While the number of retiring House Democrats has increased in recent months, the GOP has managed to get rid of one of its only open seat headaches: A day after he dropped out of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, Rep. Jim Gerlach clarified his plan by announcing he would run for re-election.
As a district that voted for John Kerry by 4% and for Barack Obama by 17%, Gerlach’s PA-06 was one of Democrats’ top opportunities - part of a firewall of potentially easy pick-ups that the DCCC was hoping would help them offset big losses elsewhere. But Gerlach’s move only leaves two obviously competitive GOP-held open seats (DE-AL and IL-10), a stark contrast to Democrats’ 8 vulnerable open seats.
What must be particularly frustrating to the DCCC is Republicans’ good luck. Indeed, while even Dodd, Dorgan and Ritter’s retirements told us something about how much the political environment has shifted over the past year, Gerlach’s reversal has nothing to do with the GOP’s upbeat outlook on 2010 or with Democrats’ declining fortunes; rather, he changed course because he was failing at gaining any traction in the Governor’s race: Facing Attorney General Tom Corbett, Gerlach was trailing in polls, he was unable to fundraising as much as he’d need to fund his campaign and he didn’t even look to have an electability edge. And yet, the NRCC managed to turn his dire situation into yet another positive development for their 2010 chances, which speaks to just how many things have gone perfectly for Republicans’ over the past 8 months.
Thankfully for Democrats, Gerlach’s unretirement does not solve the GOP’s problems. For one, Democrats have targeted this district from the moment the cycle started, and they have two candidates who’ll probably stay in the race. Newspaper publisher Doug Pike and veteran Manan Trvedi might not seem like the most formidable candidates Democrats could have found, but the DCCC seemed satisfied with them. Both have raised substantial sums of money, which should prove useful considering Gerlach has to start from scratch as I doubt he can transfer money from his gubernatorial campaign to his House committee.
And he’d sure need it, because Gerlach is known to be a weak incumbent. He narrowly survived top-tier opposition in 2004 and in 2006; in 2008, Democrats fielded a low-profile candidate with little money and little buzz, but even then Gerlach prevailed by an unexpectedly small margin. Sure, 2010 is no 2008, by which I mean that it should be hard for Democrats to beat any Republican incumbents, but PA-06 leans blue enough that Gerlach’s general election campaign is sure to be highly competitive.
If he even makes it that far: Gerlach announced his retirement mid-July, which means that for the past six months local Republicans have been preparing his succession. The congressman cannot just waltz back in the House race and expect candidates who’ve put in half-a-year’s worth of efforts to simply step aside. They might do so over time, but it will surely take a lot of persuasion from the Republican establishment, which has fully rallied behind Gerlach. For now, state Rep. Curt Schroder and businessman Steve Welch both say they will not get out of the race.
(Welch’s story is particularly amusing: He was first running in the open seat in PA-07, but Republicans officials wanted to push him out once former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan’s entered that race. They convinced him he should move to run in PA-06, where Schroder would be a less formidable primary opponent… but Welch now finds that the race he’s in is no longer an open seat, and he once again finds himself the target of NRCC pressure. Also: Welch had recently loaned his campaign $500,000.)
If Schroder and/or Welch stand firm, it could mean that Gerlach faces the very real threat of losing the Republican primary. The contest is in four months, which gives him plenty of time to prepare but also means his opponents’ head-start could be a factor. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see whether conservative groups intervene to prevent Gerlach’s renomination, since the congressman has somewhat of a moderate profile. Whatever their reputation prior to their run, both Schroder and Welch have been campaigning as conservatives, witness this ode to Doug Hoffman on Schroder’s Facebook page. And the state representative’s latest Facebook message reads:
People want bold new direction and leadership. We need a congressman who will actually FIGHT to reverse the slide into a European style social welfare state. The 6th District deserves a Congressman who actually wants to do the job, not one who sees it as a consolation prize for a failed attempt at becoming Governor.
All of this is only to say that PA-06 remains competitive, not that Gerlach’s move doesn’t improve Republican chances. The GOP would obviously much prefer having the chance to defend an incumbent rather than an open seat in a 17% Obama district. The NRCC cannot be certain that Gerlach’s unretirement will ensure his re-nomination, let alone his re-election, but his re-entry does move a toss-up that was tilting towards Democrats back on the Republican side.
You would think a sitting congressman’s withdrawal would have some impact on the Governor’s race as well, but it is hard to see how the gubernatorial outlook might have changed. As I pointed out above, Gerlach was the heavy underdog, and polls did not suggest he would perform better than Corbett in the general election; his move can’t even be said to help the Attorney General by allowing him to save money for the general election: Not only had Gerlach been raising too little to force Corbett to empty his bank account, but Pennsylvania’s primary is early enough that it leaves plenty of time for campaigns to prepare for November.