The surprise announcement from Republican Jim Gerlach that he would not seek re-election this year in Pennsylvania's Sixth Congressional District on Monday gives Democrats a chance to pick up a House seat in their long-shot quest to regain the chamber.
Given its history as a marginal district and Gerlach's own record of narrow election wins, the six-term congressman's announced exit put the Eastern Pennsylvania district on the list of "the magic 17" — the 17 seats Democrats need to win to take a majority in the House this fall and make Nancy Pelosi speaker.
Within hours of Gerlach's announcement, there was considerable speculation in the district that the Democratic nomination this year would be carried by the bearer of one of the Keystone State's most-revered political names: attorney Chris Casey, brother of Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. and son of the late two-term Gov. Bob Casey.
Without question, Casey is the candidate most Democrats want for the open seat. But should he decide not to run, there will be no shortage of candidates on the Democratic side. Businessman Michael Parrish filed to challenge Gerlach before his announcement and there was speculation that Katie McGinty, former state environmental chief, would end her bid for the Democratic nomination for governor and switch to a race in the Sixth District.
Gerlach belonged to the Main Street Partnership group of moderate Republicans in the House and the Republicans for Environmental Protection. He was one of four Pennsylvania Republicans in the House to vote to add sexual orientation to federal hate crimes legislation and opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Among Republicans, it seems a foregone conclusion there will be a crowded race. The most-talked of prospect is state Sen. John Rafferty, who won office in 2002 when fellow moderate Gerlach relinquished his seat to run for Congress. A devout Roman Catholic who is solidly pro-life, Rafferty takes a non-conservative line on spending issues.
As chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee, Rafferty was the premier architect of the $2.3 billion transportation bill that became law last year. The new law lifted the cap on the oil franchise tax, which is a tax on oil companies and will total 28 cents per gallon over the next three years. The oil companies are passing the tax onto consumers in the form of higher prices.
Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello is considered a strong possibility to run for the seat and is usually characterized by area Republicans as "more conservative than Rafferty."
One possible candidate who is considered definitely "on the right" is former state Rep. Sam Rohrer, who waged unsuccessful primary bids for governor in 2010 and U.S. senator in 2012. Since then, Rohrer has been a leader in such conservative groups as Americans for Prosperity and the Pennsylvania Pastors Association.
A major criticism heard of Rohrer is that the former state legislator has lost his last two races and would be seen as a "chronic campaigner" if he ran for Congress.
"But you have to remember that those 'chronic campaigners' have a tendency to end up winners in Pennsylvania," Lowman Henry, president of the Harrisburg-based Lincoln Institute, told Newsmax.
Henry recalled that the late Arlen Specter lost three straight races for Philadelphia district attorney, U.S. senator, and governor before winning a Senate seat in 1980 and that the elder Bob Casey made it to governor on his fourth try in 1986.
The Eastern Pennsylvania district is one that Barack Obama carried in 2008 and Mitt Romney narrowly carried in 2012. In all but his last two races for re-election, Gerlach had close calls at the polls every two years.
"The last reapportionment map took Lower Merion Township out of the Sixth District and Lower Merion was what had always come close to finishing Jim Gerlach," former state GOP Rep. Curt Schroder of Chester County) told Newsmax. "But even if it is more Republican than it was [before reapportionment in 2011], a Sixth District that's open is one that will be up for grabs this November."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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