OPED: Pa. now key to a Democratic House

Albert R. Hunt
Tribune News Service

Democrats took a big step closer to their goal of winning control of the U.S. House this year, thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On Monday, the court, which had earlier ruled that the current congressional district lines in the state unfairly gave Republicans an overwhelming advantage, redrew the boundaries in a way that it said was more fair and consistent with the population.

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Republicans currently enjoy a 13 to 5 advantage in House seats in Pennsylvania, though the state is evenly divided politically. The immediate analysis was that the new lines would enable Democrats to take over two Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia suburbs and, conceivably, a couple more elsewhere in the state.

"The new map gives the Democrats a solid chance to pick up three seats," says Terry Madonna, who closely analyzes Pennsylvania politics as director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll. It's even possible, he adds, they could take over two more.

Democrats need to win a net of two dozen seats nationwide to gain the majority in the House.

Both Democrats and Republicans, in projecting Democratic gains that would approach that level, had assumed a pickup of one or two seats in Pennsylvania. Now, with the court's decision, that number in the state has conceivably expanded to somewhere from three to five, even six.

That really does profoundly change the political dynamics. It's certain to gin up more enthusiasm for Democrats, and bring in more money from financial donors who like to be with winners.

Republicans vow to appeal this new map to the federal courts, arguing that it's Democratic-tilted gerrymandering. But the case was decided on state law, which will make the federal courts reluctant to intervene.

Illustrative of the current partisan gerrymandering are the Pennsylvania suburbs, which now make up over 20 percent of the state's population and are decidedly Democratic. Yet of the four members of the House representing these districts, three are Republicans, because of the way the lines were drawn across counties, neighborhoods and even backyards. For example, Montgomery County, which runs along Philadelphia's Main Line, is split among five different districts; under the new lines, it would be two.

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Madonna and Democrats expect at least two of those suburban Republican-held seats to switch, particularly the one held by retiring Representative Pat Meehan. They also see improved Democratic prospects in the eastern Pennsylvania seat of retiring Republican Charlie Dent.

Currently, there is a March 13 special election in western Pennsylvania, with Democrats making a strong run in a seat where a scandal-ridden Republican resigned. That election isn't affected by the new boundaries, which go into effect in the May primaries.

This is a district where the redrawn lines might make it a little bit harder for the Democrats, which could complicate their campaign in the special election. A Republican-held seat in central Pennsylvania, analysts say, will be more competitive.

There are gerrymandering challenges in other states and a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But any decisions are likely to take effect after this year's elections. The November outcome, of course, will be affected by the performance of candidates and conditions: If optimism about the economy and tax cuts continues to rise, it should help Republicans, while they will be hurt if Trump scandals grow.

Either way the Pennsylvania decision is a major boost for Democrats, whether two or three additional seats in a better-than-expected Republican year or a net gain of five or six seats in a blue-wave election.

— Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.