This post has been updated to reflect that Dan Muroff is no longer Philadelphia's 9th Ward Leader

 

You may think it’s too early to talk about the next Congressional election cycle. But, as the news cycle keeps reminding us via seminal events like the Senate GOP’s failure thus far to advance Trumpcare, the midterms are just around the corner.

We’re only 16 months from the next Congressional contests and, once again, Pennsylvania will serve as a crucial battleground.

At a time when political prognosticators are questioning all their assumptions, one trend remains constant: the President’s party almost always loses seats in a midterm election.

In fact, since the Civil War, this has happened 73 out of 76 times.

So to the extent that we can predict anything, we can presume that Democrats will gain seats in the House of Representatives. To win back the majority, they’ll need to pick up a net total of 24 seats.

With Donald Trump’s approval rating already in the 30’s and the Dems holding a steady lead in the generic ballot, it looks to be a close call.

With such narrow margins and so much riding on predicting which way the electoral wave will break, let’s examine Pennsylvania’s five competitive Congressional races as they stand right now.

 

5. PA-17: Matt Cartwright (D)

He would never admit it, but the election of Donald Trump was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to Congressman Cartwright’s career.

If history had proceeded as Pat Toomey and most of us anticipated, 2018 would’ve been a tough year for President Hillary Clinton and Congressional Democrats.

In each of his three elections, Rep. Cartwright’s share of the vote has consistently fallen to the point that he won by just 7.5 points last year.

On top of that, Trump managed to defeat Clinton within the 17th thanks to his outperforming in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. That makes Cartwright one of the dozen Democratic Congressmen to sit in a Trump district.

Under a Clinton Administration, Cartwright would’ve found himself at the top of the list of endangered incumbents. Regardless, the NRCC still intends to put up a fight.

If the GOP receives the typical midterm backlash, however, then Cartwright will survive to fight another day.

The way-too-early verdict: Likely Dem

 

4. PA-16: Lloyd Smucker (R)

This South Central seat is not your prototypical swing district.

The retirement of incumbent Joe Pitts gave Democrats hope they could pick it off if a blue tide developed in 2016. The party was excited with their nominee, Christina Hartman, as the DCCC and EMILY’s List each gave her a major push.

Although she came up short, Hartman still secured about 43% of the vote, outperforming the recent Democratic candidates in that district.

It’s still a long shot but the 16th contains some of Reading as well as blue cities like Lancaster and Coatesville. And with Hartman saddling up to take another run at Smucker next year, it’s a distant – but distinct – possibility that the seat flips.   

The way-too-early verdict: Likely GOP

 

3. PA-8: Brian Fitzpatrick (R)

The three suburban districts outside of Philadelphia are some of the most contested – and coveted – terrain in politics today. Each party has targeted them for over a decade now and, if the Democrats hope to take back the House, they’ll likely need the complete trio.

The Dems experienced recent success in the 8th when Patrick Murphy rode the 2006 wave to a narrow victory over Mike Fitzpatrick. After Murphy scored an easy re-election in 2008, Fitzpatrick used the 2010 Tea Party uprising to win the rematch.

The DCCC subsequently struggled to find a contender until they caught a break when Fitzpatrick became one of the few politicians to stick to his term limit pledge. State Rep. Steve Santarsiero stepped up and appeared set to face fellow State Rep. Scott Petri in an open seat contest.

Enter Brian Fitzpatrick, younger brother of Mike, who grew up in Bucks County and quit his job with the FBI in order to keep the seat in the family. Suddenly Petri was out and Fitzpatrick was giving voters a tour of his childhood haunts.

Santarsiero performed admirably but still lost by 9 points. He passed on another run by taking a job in the PA Attorney General’s office instead.

With Santarsiero out and Murphy on the sidelines, the Dems are pushing Bucks County Commissioner Diane Marseglia to run – Bucks makes up most of the 8th and her she’s a lifelong resident.

National and local party officials have been pushing Marseglia to run for awhile; with Fitzpatrick still green and Trump’s shadow looming, this could very well be her best chance. If she jumps in, this race could quickly move up the list.

PA-8 is one of the best bellwethers in the nation and we’ll be keeping an eye on it over the next year and a half.

The way-too-early verdict: Lean GOP

 

2. PA-7: Pat Meehan (R)

The poster child for redistricting efforts everywhere, the Seventh District is yet another seat the Democrats captured in 2006 only to lose again in 2010.

Ever since Joe Sestak became singly focused on trying to win a spot in the Senate, the party hasn’t been able to find a replacement for him.

While Congressman Meehan cruised to re-election last year, Hillary actually won the 7th, making him one of just 23 Republicans residing in a Clinton district.

Now every Democrat is coming out of the woodwork to jump into the race. Meanwhile, Meehan decided to pass on a challenge to Sen. Bob Casey so he could focus on winning a fifth term in the House.

At the moment, six different contenders are fighting for the Democratic nomination: State Sen. Daylin Leach, IT consultant Andrew McGinty, real estate agent Elizabeth Moro, attorney and former President of CeasefirePA and Conservation Voters PA Dan Muroff, teacher Paul Perry and scientist Molly Sheehan.

Leach, the self-proclaimed “Liberal Lion” of Harrisburg, is the early favorite, although, in a crowded primary, everyone has a shot. For example, Muroff won a key endorsement from former Gov. Ed Rendell.

On the one hand, this is certainly shaping up to be the toughest fight Meehan has faced so far. On the other, the 7th is one of the most infamously gerrymandered districts in the nation.

It should be quite the contest.

The way-too-early verdict: Lean GOP

 

1. PA-6: Ryan Costello (R)

Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District is the Democratic Party’s white whale.

Despite landslide victories in 2006 and 2008, Republican incumbent Congressman Jim Gerlach always hung on. When he announced his retirement in 2014, there was hope that the blue team could finally pick up this seat.

Ryan Costello soon emerged, though, consolidating support and eventually winning a spot in Congress.

Since arriving in D.C., Costello has followed the playbook perfectly, keeping his head down and steering clear of controversy.

Then Donald Trump happened.

Costello won last year by a comfortable margin, but Trump lost the 6th, performing about 3 points worse than Mitt Romney did in 2012.

As a result, NRCC Chair Steve Stivers identified PA-6 as a potential tipping point.

“I think of our seats, if you want to look at kind of a bellwether, it’d probably be Ryan Costello,” Stivers told PoliticoPro. “If (Democrats) win in Pennsylvania against Ryan Costello, they’ve got a shot to take the majority.”

Furthermore, Democrats have at last recruited a serious challenger. Chrissy Houlahan is a former Air Force Captain who’s won the backing of VoteVets, EMILY’s List and the local plumbers union.

Just last week, her campaign revealed a fundraising haul of $432K, a move that prompted the Cook Political Report to move the race to the more competitive “Leans Republican” classification.

How the battle between Costello and Houlahan shapes up will reveal quite a lot about the 2018 midterms.

The way-too-early verdict: Tossup