Yesterday, Rep. Jim Gerlach created an explanatory committee for a possible gubernatorial run in 2010. While he did insist that he had not made up his mind about which office to pursue, he has been sending signals that he intends to run statewide for months.
Gerlach’s retirement is one of the worst possible news for House Republicans. Philadelphia’s suburbs have been trending increasingly Democratic over the past decade, and Gerlach has been sitting on increasingly precarious territory. His district (PA-06) voted for John Kerry 52% to 48% in 2004; four years later, it swung to Obama by 13% as the Democrat crushed McCain 58% to 41%.
Needless to say, Democrats would be favored to pick-up the district if Gerlach were to leave his House seat for a statewide run, and the GOP cannot afford giving up seats this easily if it wants to get back on the offense in 2010. On the other hand, PA-06 is sure to be hotly contested even if Gerlach does run for re-election - and that is probably why the Republican is looking for a way out.
Gerlach won his first three elections (in 2002, 2004 and 2006) by a tight 51% to 49%. In 2008, he was expected to cruise to victory since Democrats had nominated the little-noticed Bob Roggio; but when all the votes got counted, Gerlach prevailed by a narrow 52% to 48% margin. That result must have shown Gerlach that it is only a matter of time until a stronger Democratic challenger channels the district’s lean to unseat him. And making matters worse is the prospect of the upcoming redistricting: Pennsylvania is slated to lose a seat, and Democrats would undoubtedly make sure that Gerlach’s district is redrawn to make his 2012 re-election impossible.
In other words: We should not be surprised that Gerlach is eying the gubernatorial mansion even if his odds of surviving the Republican primary are not that high. Pennsylvania has a closed primary so nominees tend to be decided by the GOP’s base - and that does not match with Gerlach’s moderate profile.
The fact that former Rep. and arch-conservative Pat Toomey is also looking to jump in the gubernatorial race makes it that much more difficult to imagine Gerlach prevail in a contest that Toomey would ensure is fought on ideological lines. Gerlach would need a few conservative candidates to divide up the conservative vote to allow Gerlach to prevail with a plurality.
The NRCC got better news from Ohio, where former Rep. Steve Chabot announced that he would run to regain his seat, OH-01, in 2010. He was defeated last year by then-state Senator Steve Driehaus, 52.5% to 47.5%.
In his seven terms in Congress, Chabot faced (and beat back) a number of tough challenges, a sign that he knows the district and that he will be a top-tier candidate in 2010. But he will have to face the district’s changing political allegiance: OH-01 swung to the blue column by a dramatic 13% between 2004 and 2008, which is a larger change than the state at large. Bush won the district 51% to 49% five years ago, while Obama prevailed 55% to 44%.
This is partly explained by the district’s significant African-American population, which voted in greater numbers than usual. That 2008 was a presidential year was clearly a huge boost to Driehaus’s campaign, and Chabot is right to point out that Driehaus could face a difficult re-election race once he is deprived of Barack Obama’s coattails. OH-01 is one of the districts that will test the resilience of Obama’s coalition, especially if Chabot is running.
On the other hand, Republicans should not make the same error as they did in 2008, when they treated the victory of many freshmen Democrats as flukes that would quickly be undone once the environment changed. Sure, some of them were (TX-22, for instance), but Democrats elected in districts that were clearly becoming blue (like Carol Shea-Porter in NH-01) proved less vulnerable than the GOP anticipated.
Furthermore, running defeated politicians is very helpful in terms of name recognition, campaigning skills and fundraising abilities, but it is not necessarily the best path. A few attempted a similar comeback in the 2008 cycle, but none succeeded.