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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Pennsylvania's 3rd Congressional District

Posted by Tim Tagaris
Great piece by Steven Porter's 2004 campaign manager, Pete Zeigler, on the 3rd CD of Pennsylvania. Porter (D) challenged incumbent Phil English (R) and received 40% of the vote despite getting outspent 5-1. Pete gave me permission to link the piece on SSP as well -- Tim

Over the past two months, there has been much debate over how many House races the Dems should target, what criteria to use, how much support unwinnable races should get, etc. I want to give an example of where and why our current targeting is severely flawed, and why we must look more broadly at the races we give our support to.

I'm going to discuss the 3rd CD of Pennsylvania. It covers Northwestern PA; all of Erie County, and parts of six other counties. It extends from the New York border and Lake Erie to the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. It has a slight Democratic registration edge, Dem performance of approx 48%, and a combination of urban, suburban and rural voters. The major cities in the district have been hit very hard by free trade; Erie has seen thousands of jobs outsourced, the Shenango Valley's steel industry has been hard hit, Butler has lost multiple large employers, and Meadville, once the nation's tool-and-die capital, has seen the industry suffer greatly at the hands of cheaper foreign competition.

The current incumbent is Phil English (R). Despite this economic hardship in his district, and his full-throated support of free trade, he hasn't faced a party-supported challenge since 1996. The reasons for this defy logic.

English was initially elected in 1994 with less than fifty percent of the vote, against a strong challenge by Bill Leavens. In a normal year, English would have been defeated; however, 1994 was anything but normal. The DCCC immediately placed English on the top of its target list. The GOP immediately gave him a seat on Ways and Means to protect him.

In 1996, Erie lawyer Ron DiNicola steeped up to face him. This race saw outside money from a large number of interest groups pour into the Erie market; the WSJ even covered the race as an example of the "soft money" problems prevalent at the time. On election night, DiNicola was thought to be the winner, until late returns from GOP-dominated Butler County gave an approx. 2,500 vote victory to English.

So far so good. We have an incumbent on the run with every sign of vulnerability. So of course, in 1998, the Democratic Party, both locally and nationally, basically decides to sit the race out. A Mercer County school administrator, Larry Klemens, won the nomination, and received absolutely no party support. In their defense, he was a weak candidate, but if I were the DCCC, there is no way I'd have permitted there to be a weak candidate in the race, without a miracle upset in the primary. Klemens raised $30,000 (not a typo), and lost 63 to 37. All of a sudden, a seat that should be competitive looks less so.

Now of course, our party has a very short memory. In one cycle, the race went from top priority to unwinnable in the perception of DC. In 2000, we ran a former Republican doctor who got beat 61-39. Redistricting helped English slightly, but not enough to eliminate the Dem registration edge. So in 2002, the Dems don't even run a candidate. the Green candidate against him gets 22% of the vote, a number deflated by the massive undercount in Erie and Sharon, caused by people pulling the Dem party lever (yes, we still have the party option for voting in PA). In 2004, a good man, Steven Porter, made the race. Despite getting outspent 6 to 1, having zero name ID prior to the campaign, no national support, and being subject to a ridiculously vicious negative campaign (he was falsely accused of supporting forced sterilization and banning hunting, among other lies), he managed 40% of the vote against English.

Now, is Phil English some ridiculously popular figure? By no means. He is the exact opposite of telegenic, not very personable, and stories of him mistreating constituents abound. He is an able fundraiser, but he is not a candidate who generates a groundswell of support from the GOP base, a la Santorum on their side. He tries to portray himself as a moderate, in a part of PA where the GOP base is Red-State conservative. He is not loved, not even really liked by most of the GOP infrastructure in the district. He should be the definition of a weak incumbent.

If the DCCC does not engineer a strong challenge here in 2006, especially as he made a 6-term pledge (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3-30-95), there are serious issues in their targeting criteria. But I am not advocating for just this race. There are probably a number of CDs nationwide where, if we took a look at the factors, much more attention is deserved, and the DCCC has to take a run at them. As English's example shows, taking one cycle off is too many.

The DCCC has to be able to find a minimum of 60 open-seat/weak incumbent districts every cycle and put forward a good faith effort towards:

1. Candidate recruitment
2. organizational support
3. dollars.

When the DCCC fails, they fail us. We should take action and make our voices heard to make sure it does not continue.

Also, if you got this far, I'm interested to hear about other districts, kinda off the radar screen, where new emphasis is warranted.

Posted at 12:31 PM in 2006 Elections, 2006 Elections - House, Pennsylvania | Technorati


Hey Tim--post this as a siary on MyDD with a link to SSP. I want to promote it.

Posted by: Chris Bowers at January 19, 2005 02:12 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

If there is going to be a legitmage challenger in 2006 wouldn't they need to get off the ground sometime soon? It seems to me that the only reason Phil English is still in the House of Representatives is because the Democrats refuse to support a serious challenger. It is a shame that Stephen Porter could not muster a serious challenge, but he made enough of a showing to prove that this is a winnable race.

Posted by: JDF [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 17, 2005 05:19 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment