Gerlach opens up competitive House seat for uncertain statewide run

For the second time in one week, a Republican congressman is leaving his vulnerable House seat to seek statewide office. Rep. Jim Gerlach announced that he would run for Pennsylvania’s open gubernatorial race, a blow to the NRCC’s hopes of securing a net pick-up of seats in the 2010 cycle. Along with Anh Cao’s LA-02 and Mark Kirk’s now open IL-10, PA-06 becomes the third GOP-held seat Democrats are favored to pick-up in 2010. (No Dem-held seat is as vulnerable.)

Just like Kirk, Gerlach represents tough territory - IL-10 and PA-06 are two of only six districts that voted for John Kerry in 2004 but that are still represented by Republicans. Both men somehow survived the blue waves of the past two cycles but their situation was simply not tenable and it is not surprising seeing either of them flee their district.

In Gerlach’s case, the 2008 cycle was all the more of a warning sign because of the narrowness of his loss was not unexpected. After two very narrow re-election victories, he thought he was safe since Democrats did not field a top-tier contender; yet, he only ended up surviving by 4%. He must have realized that it was only be a matter of time until a stronger challenger channeled the district’s liberal tilt and ended his political career, so why not jump in a statewide race that looks more winnable than his House district?

Democrats have edge in open seat race

So Kirk and Gerlach’s decisions might make sense, but that’s not going to make the NRCC feel any better. House Republicans now have to defend two districts that voted for Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama - and both did the latter by decisive margins: Obama received 58% in PA-06 and 62% in IL-10. Whatever the national environment, the GOP faces tough odds holding on to either seat.

And yet, we shouldn’t dismiss the GOP’s chances. The party already has a candidate lined up: State Rep. Curt Schroder formed an exploratory committee in expectation of Gerlach’s jump in the gubernatorial race. A member of the state House since 1995, Schroder represents the district Gerlach held in the early 1990s and he is as credible a candidate as Republicans could hope for in such a Dem-trending district.

On the Democratic side, former newspaper columnist Doug Pike looks like the front-runner to win the nomination. He did not seem like he’d have an easy ride when he entered the race but he has proved a strong fundraiser, he’s said he might spend as much as $1 million of his own money and the establishment has rallied around him (I offered a detailed analysis of his candidacy here).

More candidates could get in, but for now we are heading towards a Schroder-Pike general election. Schroder should be competitive, but the district’s fundamentals make Pike the early favorite.

Gerlach is not even guaranteed the Republican nomination

When they learned that Kirk will run for Senate, Republicans could at least celebrate the fact that they suddenly had a shot at Illinois’s Senate race and Kirk made sure that the Republican field was open so he wouldn’t waste his House seat and potentially lose in a primary. But neither of these are consolations applicable to Pennsylvania.

Republicans already have two politicians who are expected to run for Governor: Attorney General Tom Corbett and former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan. Sure, Gerlach’s moderate credentials and his longtime political experience would help him appeal to independent voters and even right-leaning Democrats, but they will also hurt him in the GOP primary - not to mention that Corbett and Meehan both look like electable general election contenders.

So not only does Gerlach’s entry not dramatically improve the GOP’s prospect in the gubernatorial race, but Gerlach isn’t even sure of winning the Republican nomination!

Needless to say, Republicans would be very frustrated if Gerlach left them with such a vulnerable open seat and could not even make it to the gubernatorial general election. (That’s what happened to New Mexico’s Heather Wilson in 2008.)

Speaking of the gubernatorial race, there was some movement late last week that I did not notice until this morning: Auditor General Jack Wagner became the first Democrat to announce that he will run for Governor. Wagner, who is described as a social and fiscal conservative by The Patriot News, is the only statewide official considering a run for the Democratic nomination; he’s likely to face competition from the likes of Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and businessman Tom Knox. In short, it doesn’t look like the Democratic field is the most inspiring the party could dream up; compared to the certainty that he’ll face a tough House race, that probably makes a gubernatorial run more appealing for Gerlach.

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