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Pennsylvania House Incumbents Face Close Elections in 2006

June 16, 2006 at 4:19 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The Philadelphia suburbs do not fit easy definition. They are urban and they are rural; they are middle-class suburban; and they are old-money affluent. They vote for Democrats for president and Republicans for Congress.

But with President Bush’s popularity sliding, all that may be about to change, because these suburbs contain three of the most endangered House incumbents in the nation.

For the vast majority of members of the House, getting elected usually makes it easier to stay elected. Few are ever defeated. But, these days, Congress is even more unpopular than President Bush, and Democrats are angling for the 15 seats they need to regain the majority.

POLITICIAN: We’re going to work hard. And with your help, we’re going to be fine.

GWEN IFILL: Among the prime targets: Pennsylvania Republicans Mike Fitzpatrick, Curt Weldon, and Jim Gerlach.

POLITICIAN: Way to go.

GWEN IFILL: Each man faces a Democratic opponent working overtime to link him to the Republican president.

Terry Madonna is a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

How is 2006 shaping up to be different from 2004?

G. TERRY MADONNA, Franklin and Marshall College: Well, I think in a word: Bush. President Bush’s low approval rating in the Philadelphia suburbs and in the state of Pennsylvania as a whole is maybe the driving factor, as Republicans, I think, in the suburbs are scurrying around very much concerned that some of the problems the country faces and, in particular, the drop in approval rating of President Bush over the last year will cause serious problems with voter turnout among Republican core voters in the three major suburban congressional districts.

GWEN IFILL: The endangered incumbents have taken care to distance themselves from their president. In a Capitol Hill interview, Curt Weldon spent more time mentioning the support he gets from Democrats than his support from Republicans. As for the president?

REP. CURT WELDON (R), Pennsylvania: I have nothing against him. I think he’s a nice man. I’m not running away from anybody, but the president isn’t registered in my district; he doesn’t vote in my district.

I have to satisfy my constituents. I do that all the time. And, you know, I’m not going to run away from the president. I’m not going to embrace the president. He is the president, and I’m going to disagree with him repeatedly, which I’ve done.

Standing away from the president

GWEN IFILL: Jim Gerlach uses almost the exact same language.

REP. JIM GERLACH (R), Pennsylvania: We're not running to the president; we're not running from the president; we're not running with the president. We're running for the Sixth Congressional District here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

GWEN IFILL: As does freshman Fitzpatrick.

REP. MICHAEL FITZPATRICK (R), Pennsylvania: I address the issues that people are truly concerned about here in Bucks County, the fact that I'm an independent leader for this district, that I'm with the party and the president when I think he's right. And when I think he's not right, then I'm voting against him.

GWEN IFILL: It's a delicate balance: standing with, but not too close to, the president.

The Republican incumbents fear two things: One is that their loyal supporters won't show up on Election Day; the other is that they will, but bring with them the bad mood that got 13 Republican state legislators kicked out of office just last month.

PATRICK MURPHY, Democratic House Candidate: Good to see you again.


GWEN IFILL: So the three Democrats taking aim at the three Republicans are doing the best they can to keep that sour mood alive, from Coatesville to Levittown.

LOIS MURPHY, Democratic House Candidate: Jim Gerlach has been part of the problem in Washington, that he's been voting with the administration, voting with George Bush, voting with Tom DeLay.

PATRICK MURPHY: Mr. Fitzpatrick agrees basically with this president, this Republican administration, and that's why they've fully funded his race. The Republican Congress is worried about keeping power. That's why we need a change.

JOE SESTAK, Democratic House Candidate: Curt Weldon may stand, as he says, independent from the president, but his vote isn't. Over 85 percent of the time he's voted with this president.

Incumbency is a mixed blessing

GWEN IFILL: The main issues on the table: gas prices; the war; the deficit; and immigration.

Lois Murphy is challenging Jim Gerlach again. She almost beat him two years ago.

Has it reached a point, at least here, where incumbency has become a disadvantage?

LOIS MURPHY: I think it is a disadvantage. It's a mixed blessing, at least. There certainly are some institutional and financial advantages to incumbency, but in terms of appeal to voters, absolutely. Pennsylvania in 2006 is not the best environment to be an incumbent; it's a good environment to be a challenger.

GWEN IFILL: The reason may be voters like Steve Masceri, a Bush supporter who has shifted from Republican to independent because of the war in Iraq.

STEVE MASCERI, Pennsylvania Voter: You know, when you support a party for your whole life and, you know, when things happen and you expect that things to happen differently, and you expect people to do the right thing, and, first of all, not go to war unless it's absolutely necessary and, if you do something that's maybe was a mistake, admit it and own up to it.

GWEN IFILL: So if you go to the polls this fall, will you be voting for the Democrat?

STEVE MASCERI: That's a good question. I think I'll probably just see who I feel is the better person and vote for them.

GWEN IFILL: Because you still haven't decided?

STEVE MASCERI: I still haven't decided, no.

"The Republican Party left me"

GWEN IFILL: But volunteer firefighter Randy Solly may prove why all politics is local. A lifelong Republican, he is disenchanted with President Bush, but remains loyal to Republican Fitzpatrick.

RANDY SOLLY, Pennsylvania Voter: I don't think that my opinion with how the country is being run will influence how I vote, as far as his office is concerned. I liked how Mike has handled himself and how he's voted, that kind of thing, so I don't see the tie too much with he and President Bush.

PATRICK MURPHY: Hey. Thanks for coming.

PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: I wouldn't have missed this.

GWEN IFILL: Thirty-two-year-old Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy is Fitzpatrick's Democratic challenger. He's counting on Republicans to help him stage an upset.

PATRICK MURPHY: You know, we have a lot of Republicans, too, that have joined our team, that have said, "You know, I'm Republican, and I was proud to be Republican with President Reagan." And then they say a familiar line. They say, "Now, the Republican Party left me. I didn't leave the Republican Party."

JOE SESTAK: I just retired from the Navy after -- I was a vice admiral. And I grew up here in the district.

GWEN IFILL: Democrat Joe Sestak is attempting to use Weldon's incumbency against him.

JOE SESTAK: Curt Weldon has voted over four out of five times with this president. He is super-glued to this president. But there has to be a better alternative.

GWEN IFILL: Not so, says Weldon.

REP. CURT WELDON: I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to taking on this administration or any other administration. Now, when you do that, you ruffle the waves, and you ruffle the water down here.

PATRICK MURPHY: How are you?

PENNSYLVANIA VOTERS: I'm doing pretty good.


Change verse the status quo

GWEN IFILL: It's early yet, and voters are paying only passing attention to House re-election campaigns, but already the signs are there that these three will be expensive and furiously fought.

G. TERRY MADONNA: You know, politics ain't beanbag. It's a contact sport. But I think most voters are more than unhappy with what they see as excessive partisanship that's led to polarization and the failure to resolve problems.

And if they can't solve the problems of the day, whether it be Iraq, or Social Security, or immigration, or whatever other major problem comes before the Congress, then voters are going to look at incumbents and say, "It's time for a change."

GWEN IFILL: Change versus the status quo: That's a political choice which could prove dangerous for incumbents.