Monday, March 03, 2008

GOP Mines for Congressional Seats in Northeast Pennsylvania

By Stuart Rothenberg

What comes to mind when you think of Northeast Pennsylvania?

For me, it is the Steamtown National Historic Site (formerly Steamtown USA), the Scranton boondoggle that honors steam railroading and benefited from the largess of then-Rep. Joe McDade (R). It’s the now abandoned anthracite coal mines of Coaldale and Lansford, with their Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn miners. It’s the heart-shaped beds of the Poconos. And it’s even mustachioed Dan Flood, the Shakespearean actor turned Democratic Congressman who helped the area recover from Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

This cycle, add U.S. House races to that list, as both of Northeast Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts could see interesting contests that tell all of us something about voter sentiment.

Pennsylvania’s 10th is a sprawling district that includes rural counties north and east of Scranton, stretches west to Williamsport and then south to Lewisburg, home of two unrelated institutions, the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and Bucknell University.

The 10th also is one of those seats that the GOP never should have lost — a reliable stronghold that went Democratic in the previous cycle because of a mega-scandal that destroyed the political career of then-Rep. Don Sherwood (R), who didn’t even have a Democratic opponent in 2002 or 2004. George W. Bush won the district twice, with 56 percent in 2000 and 60 percent in 2004.

Sherwood’s personal problems and the Democratic wave of 2006 combined to turn the district blue and to make Democrat Christopher Carney the new Congressman.

Carney taught political science at Penn State Worthington Scranton before winning a seat in Congress. He continues to serve in the Navy Reserve and was on active duty as recently as September.

The freshman Democrat calls himself a moderate. He is seeking the National Rifle Association’s endorsement, and he notes that he repeatedly has voted against timelines requiring an exit from Iraq.

As Washington Post (and former Roll Call) reporter Paul Kane has noted, Carney also is one of a handful of freshman Democrats from Republican districts who regularly vote against their party’s leadership on procedural issues, including approving the House Journal. It allows him to lower his support score for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It may well be a smart move — or else it’s too cute by half.

Despite all his efforts to ingratiate himself with key interest groups and with his constituents, Carney can’t ever take his re- election for granted. His district simply is too Republican for that, and he must always worry that voters will revert to their normal partisan instincts.

Republicans figure they have a good chance of winning back the seat. But without a well-known elected official to rally around, they are likely to nominate someone with a profile closer to Carney’s in the previous cycle: a political novice with no pre-existing base of support or name identification.

The two GOP contenders are both businessmen. Dan Meuser, 44, is the president of Pride Mobility, a family-owned medical equipment company that manufactures high-end mobility devices (motorized wheelchairs). Chris Hackett, 45, owns a staffing agency and is the more animated of the two hopefuls. He was just endorsed by the Club for Growth.

At the end of December, Meuser showed more than $650,000 raised, but almost 40 percent of that figure came from his own pocket. Hackett had raised $470,000, but one-third of that was his own money. In contrast, Carney had raised almost $1 million, ending the year with $760,000 in the bank and no debt.

If the Republicans win this seat back, it will be because voters simply return to their normal partisan tendencies, not because of the strength of the eventual GOP challenger.

The race in the neighboring 11th district, currently represented by 12-term Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski, is noteworthy for one reason: The likely GOP nominee is Lou Barletta. Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, lost to Kanjorski 56 percent to 42 percent in 2002, but the Republican’s reputation has grown as he has spoken out against illegal immigration.

Kanjorski has never been seriously tested for re-election, but he had to deal with controversy recently when the National Republican Congressional Committee slammed him for allegedly steering millions of dollars in federal earmarks to a technology company owned by his nephews.

Barletta has his own problems. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and blasted the Republican for what the DCCC calls a “sweetheart loan” at a local bank. The DCCC says Barletta has never paid interest on the unsecured loan.

Maybe even more important, Scranton Times-Tribune reporter Borys Krawczeniuk, who writes a weekly column in his newspaper, recently blasted the Barletta campaign’s “lack of readiness” for not being prepared to answer Democratic attacks that the mayor wants to privatize Social Security, for not responding effectively to questions about the bank loan, and for not having positions on most issues.

Still, Barletta has made a name for himself in Northeast Pennsylvania on the immigration issue, and if there is a true anti-incumbent mood in the country, it could well show up in Kanjorski’s district.

Democrats don’t seem too worried about these two contests, and right now, that’s entirely reasonable. But they can’t take either one for granted. The big question now is whether the Republican nominees will put together the resources and quality campaigns needed to become credible challengers.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 28, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.