither side has enough momentum to build the kind of national wave that ousts incumbents.

Besides, many voters haven't tuned in yet. Of more than a dozen interviewed in Gerlach's district last week, most were unaware of the change that's afoot.

Matt Paster, 42, working in a Collegeville Starbucks, asked, "Gerlach is retiring?"

House Scramble

With three seats open and several seen as competitive, candidates are lining up to run for Congress this year in Philadelphia's suburbs.

The decision by Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) not to seek another term in his Chester County-based seat has set off the latest maneuvering.

Ryan Costello, a Chester County commissioner, is expected to announce this week that he will run. County GOP leader Val DiGiorgio may run, setting up a primary fight. There is talk of a challenge from the right by former State Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County. Also mentioned is state Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County.

Among Democrats, Malvern businessman Michael Parrish is expected to formally announce his run this week. Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards confirmed she is mulling a run, as is physician Manan Trivedi, who twice challenged Gerlach. State Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks has been mentioned, too.

In South Jersey, where the GOP's Jon Runyan has decided against seeking reelection, national Democrats are backing Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard.

Republicans don't want an ugly primary, but conservative Steve Lonegan has vowed to run regardless.

Democrats face a primary fight in Bucks County, as they try to unseat the GOP's Mike Fitzpatrick. Former Army Ranger Kevin Strouse is vying with businesswoman Shaughnessy Naughton.

Hoping to take on GOP incumbent Frank LoBiondo of the Atlantic City area is lawyer Bill Hughes Jr., who has national Democrats' support and whose father held the seat for 20 years. State Sen. Jeff Van Drew is flirting with another run.

- Chris Palmer and Jonathan Tamari

Tamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.inquirer.com/capitellum ___

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