Eastern Pennsylvania contains a wide variety of communities, from blue-collar coal-mining towns to wealthy suburbs. Numerous wider national trends are in play here, such as increased liberal sentiments among suburban voters, Democrats’ ability to appeal to white, working-class voters, and the Tea Party’s ability to win over swing voters. Of course, these issues will take a back seat to local concerns, particularly in several open districts. Paradoxically, many of these districts are closely divided, but have re-elected incumbents long enough for them to become influential; if this year’s winners follow in their footsteps, the 2010 election could influence the General Assembly for years to come.
Note: Fundraising totals are the total funds available as of May; when a candidate has more than one committee, the number given is the net total of the committees. Source for 2008 House vote here. Incumbents marked with an asterisk. Percentages for winning Presidential candidates are of the two-party vote and are approximate due to some municipalities being split among more than one district. County row offices exclude jury commissioners.
107th District (Columbia, Montour, and Northumberland Counties: Danville, Mt. Carmel, Shamokin)
- George Zalar (D) vs. Kurt Masser (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: House: D unopposed, McCain (53.3%)
- Fundraising: Zalar $44,258; Masser $7,651
- County row offices: Columbia: 7R-5D, Montour: 7R-5D, Northumberland: 5R-5D
This district stretches from the coal-mining areas of Shamokin and Mount Carmel into the Interstate 80 corridor, and is traditionally Democratic but socially conservative. With the long-term decline of the anthracite coal industry and the current recession, both candidates will spend much of their time discussing job creation, with Masser touting his small business experience and Zalar relying on union support.
122nd District (Carbon County: Jim Thorpe, Lehighton)
- Justin Yaich (D) vs. Doyle Heffley (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: House: 64%D-36%R, Obama (51.0%)
- Fundraising: Yaich $6,535; Heffley $7,751
- County row offices: 11D-1R
When Republicans defeated then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) in 1994, and when Democrats took the seat of former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in a 2007 special election, the victories highlighted partisan shifts in Congress. Doyle Heffley is trying to pull a similar feat at the state level by taking the seat of retiring state House Speaker Keith McCall. McCall and his father, Thomas, have held the seat since 1975, but Carbon County, at the junction of the anthracite coal region and the Allentown/Bethlehem area, has been a battleground in recent elections, voting narrowly for Gore, Bush, and Obama.
125th District (Berks and Schuylkill Counties: Tower City, Pine Grove, Schuylkill Haven)
- Tim Seip* (D) vs. Mike Tobash (R)
- 2008 results: House: 56%D-44%R, McCain (57.9%)
- Fundraising: Seip $26,762; Tobash $11,135
- County row offices: Berks: 8R-4D, Schuylkill: 9D-3R
Like a certain other Schuylkill County Democrat named Tim, Rep. Seip hopes that a moderate reputation and personal popularity will carry him in a district that, on paper, Democrats have no business winning. The district is heavily rural and does not include much of the mining-dependent (and therefore more unionized and Democratic) areas of central and northern Schuylkill County, so winning for Seip will not come as easily as it did in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008.
128th District (Berks County: Wyomissing, Morgantown, Shillington)
- Bryan Boughter (D) vs. Mark Gillen (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: House: 52%R-48%D, McCain (50.6%)
- Fundraising: Boughter $2,677, Gillen $1,608
- County row offices: 8R-4D
Tea party icon Sam Rohrer is retiring from the state House, giving the Democrats an opportunity in a district they almost won in 2008. In some ways, Gillen is claiming Rohrer’s mantle: he advocates efforts to assert state power under the Tenth Amendment and shrink the state government, while Boughter is running a more conventional platform focused on education and the environment. Gillen has walked the walk in this regard: as Berks County jury commissioner, he abolished the post of jury commissioner.
131st District (Lehigh and Northampton Counties: Seidersville, Center Valley, part of Allentown)
- Mike Horton (D) vs. Justin Simmons (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: R unopposed, Obama (57.5%)
- Fundraising: Horton $14,360, Simmons $14,337
- County row offices: Lehigh 8D-7R, Northampton 8D-4R
If the tea parties are going to hurt Republicans as much as Democrats hope they will, this district will be ground zero. Republicans tossed out incumbent Karen Beyer in favor of 24-year-old challenger Justin Simmons, making the suburban Lehigh Valley district the only one in the state to reject an incumbent in a primary this year. Democrat Mike Horton has an impressive background as a former Army officer and corporate executive (he even links to Simmons’s website on his own site, inviting voters to compare their experience). Still, anyone who turns out a three-term incumbent in a primary can’t be dismissed out of hand.
137th District (Northampton County: Bangor, Nazareth)
- Charles Dertinger (D) vs. Joe Emrick (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: D unopposed, Obama (51.6%)
- Fundraising: Dertinger $19,603, Emrick $4,209
- County row offices: 8D-4R
This has the potential to be a closely-fought race, as an open seat in a politically moderate area. Both candidates are local officials- Dertinger a county councilman, Emrick a township supervisor- who will be appealing to middle-class voters. Dertinger touts his blue-collar background as an electrician and support from organized labor, while Emrick points to his record at cutting taxes. Since GOP U. S. Senate candidate Pat Toomey was a congressman from the Lehigh Valley, Republican turnout might be higher here than usual.
161st District (Delaware County: Swarthmore, Rutledge)
- Walter Waite (D) vs. Joe Hackett (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: 55%D-45%R, Obama (61.1%)
- Fundraising: Waite $4,254, Hackett $15,934
- County row offices: 9R
Two outsiders are running in the district being vacated by Rep. Bryan Lentz to run for Congress: Walter Waite, a retired property manager and Navy veteran, and Joe Hackett, a longtime police officer. Delaware County is becoming cobalt blue in national and statewide elections (Gov. Ed Rendell’s background as mayor of neighboring Philadelphia helps), but Republicans are still influential at the local level. With Lentz running for Congress and local congressman Joe Sestak running for the Senate, Waite may receive some help from the top of the ticket.
164th District (Delaware County: Drexel Hill, Millbourne)
- Margo Davidson (D) vs. Maureen Carey (R) (open seat)
- 2008 results: R unopposed, Obama (64.1%)
- Fundraising: Davidson $4,897, Carey $35,315
- County row offices: 9R
When a party does well in off-year elections, it usually bodes well for its future. When Mario Civera was elected to the Delaware County Council, he opened up a seat that is so close to Philadelphia, it’s mildly surprising that it hasn’t already gone Democratic (In a way, it has; Civera was the nominee of both parties in 2008). In fact, the GOP maneuvered to prevent a special election that might have gone to a Democrat. All might not be lost for the Republicans, though: Maureen Carey, a school board member and research biologist, leads Margo Davidson, an entrepreneur, radio host, and ordained minister, in fundraising.
172nd District (Philadelphia County: Northeast Philadelphia)
- John Perzel* (R) vs. Kevin Boyle (D)
- 2008 results: 66%R-34%D, Obama (55.6%)
- Fundraising: Perzel $249,409, Boyle $49,802
- City offices: 16D, 3R
John Perzel is in trouble again. This time, the former Speaker of the House has been indicted in the Bonusgate scandal. For most elected officials, this would be a political death sentence, but Perzel has survived Democratic waves, other scandals, and the infamous pay raise (not to mention his own ill-advised comments on the topic), and may very well survive this. Perzel has managed to hang on based on his clout in the legislature, the moderate nature of the area (McCain received 44% of the vote here, an Oklahoma-like number by Philadelphia standards), and his fundraising. Kevin Boyle, a legislative director for City Councilman Bill Greenlee, must hope that voter’s patience with him has finally run out.
Part IV, covering central and western Pennsylvania, will be tomorrow. If you have any more information on these races, or would like to make a case for a district not on this list, email me at [email protected]