WASHINGTON — With a congressional map tilted against them, Pennsylvania Democrats are hoping that GOP Gov. Tom Corbett's continuing unpopularity may help them flip one or two House seats in their favor.
Heading into the May 20 primary, independent analysts and strategists for both parties say two House districts near Philadelphia are competitive. They include one open seat being vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach, as well as the seat now held by GOP Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, who is running for re-election.
One of the biggest wild cards may be Corbett's effect on voter turnout, given his low ratings. With a 36 percent approval rating, Corbett is currently the most unpopular governor in the 13 states Quinnipiac Poll surveys. Few Democrats or independent voters believe he deserves re-election while less than half of Republicans — 42 percent — think so, according to a Franklin and Marshall College poll in January.
"While it looks like a slightly Republican year in Pennsylvania, given how Gov. Corbett is situated, it's unclear what he can do with Republican voters in terms of turnout," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and public affairs professor at Franklin & Marshall.
Ian Prior, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Republicans have a strong field of candidates this year but didn't dispute a potential impact of poor turnout stemming from Corbett's re-election bid, Pennsylvania's top-of-the-ballot race. "There's a lot of concern about the governor's race on both sides of the aisle," Prior said.
He said there could be a negative effect on Democrats if they select a more liberal candidate that galvanizes GOP opposition.
Democratic congressional candidates have sought to capitalize on Corbett's unpopularity, sending out fundraising emails that ask people in part to donate if they have had "enough of Governor Corbett's nonsense in Harrisburg."
Democrats hold just five of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats, even though President Barack Obama won the state in 2012, constrained by a redistricting map that heavily favors Republicans.
Mirroring other U.S. House races, Republicans in Pennsylvania are pointing to voter discontent with President Barack Obama and the health care law. Democrats are linking the GOP candidates to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin's budget, casting Republicans as a party for the rich who will cut social programs.
In the 6th District open race, Republicans say they like their chances with Ryan Costello, a 37-year old Chester County commissioner who would be the youngest member of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation if elected in November. He will face Democrat Manan Trivedi, a physician. Neither has a primary opponent.
Trivedi, a strong supporter of a minimum wage increase and the federal health care law, hopes to garner votes in a district that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney barely won in 2012. Trivedi ran unsuccessfully for the House seat twice but believes that voters are ready for a fresh Democratic change.
Costello, who hopes to appeal to younger voters, says he offers a brand of conservatism that is issue-oriented, not partisan. For instance, he says Social Security should be reformed so younger people will be able to benefit from it.
In the 8th District, Army veteran Kevin Strouse has the backing of the national Democratic Party in his primary against small business owner Shaughnessy Naughton, who is supported by Emily's List. The winner will face Fitzpatrick, who has more than $1.2 million in his campaign fund. Republicans are hoping to take advantage if the Democratic primary forces the nominee to move left on issues. In 2012, voters split virtually evenly between Romney and Obama.
Fitzpatrick previously served as House representative from 2005 to 2007 before losing to Democrat Patrick Murphy. A GOP moderate, Fitzpatrick has faced some voter criticism for backing the government shutdown last fall.
"Pennsylvania may be slightly more fertile territory for Democrats because the Republican governor's prospects are so dim," said David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report, an independent publication. Still, barring other GOP missteps, Corbett's unpopularity alone may not be enough to help Democrats flip seats, he said.
Alan Novak, a former chairman of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania, said Republicans ultimately will be motivated to vote because of their dissatisfaction with Washington. "From a Republican perspective in congressional races in Pennsylvania, this should be a good year, assuming candidates run hard and turnout efforts are not lackadaisical," he said.