PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Within days of each other, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Bob Casey will visit Western Pennsylvania to fundraise for their respective parties' candidates in the special election in the 18th congressional seat formerly held by Republican congressman Tim Murphy.
That March 13 contest between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb may be the last election held with that congressional map. In fact, unless somehow the state Supreme Court's ruling on the map is somehow overturned, Saccone and Lamb could be running in a district already abolished by a new map.
Pennsylvania's Supreme Court in a 4-to-3 decision Jan. 22 ordered the Republican controlled state legislature to redraw the lines in the entire state in 17 days — an absurd timeline by any measure. To complicate matters, the Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has veto power over any map drawn by the state legislature.
If legislators and Wolf cannot come to agreement over the maps, the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court will then draw the districts themselves.
Any way you look at it, Democrats appear have the upper hand in what the new Pennsylvania congressional delegation looks like. Currently, Republicans hold 13 of the 18 house seats.
Republicans were already going into the 2018 midterms on shaky ground. Murphy had to resign his seat in October, after getting caught in an extramarital affair that alleged he urged his mistress to have an abortion (Murphy identified as pro-life). This tarnished the GOP image in the state and forced a special election Democrats could win.
Pennsylvania Republicans were already losing three congressmen to retirement: transportation chair Bill Shuster and appropriations subcommittee chair Charlie Dent are both leaving as their chairmanships expire, with Lou Barletta giving up his House seat to challenge Casey for that Senate seat.
Then came Rep. Pat Meehan’s personal problems — he was booted off the congressional ethics panel after the New York Times reported a harassment case he settled. That puts Meehan's Delaware County at greater risk.
Congressional districts redrawn by Democrats could give Democrats a chance to win back seven to ten seats in Pennsylvania, a scenario that makes it much easier for the Democrats to retake the majority in lower chamber.
“This ruling gives Democrats a major boost. Under almost any scenario ... I see Democrats gaining 3 to 4 seats across the Commonwealth,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who ran a PAC, called Campaign for a Fresh Start, that supported Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign in 2014.
Mikus said, “Barring a stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, national Democrats just saw the odds of a Democratic majority come November increase dramatically.”
Local and national Republicans admit they are nervous.
Yet, Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says not-so-fast on the dramatic predictions about this court ruling.
“I am skeptical that this is the windfall some are predicting for the Democrats' fortunes,” said Kondik.
“We really don’t know what the districts will ultimately look like," Kondik explained. One of the judges' orders was that a new map not split counties unnecessarily. "If, as they argued, individual counties cannot be split in a new redrawing," Kondik says, "I could see a scenario where the 17th congressional district held by Democrat Matt Cartwright could become more Republican.” That's the Scranton district where Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by 11.7 percentage points.
The 17th congressional district was drawn specifically to favor the Democrats, but the sentiments of the voters have changed. The first year Cartwright won, in 2012, he won the seat by 20 percentage points over his Republican challenger; since then, his wins have weakened — by 2016, his margin of victory over an underfunded challenger was 7 percentage points.
Kondik also sees advantages for incumbent Republicans Ryan Costello and Keith Rothfus of West Chester and suburban Pittsburgh if preserving the non-split counties ruling holds, “Where I see Republicans getting squeezed in Delaware County in the Meehan seat,” he said.
“It’s also possible Democrats could have done better under the old map if there is a wave, in the way the Republican-drawn map of 2006 fell in the Democratic wave election cycle of that midterm election cycle,” he said.
Late Tuesday, Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai applied for a stay to halt order saying the ruling throws the upcoming elections into chaos, and “poses a profound threat to the integrity of Pennsylvania’s upcoming Congressional elections,” it read.
It is highly likely that the state Supreme Court will deny their request, but it is a necessary procedure before Republicans can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to mediate.
The biggest lesson here is obvious: All elections are local, and all elections have consequences.
In the 2015 off-year judicial election cycle, Republicans suffered a substantial electoral setback when Democrats swept the statewide races for Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, the Superior Court, and the Commonwealth Court.
“Bluntly, the Republicans got the living crap kicked out of them in that campaign year,” said one Harrisburg based Republican strategist, “The Democrats recognized the stakes, knew that the only way they were going to regain the majority was through the courts, because they kept losing down ballot. And they out-smarted them, out-foxed them, out-witted them, out-ran them on every level,” he said of that election cycle.
“Hopefully, this is a wake-up call; you just cannot take your eye off the ball,” he said.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.