State house seats could be in play

GOP leaders privately worried about turnout, impact of Romney’s stumbles

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

While the national races get the big attention, political insiders in the state tend to keep close tabs on races here in Chester County these days. As the population and demographics in the county have shifted in the last decade, the once-solidly Republican county is much more of a bell weather. As we’ve seen in recent years, a seat shift here could change the majority party in the state House of Representatives.

Already, we’re hearing some concerns in GOP corners, with worries that the top of the ticket — presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who appears to be stumbling and U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith, who so far has been unable to gain traction in his race against Sen. Bob Casey Jr. — could hurt GOP turn out and impact a number of the down-ballot races, especially those for state legislature, a number of which could be in play again as they were in 2008, when Democrats won three seats in Chester County.

While state GOP leaders tried to stop the bleeding by announcing an internal poll Thursday showing the presidential race as close, with Obama leading Romney 47-46, other data suggests a solid Obama lead in the state. In fact, Karl Rove, one of the GOP’s top strategy minds changed his rating of the state race from “Lean Obama” to “Safe Obama” and said the margin is really about 10 points.

Privately, GOP leaders are very worried about their turnout dropping off a cliff if it looks increasingly likely that Romney stands little chance of winning — a situation that could have profound impact as it ripples down ballot.

We’ll touch on the three congressional races next week, two of which look to be closer than originally expected.

Here’s a bit of a capsule look at the state legislative races in the county and what I’m hearing:

State Senate: not much to talk about here. Expect Democratic Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-19) and Republican Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9) to both cruise to easy wins.

In the 19th, while Republican Chris Amentas, an East Fallowfield township supervisor, is probably someone to watch down the road, in this race, he’s outgunned financially and facing an experienced elected official who enjoys no small amount of bipartisan support.

Similarly, in the 9th, Pileggi gets a lot of Democratic votes, and as Majority Leader of the State Senate, he enjoys a massive financial edge on Patricia Worrell, a realtor and small business owner from Chester city.

Nothing short of a tidal wave one way or the other seems likely to push out Dinniman or Pileggi.

State house:

Safe GOP: 160, 167, 168. In 160, Steve Barrar is running unopposed, while incumbent Duane Milne seems to have things well in hand against Democrat Rob Broderick, who probably will have a tough time cracking 40%. A similar, but slightly closer race is in 168, where Tom Killian should be able to hold off Beth Alois by about 15 points.

Probably safe GOP, but could be interesting if things get worse at the top of the ticket: Both Mike Hays in 26 and Susan Rzucidlo in 158 have been working hard to unseat their incumbent opponents: District 26 State Rep. Tim Hennsessy and District 158 State Rep. Chris Ross. While 158 is demographically difficult — the GOP still retains a large registration advantage, Ross has been hurt with moderates and independents of late by seemingly shifting to the right in recent years — and is taking heat for votes on environmental issues as well as his bill that would again legalize payday loans. Whether he enjoys more GOP enthusiasm from that move right remains to be seen.

Hennessey was vulnerable four years ago and barely held off Fern Kaufman the last time Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket. But, Democratic turnout in the 26th probably won’t match 2008 and it seems like neither race is getting the financial support from state party leaders to make an upset likely, except in the event of a wave election. Possible, but not likely.

Toss up: Going into 2012, it was a given that state house races in the 156th and 157th districts would be nail biters, and they are (more on that to follow), but the surprising breakout races for Democrats in 2012 include the 13th District and the 155th.

In the 13th, freshman incumbent John Lawrence faces Eric Schott. While the 13th used to be a tough district for Democrats, the district has changed in recent years. The seat was held by former Democratic State Rep. Tom Houghton, who came close to winning the seat in 2006, before winning it outright in 2008. GOP sources say they’re very worried about a repeat of 2008’s massive voter turnout at Lincoln University and money is being moved to defend Lawrence’s seat.

Up in the 155th, following the retirement of long-time State Rep. Curt Schroder, a once-safe seat might be the most interesting race in the county. Schroder’s former legislative assistant, Becky Corbin is facing a tough race from Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell. Although the early conventional wisdom on the race was that it was Corbin’s to lose, I’m told internal polling shows this race as being in the low single digits, and both parties are moving serious money into a district that has become increasingly Democratic in performance in recent years.

The last two races in the county probably ought to be “Lean Democratic” but it’s tough to knock off incumbents.

In 156, freshman Dan Truitt is trying to hold off Democrat Bret Binder. Binder enjoys a district that has increasingly turned Democratic in recent years, and was represented by Democrat Barbara McIlvaine Smith from 2006 to 2010. Again, a college turnout — in this case West Chester University — could be the deciding factor. Also, don’t underestimate the impact of strong turnout in West Chester Borough — Democratic turnout there has been all over the map in recent years. A good Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort by Democrats, seemingly likely with Obama’s team on the ground, could turn the tide for Binder here.

Finally, in the 157th, Republican freshman Warren Kampf is trying to hold off former State Rep. Paul Drucker. But bluntly, this is probably the Democrats’ best bet for victory on election night — and it may take a surprisingly strong night by the GOP for Kampf to hold onto this seat. Again, this is a turnout race. If Phoenixville’s Democrats turn out, Drucker should win.

My take: six weeks out is an eternity in politics, so a lot could and probably will change. But, if Romney continues to struggle, GOP turnout could take a hit. It’s difficult to gauge what the impact of the Voter ID bill will be, but it looks likely that it will be put on hold in Commonwealth Court next month, as the state Supreme Court has set the bar pretty high for the lower court on whether or not the state is fully prepared to implement the bill.

But enough hedging, here’s what my gut is telling me: three Democrats will win state Chester County house seats in November. I think Drucker is the best bet, followed by Binder. But keep a close eye on Maxwell, who seems to be grabbing the initiative. I think Schott falls just short, in part because I don’t get the sense that the House Democratic Campaign Committee is as engaged in this race — meaning putting financial support into it — as the House Republican Campaign Committee.

The other two races are going to need major coattails to be in play, and from here, while I expect Obama to again win Chester County, I expect his margin to be down some from 2008, which probably puts 26 and 158 out of play.

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