The Magazine

The Suburbs from Hell

The GOP is in trouble in the districts around Philadelphia.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By SONNY BUNCH
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Bucks County, Pennsylvania

WITH FOUR of its congressional races still close in the final weeks of the midterm campaign, Pennsylvania could end up determining who controls the House of Representatives. Polls and other barometers have analysts watching the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Districts, held by Republicans Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon, Mike Fitzpatrick, and Don Sherwood respectively. In the most recent Evans-Novak Political Report, Gerlach's and Weldon's districts joined Sherwood's in the "Leans Dem" column. How much danger are these incumbents really in?

Of these GOP incumbents, the two who are clearly in trouble--Weldon and Sherwood--are in districts that are generally safe for Republicans. Weldon won in 2002 with 66 percent of the vote, and in 2004 with 59 percent, while Sherwood has run unopposed in the last two elections. Yet the most recent polling shows both of them trailing. Their downfall: the "culture of corruption."

Both men's opponents have been able to portray them as the local embodiment of Republican corruption, in a year when the Democratic leadership is making GOP sleaze a national issue. Their predicaments bring to mind that of another Pennsylvania incumbent defeated in a national sweep--Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the only Democratic incumbent in Pennsylvania to fall to the Gingrich revolution of 1994. A freshman representative, Margolies-Mezvinsky had cast the final vote to pass President Clinton's 1993 budget, whose massive tax increase helped provoke the Republican sweep. Made to personify the tax-and-spend Demo crats, she was handily defeated.

This year, Weldon and Sherwood have given their opponents the rope with which to hang them. Weldon's troubles came to a head on October 16, when the FBI conducted six raids as part of an investigation into whether he used his influence to gin up lobbying business for his daughter. Sherwood, embarrassed by a former mistress claiming he had assaulted her, has been forced to take to the airwaves and admit that yes, he had had a mistress, but no, he had not choked her.

Weldon and Sherwood seem doomed to be the Margolies-Mezvinskys of this cycle. Fitzpatrick and Gerlach, by contrast, have kept their noses clean. Consummate politicians, both have good images in the media and good rapport with their constituents. Instead of personal problems, they are up against the increasingly Democratic demographics of their districts.

Gerlach is running in a most peculiarly shaped district, with tentacles stretching north and south from its main body. "This is not a district drawn up in heaven," says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall Keystone Poll. Redrawn in 2002 specifically for Gerlach, the Sixth "has no core, no center," Madonna says, "and it's extraordinarily difficult to represent because of its diversity and complexity." It's also difficult to campaign in. In some neighborhoods you cross a district boundary every few blocks.

That hasn't stopped Gerlach from tireless campaigning. He both touts his local credentials and warns of the dire effects of a Democratic takeover of the House. Touring a packaging plant in Exton, Gerlach was informed that a constituent wanted to know why businesses should get involved in lobbying Congress and endorsing candidates. He chuckled and said, "Tell her to give me a call. I'll tell her what her world would look like with Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, and with Charles Rangel as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee." The Republicans' commitment to lower taxes, he stressed, would be good for both individuals and small businesses.

Gerlach is still ahead in most polls. The latest Keystone Poll puts him at 45 percent and his opponent, Lois Murphy, at 38 percent among registered voters, though his lead narrows to 3 points among likely voters. A recent Public Opinion Strategies poll of likely voters is more favorable--Gerlach leads Murphy 51 percent to 39 percent.

Mike Fitzpatrick is another Republican who should be in trouble simply because of demographics. His Bucks County district is populated mainly by commuters (to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and even New York), many of them young families who still vote Democratic even though they like safe suburbs and exurbs with good schools. He does hold one strong advantage, though: He's the only local candidate in the race.

When I asked him to compare his local record with that of his challenger, Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy, he almost laughed. "He didn't grow up in the district. He made a politically calculated decision to move to the district, based upon an opportunity he saw for himself to run for the Congress."